‘I Was in Prison and You Visited Me’

Alexander A. Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex

Every Monday night a few dedicated men and women of the St. Thomas Reformed Church bring fellowship to a group of inmates housed at the Alexander A. Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex located on the waterfront. This program is made possible with the active support of the Bureau of Corrections.

The prison ministry had the unexpected benefit of bringing together inmates and corrections officers who see each other as brothers and sisters in faith.

One such officer was Ismael “Tarik” Harrigan, a beloved Sargent of the BOC who died tragically during hurricane Irma. He was a champion of the ministry. He was respected by the inmates and was comfortable praying with them and sharing his life journey with those incarcerated.

Most of these prisoners are awaiting trial behind bars with no means to post bail. Some have spent months or even years awaiting their “day in court” hoping their appointed attorneys will take an interest in their case. The wheels of justice move slowly.

For inmates struggling with boredom, loneliness, separation from loved ones, depression and mental health issues, this 90-minute gathering becomes a sanctuary of peace and an antidote to the hopelessness which sets in as a result of long court delays. The program was started on June 29, 2016 by The Reformed Church.

Monday nights are a refuge from the challenges that go with incarceration in any institution, where threats of violence are real and where overcrowding and an insufficient level of staffing to safely monitor inmates has led to serious and tragic repercussions. (See Judge fines attorneys as jail fails to meet standards Friday, November 22, 2019 Daily News).

The weekly alchemy of hope, of brother and sisterhood, are found in the sharing of memories both bitter sweet and of better times, of family, laughter, favorite stories, and of thoughts of freedom.

The spiritualizing power of singing hymns and the reading of Gospel and prayers unite everyone in the room. The inmates refer to this as the “Holy Spirit at work.” Each and every one of them look forward to this weekly ritual, much like Monday night football.

Except this isn’t a game. The field is a hallowed room 14×6 with bullet proof glass dedicated to advancing spirit, the end goal, planting seeds of hope and redemption.

The mission of the Reformed Church volunteers is to bond with these men and women over the Gospel while providing the inmates with empathy, prayers, practical advice, and at times church assistance for those being released who need basic necessities like clothing, shoes or a place to sleep.

One of the Reformed Church’s regular volunteers named David believes deeply in the weekly mission of service and paying it forward. He, too was incarcerated for a period of years.

David was a life-long, self- proclaimed agnostic. He struggled in prison battling severe depression and anxiety consumed by anger and thoughts of revenge over feeling he had been wrongly convicted.

On October 8, 2014 he accepted God into his heart thanks to the kindness of a fellow inmate who took a compassionate interest and lit a spiritual fire in him. David says this inner conversion and the gift of Grace saved his life. It allowed him to serve the remainder of his time in the love and guidance of the Holy Spirit, no longer suffering.

It is the Monday after Thanksgiving; after greetings and hugs, David checks in with each of the seven prisoners asking how they are doing and the status of their cases. The respect and affection they show him is visible and overwhelming, as is the playful humor and joking that goes on within the group.

We begin with the hymn “Joy to the World” first published in 1719. It lifts the mood of the room out of the post-holiday blues.

One of the Reformed Church volunteers, a gifted guitarist, shares his story of addiction and recovery. He then sings “Home Again” written as a testament to being lost and found, and overcoming brokenness through the power of his faith. The inmates are clearly moved by the music:

“This man brought a beautiful and powerful message to us tonight – those words have true meaning,” says one.

A second volunteer reads a prayer of Hope and Devotion which leads the group into an animated discussion on how we can overcome doubt in our darkest moments in prison or on the outside. One inmate makes the comment:

“Even the Pope has doubts – he’s a man, right?” He goes on to say:

“We all struggle. Our anguish can be physical or spiritual. Just like a person who is drowning in water – they must come up to the surface in need of oxygen to survive. That’s the physical means of survival. In our spiritual anguish, the oxygen we need is not the chemical in the air – it’s the life-giving Spirit of God”

One of the inmates speaks philosophically about incarceration and the importance of just being able to be at peace with the present moment and the power of prayer to overcome adversity. “Never doubt what one prayer can do” is a poster that gets passed around the room enthusiastically. One inmate made the comment:

“You have to give it to God – not just constantly ask from him.”

Another volunteer reads Romans 8:31. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He is a giant of a man and powerfully built who did years of prison ministry including working with death row inmates. He encourages the inmates to be there for one another, to lift up a brother who is down, and to find strength in fellowship within the prison and to carry that love outward.

I look around the room and see that everyone is nodding in agreement. The inmates then write down personal prayer requests to be taken back to the Reformed Church congregation on Sunday.

A guard tapped on the glass signaling it was time to end our meeting. Everyone held hands and prayed the Lord’s Prayer in unison.

The inmates were led back to the isolation of their cells. Our group freely exited the Justice Complex to the sights and sounds of life: cars, horns, headlights, our iconic harbor visible in the distance, ships docked in port and sailboats on the water all aglow with light.

I thought of lines from Eve Ensler’s beautiful letter to Mother Earth. “I am made of dirt and grit and stars and rivers, skin, bone, leaf, whiskers and claw. I am part of you…”

I said goodbye and goodnight to the group with gratitude. I was going home.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” — Matthew 25:40

Filippo Cassinelli