As the pandemic has severely restricted gatherings and volunteer opportunities, Catholic dioceses throughout the United States and Canada have had to rethink prison ministries.
Catholic Church officials said the pandemic restrictions have barred volunteers from accessing prisons or introduced heavy limitations that have altered religious and non-profit services.
The safety measures have halted volunteer access and often suspended or minimized access to the outside programs. It is an isolating experience, said Joe Cotton, director of Pastoral Care & Outreach for the Archdiocese of Seattle.
“I think jail and prison life is hard enough as it is when everything is normal and functioning normally. To have reduced programming, increased restrictions, reduced access to people that are a positive healing presence in your life, … I think it's rough. I think it increases loneliness, it increases anxiety. I think the programs that we run provide a nice reprieve, ” he told CNA.
Cotton said the archdiocese operates in nine Department of Correction prisons, seven-county jails, one tribal jail, a special commitment center, one federal detention center, and an immigration detention center. He said all of these facilities have access to Mass since the archdiocese has a contract with the Department of Corrections, but the services may be infrequent.
Previously, the archdiocese’s prison ministry hired either contractors or recruited volunteers to provide resources, community support, and religious services, such as Mass or Bible study, to the inmates.
“The pandemic has most affected our inside ministries or our chaplain in the actual jails and prisons themselves,” he said.
“Initially at the very beginning of the pandemic, all of our people got thrown out. Whether they were paid or volunteer, they were all just blocked from going in, and ministry just came to a grinding halt. We pivoted and came up with some creative responses”
Now, paid employees are allowed to enter, but volunteers are still barred from accessing the prisons. He said Catholic officials have continued to create new means to provide community and spiritual nourishment to Catholic inmates.
He said some chaplains have written Christian reflections or made YouTube videos of songs or stories to share with the prisoners. He said, for the juvenile system, the archdiocese partnered with an answering service so they could post an 800 number so inmates could have a safe space to talk.
Bob Buckham, the coordinator for prison ministry in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, told CNA that it has been even more difficult for his archdiocese to access prisons. He said they have over 200 volunteers, who have not been able to enter prisons since mid-March.
He said Mass is not readily available to prisoners either. Due to the restrictions, the only institutions permitted to have Mass are those with Catholic chaplains. There are about three or four full-time Catholic prison chaplains out of the 14 institutions involved in the archdiocese’s prison ministry, he said.
“If they're coming to chapel, normally we could have 20, 30. Now, if they are coming to chapel, only five guys are allowed in at any one time. … Then they have to leave. So it either means that not too many guys are receiving Mass or a chaplain is doing multiple services,” he said.
The archdiocese has instigated a few letter programs to help volunteers keep in contact with inmates. Based on a book by Father William Watson, he said it will connect a volunteer and inmate, who wants “to develop their faith while they're in the institution.”
“We've had success with that. We're also venturing into a little bit more specific stuff. We're embarking on another program. It's called the ‘Forty Weeks: An Ignatian Path to Christ with Sacred Story Prayer,” he said.
Cotton emphasized the importance of providing support and spiritual nourishment to inmates.
“What we know for certain is that being Christ in the world means going to the margins, going to the periphery, going to the places where pain and suffering is,” he said.
“We know from Jesus' example and from the gospel, that Jesus makes a beeline to anybody that is in those places of extreme distress, extreme trauma, extreme pain, and suffering. There is an urgency in God's mind to move towards those people in those situations to bring out God's healing, God's reconciliation, God's resurrection.”