Jail House Conversions

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by Dr. Holly L. Wilson

Ever heard of “jail house conversions” or “fox-hole conversions”?  Ever wondered what that meant?  It is sort of like what happens when something bad and traumatic happens to a person, like the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or some other event, and the person turns to God and from the world.

In fox-holes in World War I, a soldier would feel death at his heels and would begin to pray to God because he knew that his gun or bayonet was not enough to save him. Some people view this type of conversion as inauthentic because afterwards, if he survives, he tells God, “Thanks God, I’ll take it from here.” The same thing is thought about prisoners who convert to Christianity in prison.  They are confronted with very traumatic events: arrest, sentencing and imprisonment for many years. Suddenly, they feel the need for God. They believed they were perfectly capable of running their lives on their own before they were arrested, but afterwards they realized that they didn’t have the power to handle their freedom.  So some prisoners turn to God.  One of the differences between the fox-hole conversion and the jail-house conversion is that the latter goes on for years and prisoners have the time to study the Bible, take classes and really turn their lives over to Christ.

Some people are skeptical of these conversions because it seems like prisoners convert in order to prove to the parole board that they are worthy of parole. This may well be true of some men, there are always human beings who know how to work the system. But having taught at David Wade Correctional Center for the past 10 years with the Greco Institute of the Diocese of Shreveport, I have come to be convinced that there are real and genuine jail house conversions.

The men speak of how their lives have been changed by their arrest and how grateful they are that they were arrested because they wouldn’t be alive otherwise. They speak of how finding Christ in prison has changed them from being dependent upon substances to being dependent upon Christ. They even speak of being “happy” in prison. They know that prison was what caused them to turn from a life of crime, self-abuse and abuse of others to a wholesome life, a Spirit filled life, a life dependent upon the cross of Jesus.

Many of these men I teach are in a Sheriff’s prison, River Bend Detention Center, in Lake Providence, LA, where they have little access to education and vocational training other than religious education.  It is the one thing they can grab hold of to keep their sanity.  In Louisiana 52% of all prisoners are in locally run Sheriff’s prisons. I go out to the prison twice a week and teach them the Bible and Christ’s love for them. They learn what it means to be a Christian and even what it means to be a Catholic. I hope it is enough for them to embrace a true conversion.

Fr. Mark Watson, pastor at St. Patrick and Sacred Heart parishes, has been visiting prisons in East and West Carroll Parish Detention Center for the last two and half years. At West Carroll he confirmed a man and would lead a communion service once a week. In his preaching he explains aspects of the Catholic faith. He confirmed another prisoner at East Carroll Detention Center in Lake Providence and baptized him. At River Bend Detention Center in Lake Providence he is in the process giving a prisoner inquiry and Catechumenate materials. Fr. Mark finds the Catholic faith fills an important need, not only in the lives of these men, but in the lives of many of the inmates.

I drive 154 miles round trip to go to River Bend twice a week because the prison is divided up into two phases. The men there are so eager to learn and speak about the Bible. They not only want to learn, they want to talk about their own conversion experiences and the understanding they have developed as they have done their own reading. I try to help them understand Catholic teaching. We have to sit in a cold room on cold steel benches for our classes, and the men wear only  thin orange jumpsuits, but they have no chapel in this small Sheriff’s prison and so we do the best we can.

At State run prisons like David Wade, the men have more access to vocational training and even have a Chapel where Mass and religious services are held.  I see those men once a week and many of those I have taught were once Protestants and are now  interested in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), so I am holding an RCIA class in prison for 10 men who are considering becoming Catholic.

Fr. Mark Franklin celebrates Mass with the prisoners once a month at David Wade Correction Center in Homer.  Many men from different denominations, in addition to Catholics, attend and they are hungry for the Mass. Now they are learning from me what it means to attend Mass and what it means to be a Catholic as I teach an RCIA class in addition to my Bible study.  I drive 165 miles round trip every week to be at David Wade every Wednesday night. Most of the men have attended multiple classes with me and some of the men have been coming to every class and Bible study I have held since 2004 when I first started coming there. They tell me about their conversion experiences since going to prison and how Jesus has changed their lives.  They never stop expressing their appreciation for the Greco Institute.

Fr. Francis Kamau, along with Fr. Michael Thang’wa, visit the men housed in the Caddo Correctional Center in Shreveport to offer them Confession, Anointing of the Sick and Holy Communion. Fr. Francis is also an auxiliary deputy chaplain and serves not only inmates, but also sheriff’s deputies. Another local Catholic, Fred Douciere, goes to Richland Parish Detention Center to give a Bible Study to the women prisoners there twice a month.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States and, in fact, on the planet.  It has seven times the incarceration rate of China and 20 times the incarceration rate of Germany.  In the past two decades, prison population in Louisiana has doubled. One in 86 adults in Louisiana is doing time, which is double the national average. It is thus important for us to reach out to prisoners and bring the Good News to them. In my experience the prisoners never stop thanking me for coming out week after week to teach them scripture.

The Greco Institute, parish priests and some lay people are trying to make a difference in these prisoners’ lives – helping them find Christ and live a Christian life so that when they do get out they will genuinely be transformed men and we can witness a true jail house conversion. So far I have noticed that none of the men who have attended my classes and have been released have ever come back to prison.  And all of this is possible because of the generous support the Diocese of Shreveport receives from people just like you to the Annual Diocesan Stewardship Appeal.

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