Bringing the word of God, presence of Christ to prisons

COLUMBIA — Immigrants in South Carolina often face a multitude of difficulties and challenges — overcoming language barriers, finding work and supporting families.

While secular and religious programs are in place to help with these issues, one group is often overlooked — immigrants who end up in the state’s correctional institutions.  Brother Carlos Luis Parrilla, CSC, is doing what he can to reach out to this group in the Midlands.

Once or twice each week, Brother Carlos and a local volunteer, retired Sgt. Maj. Jose Fernandez, visit Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia to offer spiritual comfort to male Hispanic prisoners.

The ministry started in late 2006 shortly after the Congregation of the Holy Cross brother took the helm as manager of the diocesan Office for Hispanic Ministries.

“I wanted to make prison ministry one of my priorities because Christ mentions visiting those in prison, and I suspected very little was being done to help that part of the Hispanic community,” he said.

He learned about the needs of area prisons from Father Anthony Droze, pastor at Our Lady of the Hills Church. While the parish has both Hispanic and prison ministry programs, nothing was designed specifically for Hispanic prisoners.

Brother Carlos contacted the warden and prison chaplain at nearby Kirkland to receive permission to visit.

“We’ve been fortunate in that the prison administration felt a real openness for this program,” he said. “The warden, Bernard McKie, is a very Christian man who wants as many faiths represented as possible in ministry at his facility.”

Each week, Brother Carlos and Fernandez meet with about 25 men for Scripture study and discussions on aspects of Christianity and the Catholic faith. They talk about Scripture readings from the previous Sunday and how the inmates can apply them to their difficult lives behind bars.

“I want these men to realize God loves them, and they’re not unique in their situation,” he said. “Anybody else could be in their shoes. You’re there for them at that time to bring the word of God and presence of Christ into their midst.”

Most of the men they meet are between 18 and 35, come from Mexico, Honduras or Nicaragua, and generally are serving short sentences for nonviolent offenses.

Brother Carlos said the average stay for the prisoners they see is about four to six weeks. Most do not speak English and are facing deportation, he said. Many have families here in the United States.  

The majority of Hispanic prisoners at Kirkland were raised Catholic, he said, but many have fallen away from the church or have not had the chance to receive the sacraments for a long time.

Fernandez, a member of St. John Neumann Church in Columbia, said he volunteers with the program because he feels there should be greater Catholic involvement in prison ministry.

“Some of these men really need the word of God from the Catholic Church. They’ve strayed from the church and I really think if they had stayed, they wouldn’t be where they are today,” he said. “I see many of them really open their consciences, search their heart and learn to feel that God will forgive them.”

During each visit, Brother Carlos said the volunteers reach out to inmates looking for spiritual direction. He carries dozens of rosaries with him and hands them out, along with instructions on how to pray the rosary and other Catholic prayers. He also hands out Bibles and devotional magazines such as “The Word Among Us.”

“These men like to spend time in meditation while they are there, and they love to read, to pray and read,” he said. “They’re open to all kinds of spiritual guidance and help.”

Brother Carlos said he also periodically holds seminars to help prisoners prior to their release. They learn what to expect and where to turn for help.

He said the need for prison ministry is constant and he is always looking for volunteers.

 “I consider going to the prison to be a first priority for me. I really see Jesus there when I go,” he said. “Our presence there is of real importance to these men. They’re very happy to see that the church is interested in them, and it’s important that they realize it hasn’t abandoned them.”

Deacon James Hyland, coordinator of Catholic Charities for the Lowcountry deanery and diocesan prison ministries, said programs such as the Hispanic ministry are important to inmates because of the spiritual guidance they offer.

“The need for this kind of ministry is growing pretty much across the board, both in state prisons and county jails, because the number of people being incarcerated is growing,” Deacon Hyland said. “As a result, the need for Catholic prison ministry is growing. It’s important that these programs are done on a local basis because they often have a much better idea of the specific needs at a local jail or prison.”

To learn more about his ministry
contact Brother Carlos at (803) 740-6209