Florida’s panhandle may be renowned throughout the country for its popular beaches, yet less commonly known is that it’s also home to the majority of the state’s massive prison population - one whose incarceration rate exceeds every country in the world.
For that reason, the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee has launched a new ministry for ex-offenders seeking to help rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society - or as its bishop describes it, tapping into the “restorative justice that’s a part of our DNA.”
According to Bishop William (“Bill”) Wack, “many of us felt the need for our community to be involved in aftercare of those who are released.”
The result: The Joseph House - a home that opened its doors last week with its first resident, a man who spent three decades in prison and whom many involved in his care believe was wrongfully convicted.
In an interview with Crux, Wack described how northern Florida is home to the majority of the state’s prisons and that 95 percent of inmates are released without the support they need to get a clean start and remain outside the prison system.
“So, we asked ourselves, what are we doing for that 95 percent?” Wack recalled.
Wack is one of the nation’s youngest Catholic bishops, having been appointed by Pope Francis to the post - his first-ever episcopal assignment - in 2017.
Drawing on his past experience of running a home for the poor and homeless in Arizona, Wack said that he’s learned that community is essential for human flourishing.
For that reason, it’s not just the experts and specialists that make up Joseph House’s official staff that are being asked to help with the task of welcoming ex-offenders back into society - it’s everyone.
Wack said that with the home’s inaugural resident, the “entire community is working to help him pay debts, get a driver’s license, and a savings account.”
“Here, we’re looking at people who have done their time, yet are still isolated and are on their own, despite having paid their societal debts,” he continued.
Wack points to three figures that have inspired the work of Joseph House: Bryan Stevenson, Dorothy Day, and Pope Francis.
Stevenson, who in his best-selling book, Just Mercy, chronicled America’s broken prison system through his experience of defending a wrongfully convicted death row inmate, helped awaken the consciousness of many diocesan officials to what was happening in their own backyard.
As for Day, he said, “it’s all rooted in her understanding of community, and as she writes in The Long Loneliness, the answer to that loneliness is community and love.”
“We’re all so isolated, and especially if someone is poor, an immigrant, or an offender,” Wack continued. “The way out of that has to be found in community.”
Francis, he says, inspires by his message of mercy and that of creating a “culture of encounter.”
“With the Joseph House, we’re accompanying individuals and reminding them that they’re still loved,” Wack said.
Such a path to accompaniment, at least in the case of the Joseph House, begins by starting small.
The home, which was purchased by the diocese and is leased to the ministry at $1 per year, can only house three offenders. As of now, only one ex-offender has moved in, but its staff is also engaged with other ex-offenders to help assist with other practical concerns beyond housing.
“By mobilizing our efforts to really care for this one person, I hope it shows our level of commitment,” Wack told Crux.
“Maybe it’s just a drop in the bucket, but we’ve got to do something,” he added.
Recalling his time in Arizona, he said that efficiency shouldn’t always be the standard by which something is measured.
“Was it really efficient to have 50 people in the kitchen chopping all those onions every night when we could have been using a food processor? No. But it brought the community together and people into contact with one another, and that was the point,” he insists.
“We often look at the world and all that there is to do and we get overwhelmed and say, ‘what can I do,’” Wack continued. “Well, we can do one thing at a time. Here, as Pope Francis says, we encounter one person at a time.”