WASHINGTON, D.C. — There are more than 30 Catholic organizations providing some kind of prison ministry in the United States. One reason is because the need is so great, with a prison population estimated at about 2.3 million by the Prison Policy Initiative.
But U.S. incarceration rates grew so fast over the past generation, they far outstripped the ability of any one organization to keep up. What’s more, few of the organizations had any contact with others to coordinate ministry efforts.
That issue is now being addressed by the new Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, which has slowly come into being over the past two years.
Karen Clifton, the coalition’s executive coordinator, had been executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, the anti-death-penalty organization. Despite its focus on capital punishment and restorative justice, the network would be approached with requests for resources on issues regarding prisons and prisoners from people who knew of nowhere else to turn.
In early 2018, the Vatican sent a questionnaire to the papal nunciature in Washington asking about the state of prison ministry in the United States, according to Harry Dudley, then staff to the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service.
Dudley, who has since retired, got the ministry organizations “to really tell them from their perspective what was going on. And all of those reports were sent to my desk, and I was asked to compile them and follow up,” he said.
“The major issue really was the role of paid chaplains in prisons really was decreasing. There were less clergy doing it, and more laity doing it, in all the different churches. And the number of incarcerated people was so great, nobody was really addressing it.”
Catholic Mobilizing Network held a daylong program on restorative justice in spring 2018, and invited representatives from the different Catholic groups doing some form of prison ministry — from advocacy to mailing devotional literature to jails — to meet separately to help determine the scope and breadth, but also the gaps, in the church’s prison ministry efforts.
One gap was pastoral care — to those in prison and their families, to crime victims and their families, and to those who work in prisons and their families.
“One of the reasons certification didn’t really pick up in this country was that everything focused on the highest level of certification — the master’s program, the DRE (director of religious education),” Dudley said. “Not everyone needs that, but what people need are other pathways to do the work and then people can think, ‘Gee, if I can do the work at this level, maybe I can do more.’”
One sign of the interest in training, according to Clifton: The first such training session was scheduled around the Independence Day holiday in 2018, and despite the link to register online for the training being made available just four days before the session was held, 650 people signed up.
An earlier inkling came at the 2017 Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, Florida, where Clifton was asked to moderate two breakout sessions on the effects of incarceration on families. Catholic Mobilizing Network’s focus has always been on information and advocacy, “not the ministry piece,” said Clifton, who holds a master of divinity degree and had enjoyed a career in ministry prior to joining CMN.
But “this really spoke to me deeper,” she told Catholic News Service. “And having heard so many stories and being part of the journey with so many people affected by incarceration, I really felt called by this.”
It’s personal to Dudley, too. “I had an uncle who was a prison guard at Sing Sing Prison when I was growing up in Yonkers, New York. He had a breakdown because of the work. … I had a brother who did time.”
A lot of discerning took place in the coalition’s creation from among its members. Each national organization in the coalition has a representative on a steering committee, and from that group an executive committee addresses priority issues. A formation committee monitors standards for prison ministry, and six webinars have already been held to deepen a largely volunteer contingent’s understanding of the nature of prison ministry.
The coalition’s mission statement has several goals it has set out to achieve: Educate Catholics about the effects of incarceration and detention; advocate for the necessary changes in the “broken” correctional system; build networking hubs for the Catholic prison ministries; “break down silos” that impede communication among the different ministries; recruit new prison ministers; and gather ministers for networking and education when needed.
The coalition also established a website, https://www.catholicprisonministries.org, that Clifton said is akin to “a Yelp! for prison ministry and resources.”
While money is a must to achieve the coalition’s many aims, neither Clifton nor Dudley saw the need, or had the desire, to create another 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency to raise funds. But it did acquire the sponsorship of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, which focuses on hospital chaplaincy, allowing the coalition to use the association’s nonprofit status to raise money to carry out its goals.