Since his ordination in 1974, Monsignor Jack Harris has served his community as a teacher, coach and pastor. He is currently pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Morrilton. But perhaps his biggest contribution to the Church and society occurs in small, undecorated rooms surrounded by heavily locked doors and hundreds of guards. Msgr. Jack Harris serves the most troubled souls through prison ministry. This unlikely seed was planted early: his father, a Little Rock police officer, was killed in the line of duty before he was born. It gives him insight into the victim’s viewpoint that has helped him to forge bridges between the incarcerated, their victims and their families.
His first assignment as a priest was working with troubled youth at juvenile detention centers in Little Rock and Pine Bluff. He did this assignment for 22 years. During this time, in 1986, he started Trinity Catholic Junior High in Fort Smith, where several students were on probation. With his expertise in youth, particularly in times of trauma, he was called upon to assist the Jonesboro community after its school shooting in 1998. For the next five years, he was chaplain at a summer camp for students impacted by the shooting. He also received training from the National Organization for Victim Assistance on their crisis response teams.
He has spent the last 14 years as chaplain to death row inmates at the Varner Unit, a supermax prison facility near the town of Grady. Twice a week, Msgr. Harris drives 250 miles to visit nearly 500 men who are locked down for 23 hours a day in a one-man cell. He talks and prays with them, offering Mass and Confession. Occasionally, one of these prisoners faces execution, and Msgr. Harris remains with him until the end. In April 2017, he witnessed the death of one of his men, someone he had befriended and who was a reader at Mass.
“When you look at a man in prison, you have to be able to see him and see past what he did,” he said. “Otherwise you can’t help him.”
Msgr. Harris describes his prison ministry as the “calling underneath it all.” He has dedicated his life to giving dignity to prisoners. “My belief is that if a man, in whatever way he understands it, confessed his offense to the Lord and asked forgiveness, he’s been forgiven,” he said.
Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock said, “Msgr. Harris is present to these men, he listens to them and he accompanies them to the end.”
Catholic Extension has funded prison ministry in the Diocese of Little Rock since 1989. Additionally, it helped construct St. Joseph Church, where Msgr. Harris used to be pastor, with a church building grant in 1925 and assisted in renovating the church and parish hall in 1989.