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Chaplains: Thrownaway Inmates May Flourish With Pastoral Attention

Tom Cummins
Provided by Criminal Justice Ministry

When volunteer prison chaplain Tom Cummins knocks on the door of a prison cell, the inmate’s voice is nearly always welcoming, sometimes delighted.

“I deal almost exclusively with those in isolation,” he said. “The guys know what society thinks of them. They are part of the throwaway society like papers tossed aside, abandoned, out-of-mind, in prisons that are hidden in the country, off a side road. When anyone treats them like a child of God, they flourish. A chaplain can help bring them back to a sense of being part of a whole community.”

Cummins serves at the 2,700 bed Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center at Bonne Terre and the 800-bed Missouri Department of Correction Center near Potosi.

About 1,574,000 men and women were in state and federal prisons at the end of 2013, according to federal statistics. The legal system has the detailed records of these men and women’s criminal wrong doings. Chaplains are among the few who have the time for in-depth conversations about what they think now.

Cummins listens and asks simple questions to encourage inmates to think through their current decisions. When inmates say they have stopped taking their medicine, stopped stress-relieving exercise in their cell, he simply asks why. If they say they have stopped writing their families because the families don’t write back, he suggests that they not let others limit their kindness.

“My primary role is to be present to them, reveal a different way of life, “he said. “It seems to work.” 

He has witnessed many transformations, including men awaiting execution, after a prisoner begins to live a more structured life, away from addictions and peer pressure.

In ‘The Hole’

Inmates call the isolation sections that Cummins visits “The Hole.” Corrections officials call the units administrative segregation. In these halls inmates are not released for general outdoor exercise, classes, lectures, visiting theater troupes and chapel services. 

One at a time, each may visit a concrete block walled “yard” about three times larger than a cell with overhead netting that allowed a view of the sky.

Body, mind and spirit must all be cared for.

They can yell conversations with other inmates but can’t see men they talk to, the chaplain said. These men may not have a radio, coffeepot, crockpot or watch. They may have about six paperbacks from the prison library, no hardbacks. He encourages them to find something that interests them and read about it.

His discussions often produce some analytical thinking and wiser decisions, he said. He tells the men they must care for their “body, mind and spirit” and if they let one of the three go they will not do well.

Most men he has worked with develop strict daily routines: setting aside the same time each day for exercise in their cells, reading, and writing letters. Some have as many as 100 pen pals, mostly strangers who participate in a friendship program,

“Letter writing is a rich part of their lives,” he said.

Cummins is one of the few human faces that inmates see in the highly automated isolation sections at Potosi and Bonne Terre prisons. The retired engineer and Monsanto executive spent four post-retirement years getting a master's degree in pastoral ministry at Aquinas Institute of Theology before beginning his volunteer chaplaincy. The Catholic layman volunteers under the auspices of the Criminal Justice Ministry of the St. Louis Archdiocese.

Chance to change

Inmates who are not in isolation have jobs and can attend classes toward getting a GED. Missouri declines to offer courses, even basic literacy classes, for lifers. However, the St. Louis Archdiocesan Prison Ministry has volunteers who tutor some willing lifers, according to Sister Carleen Reck, a School Sister of Notre Dame who directs the archdiocesan ministry.

Sister Carleen Reck
Credit Donna Korando | St. Louis Public Radio
Sister Carleen Reck

Often the men and women talk to prison chaplains about their determination to go straight; find a job and stay clean but they worry about falling into old habits when surrounded by society’s negative ideas.

“The family is often part of their baggage,” said The Rev. Jeff Nehrt, pastor of the 85-member, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Greenville  who has spent one day a week for the past  20  years volunteering as a chaplain for the men and women at the Greenville Federal Corrections Institution. The women’s portion is called a camp, which is prison without razor wire fence.

“The best thing would be a continuous support so they could do what they have resolved to do in prison,” Nehrt said.

“If they could have the assurance of community support, not just their family, when they walk out of prison to face all the challenges, obstacles, slaps in the face, hurdles of starting a good life it would be helpful.”

In addition to one-on-one conversations, he has 12 women in a Christian Bible-study class and four men in a separate, similar class. While he focuses on Christians, he cooperates with two rabbis and an imam who also volunteer with people of their faiths at Greenville.

“The trust builds over the years,” Nehrt said. “Many find solace and hope of forgiveness when he quotes Paul’s epistles proclaiming that Jesus died for their sins.” Nehrt, who has a doctorate in ministry from Concordia Seminary in Clayton, said he never asks what a man or woman did to be incarcerated but many tell him. “Many are straightforward.”

Need for pastors

Nehrt and Cummins are both volunteers. Chaplains who are salaried by the state often say they regret that they are swamped with administration duties and paperwork.

Credit Criminal Justice Ministry pamphlet

“We don’t need more who preach at them, but pastoral people who listen to them, talk to them. be a human face for them,” Reck said. “Everything is pretty automated in prison now;, they don’t see a lot of faces.”

The St. Louis Archdiocese’s justice ministry provides fresh clothing to adult prisoners for the day of release.

We want them to have a fresh start,“ Recks said. The ministry gets them help writing resumes, job readiness, setting up job interviews and appropriate clothing for job interviews: White shirts and black slacks if they are looking for food service, slacks and shirts for other jobs and suits if they are seeking desk jobs.

Her ministry works with several programs including the six-month free Rent to Release ministry, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, St. Patricks’ Center, Project Cope and other non-profits. Released prisoners are referred to Mercy center and other medical, and addiction prevention groups. They could use much more help, she said.

College Promised After Release

For the past three years, a Jesuit-inspired prison initiative at Saint Louis University sends faculty to Bonne Terre to teach a strong liberal arts college degree program to inmates.  SLU offers a parallel degree program for Bonne Terre’s prison staff. Currently 15 students are in each SLU degree program with hopes to expand.

“We offer a good Jesuit education with philosophy and theology required,” SLU prison program interim director Karen Barney, a retired SLU professor, said.

“Many are amazing students, very bright, very motivated,” she said. “Most come to class prepared.”

“On re-entry we promise they can finish their degree at Saint Louis University at no cost,” Barney said. The university will help them find off-campus housing and other “gap” support with SLU’s community partners: St. Patrick’s Center, Project COPE and Mercy Health Ministry. 

This semester, Washington University began a college program at the Missouri Eastern Correction Center in Pacific. Before approving WU’s program, the director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, George A. Lombardi, required the university to also offer a parallel program for Pacific prison staff.

Few hard-core criminals

“If you took out (of prison) the men who had been untreated for mental disorders, those with addictions, and those who had childhood abuse, you would not have 50 criminals out of 800 men (at Potosi ),” Cummins said.

“Most were under some influence (of drugs or alcohol) when they broke into someplace to get money to buy drugs, then they hurt or killed someone there,” Cummins said. “Many say that (officials) have the evidence that I did it but I don’t remember.”

Some he has come to know awaiting execution over the years are included in those numbers, he said. He has seen men on death row transformed into good, kind persons, he said.

“I guess there are some hard-core intentional criminals who just want to take what they can get but most I have met are not,” he said. 

Cummins and all the chaplains spend every day holding fast to the hope expressed last year by Pope Francis :

“Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.