The pandemic continues to have lasting effects on us all, but especially the imprisoned.
Since March 8, 2020, the men and women confined in our 21 state correctional institutions have had no visits from family, friends, or volunteers. There have also been no Masses or priests visiting these men and women.
For much of the time they have also been locked down in their cells as COVID-19 works its way through the different cell blocks. So far, there have been 37 inmates and two correctional officers who have died in South Carolina from COVID-19 in the past year.
Some churches have sent food care packages to inmates through a national program. Then, in late fall, the South Carolina Department of Corrections started a program where inmates are given an individual computer tablet that allows them to access the secure SCDC Internal Intranet (they cannot access the Internet). The company that provides the tablets allow for access to general information so the inmates can purchase movies, stream music, take classes through SCDC, read e-Books, and listen to FM radio.
On a spiritual level, beginning back in December, inmates were also allowed to participate virtually in Catholic Masses. Each Mass is recorded ahead of time, compressed, and uploaded to a secure Dropbox at the SCDC in Columbia. Each week, the technician then transfers it onto the secure Internal Intranet for the SCDC tablet.
As part of my ministry, I travel around the state to record priests celebrating these Masses for the upcoming Sundays, each with a homily targeted for the inmates. There are about 10 priests involved in this project, primarily those who were visiting in the prison system before the pandemic. At the time these Masses are recorded, a few members from the featured parish join in to serve as lectors.
Each Mass is dedicated specifically to the imprisoned men and women, and the Prayers of the Faithful are directed to this community.
Inmates have sent letters to myself and others, describing how much they appreciate the opportunity to be a part of Mass each week. It is a privilege to know that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of so many through these efforts.
In addition, permission was given to upload PDFs of material to help enhance the faith life of inmates. The Word Among Us allows their monthly articles specifically written for the incarcerated to be uploaded, and there is material from Dynamic Catholic and the Catechism Guy. Other uploads include Novenas, directions on praying the rosary, as well as Church history and other material that were used in Catechism Classes in the correctional institutions prior to the pandemic.
It took a bit of persistent patience to work out all the details with SCDC, but now they are asking for advice on how they might get other denominations to start uploading their services. I have happily offered feedback to all such inquiries hoping that others might shorten their learning curve. Currently, the only service that is available on the tablets is from the Catholic Church.
The faithful can help spread the word to those in the correctional system and let them know that weekly Mass is available. Pass the word to inmates that they can find the Mass video and PDF resources by typing “Catholic” in the search bar on their User Dashboard.
Please pray that these efforts will continue to grow and make a difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ — and in the lives of all those making these Masses and materials accessible, as well as those who are able to benefit from them on the inside.
Deacon John Leininger serves at St. Andrew Church in Clemson. For more information, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.