TECATE, MEXICO — Dozens of Catholics travelled to this border town to visit thousands of men in prison in El Hongo.

Convened by the Charity Missionary Theotokos at St. Anthony Church in San Gabriel, the visitors passed numerous security checkpoints before participating in the Holy Mass and sharing food with prisoners.

Every year, the group brings men’s briefs, T-shirts, socks and hygiene products for inmates. They began the tradition 18 years ago in a city jail in Mexicali. As part of the recent feast of Our Lady of Mercy — patron saint of prisoners — pilgrims and members of the Prison Pastoral of the Diocese of Mexicali joined Archbishop Rafael Romo Mu√±oz and Father Nicolas Batta Tierrablanca, priest of the Order of La Merced and spiritual leaders of prisoners in prayer.

“The joy and happiness signs of the living encounter with God’s mercy are achieved by sharing the Eucharist with our brothers,” Father Batta said. “At Mass, these men find the peace their hearts and souls need whenever they receive the living presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”

Located at the Free Tecate-Mexicali highway in Baja California, the prison of El Hongo (50 miles east of Tijuana) was built to relieve overcrowding and end corruption in the prison of La Mesa — also known as “El Pueblito.”

El Hongo offers comprehensive rehabilitation programs, industrial hangars, conventional stores, sports facilities and psychological care, plus a hospital, laboratory, surgery room and places to continue education.

Upon entering El Hongo, “I felt that my life was over,” said Pedro Esteban Gerardo Acosta, who was convicted of kidnapping in 2002. “But today I work to become a better person.”

In 2007, the University of Baja California offered the Bachelor of Science in education to El Hongo’s prisoners. Acosta and 26 other prisoners were enrolled and passed the exams.

In the end, the former kidnapper passed the rigorous examinations of the National Center for Higher Education Assessment (Ceneval) and graduated with a degree in educational sciences.

“I see that God is in every one of them,” said Socorro Batanero, coordinator of the pilgrimage and parishioner of St. Anthony Church in San Gabriel. “One gets to feel as if you are in heaven; you see the prisoner’s fervor and their love for God. That tells me that they have found forgiveness for what they have done before in their lives.”

Professor Hilda Maria Larios Castañeda, member of the prison pastoral care of El Hongo, said the annual visit paid by the pilgrims of California is critical in the life of the inmates.

“That somebody cares about the needs they have is very valuable,” Larios Casta√±eda said. “As a Church, we are their family and they see us as family.”