Prison ministers share stories at recent conference


CONWAY — The prison ministry can be one of the most difficult missions someone can take on. It can involve mixed feelings and wariness, yet it requires a combination of understanding and open-mindedness and comes with its own rewards.

To meet the need for such individuals a workshop was held at St. James Church on July 27 to organize a new prison ministry at the J. Reuben Long Detention Center.

Participants learned about the resources available to the prisoners such as the Department of Social Services, the Alston Wilkes Society and other agencies that help empower them.

One of the speakers, a 73-year-old man who counsels people on helping in the prison ministry, said spirituality only returned to the prison system between 1982 to 1992.

The counselor, who asked to remain anonymous, described their goal as one to habilitate and not rehabilitate because they aim to reform a prisoner’s behavior prior to their sentence and not to restore the delinquent conduct.

Prisoners lack trust and have no self-worth, he said. adding that “there is nothing worse than being in the cage. … A lot of these people are not living in reality.”

In the Piedmont Deanery, the inmates at McCormick Correctional Institution have been visited by Sister Joan Kobe of Good Shepherd Mission in McCormick every other Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. for the last four years.

“They are a part of the parish,” she said. “We do a Liturgy of the Word with Communion.”

In the Pee Dee Deanery, Msgr. Thomas R. Duffy, pastor at St. Michael’s in Garden City, continually fights the state’s legal system on the death penalty.

He wrote to Gov. David Beasley about John Plath, who was recently executed (see Letters to the Editor on page 7). Duffy’s ministry involves pen and prayer.

Dee Gunsalus of Clio, also in the Pee Dee, works with Kairos, an ecumenical prison ministry. “We have a Catholic service every Tuesday night, a liturgy and a faith sharing,” she said.

At the Evans Correctional Institution half of the 1,100 inmates are Catholics, and the number of prisoners is on the rise.

“My best advice is to gain as much as you give or more. It can be a very uplifting ministry. I’d like them to go home closer to the church than when they went in,” said Gunsalus.

She said that ecumenical fund raising is being held to build a dedicated chapel for Evans. They have to raise $250,000 and have approximately $47,000 so far.

“The institution serves the entire state, so we’re appealing to whomever we can,”she said.

Donations for the chapel may be sent to Evans Chapel Foundation, P.O. Box 29512-02, Bennettsville, SC 29512.

Sister Nancy Purdue of St. John the Beloved in Summerville serves the Coastal Deanery.

“The prisoners certainly appreciate the visits,” she said. “It’s a way to keep the reality that they are human beings. Jesus said to visit the prisoners. I think that’s the Gospel mission.”

Sister Carol Gnau and others, including senior citizens, visit Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville. They bring goodies and stay for about an hour, she said. They also have Communion with the prisoners.

Lieber now has death row inmates.

“There’s more than one Catholic on death row,” Sister Gnau said. “I think sometimes, on the outside, people have a stereotype about what inmates are like. They’re not all functional illiterates. They express regrets for their crimes. And they can be thoughtful of others too.”

Those are times she finds the ministry rewarding. Sister Gnau has been ministering to prisoners for 11 years. Her explanation was basic, “it’s part of the Gospel.”

Mostly it’s about listening,” she continued. “Sometimes they’ll tell me about their case or how it’s been going. We laugh sometimes too.”

She meets with with the death row inmate in the community area which she describes as very noisy.

“The TV is at full pitch,” she said. “The cells have a tiny window and are isolated.”

She explained that her opposition to the death penalty enables her to be compassionate.

“It’s still another form of killing,”she said. “And I don’t think it’s our place to take a life.”

In the Midlands Deanery, Deacon Roland Thomas of St. Martin de Porres in Columbia, finds that the longer he stays in the ministry, the better he gets.

Having traveled to area prisons since 1976, Thomas said, “Even though I’m getting older now– 74 years old — I can’t stop. I want to do it as long as I can.”

He was appointed by the local chaplain to minister at the 11 prisons in the Midlands.

“I go to one or two every day,” he said. “And I don’t limit my ministry to Catholics alone.”

When I started ministering, we had a priest in Columbia who was the chaplain,” Thomas said. “I used to go with him to CCI before it was demolished. Nobody else asked for that ministry. I wanted to do something where I thought I could make a difference.”

Thomas recalled that CCI was similar to “a dungeon. It was built back before the Civil War days. It was not fit for human habitation.”

Suicide is also a real threat for some prisoners.

“I’m dealing with a young man now who has tried (suicide),” Thomas said. “He has cuts on his arms. He’s been in for 15 or 20 years for murder charges. I don’t normally ask them why they are there. It usually comes out later.”

Thomas feels that there is no such thing as rehabilitation in the penal system in South Carolina.

“There are people who want to keep these people in jail all the time,” said Thomas. “It’s a dead animal, and that’s not good.”

The deacon supports education for prisoners.

“I’m talking about being able to read and write,” he said. “Most of the people in jail probably have less than a sixth-grade education. There are some Ph.D.’s as well.”

Success cases are what keep Thomas, and others in the ministry like him, coming back.

“I get Christmas cards,” he said. “It’s heartwarming. There was a guy (inmate) who came back to minister. …”