April 18, 2002
By Howie Mansfield
Actions speak louder than words. Time is more important than money. These were the ideas that surfaced from people during a panel discussion about community advocacy, the latest endeavor of the Jail Ministry Office to help the previously incarcerated return to normal life.
The panel discussion held at St. Lucy’s Church Auditorium was part of the 2002 New York Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage from April 7 to April 16. People from across the state gathered in Dunkirk to begin a journey that encompassed 28 prisons in 22 communities on the way to Albany. The pilgrimage raised awareness of injustices of the prison system in New York State. Restorative justice, forgotten victims, transitional services, reintergration movement, death penalty, reform of prisons, and healthcare in prisons were some of the topics discussed through the 10-day trek across the state. The walk was sponsored by the Judicial Process Commission in Rochester and the Prison Action Connection of WNY Peace Center in Buffalo.
The stop in Syracuse on April 10 included a walk from St. Lucy’s Church to the Onondaga County Justice Center. Bill Cuddy, director of the Bail Expediter Program at Jail Ministry, said he was pleased so many people could participate in the walk and the panel discussion. “The walk always works for peace and justice,” Cuddy said. “All corporal works of mercy have to involve the body. The physical stamina of hands and feet is involved in Jail Ministry. It’s your body that contains your heart.” Curt Andino, coordinator of Jail Ministry, said community advocacy is important to the continued work of Jail Ministry.
“We should never let them [the incarcerated] become removed from the community. We should never lose sight of that person, even if they are in a cage,” Andino said. “We need to start answering the question, ‘What happens when the person is no longer incarcerated?’” Andino explained inmates at the Justice Center in Syracuse take very little when they leave to return to society. “People coming out of the Justice Center often leave with nothing, even without basic identification,” Andino said. “The Justice Center guarantees that there will be so many hurdles for them and there is so much they can’t achieve without identifying themselves. When people go in, they have a bracelet with their vitals and they separate it from them when they leave. They enter life outside of jail with nothing.”
Jail Ministry has traditionally been a force in the community by visiting inmates at the Justice Center. Slowly, the focus has been broadened to the entire experience of the inmates from their initial incarceration through their time in the prison facility to their release back into the community. During the vigil in front of the Justice Center, Andino described Jail Ministry’s mission on the pilgrimage walk. “Today, we are here to talk about exit-planning, preparing the inmate for release into society. Jail Ministry acknowledges and appreciates the efforts of the Justice Center to provide those addicted members of our incarcerated community the ability to seek recovery on the Clean and Sober Living Pod 4B. We believe this is a positive first step,” Andino said. “We would now ask a simple request: that inmates be provided with identification upon release. The logic is simple. When an inmate is given identification, he or she has identity restored that allows for reintegration into the community and reestablishment into our social goals of stable legal employment, long-term housing options and the hope that these opportunities bring. When an inmate is, as so often happens, released without basic identification and does not have family or resources, the person is being thrown back into society, unnamed, less prepared, facing greater challenges and susceptible to isolation, despair and shame that recreates the cycle.”
Andino said there is an urgency to offer former inmates a place to go and begin to get their lives together. “What about spending time with them? What about spending time instead of money? We can use our navigational skills rather than a government grant to obtain an I.D. so they can get a job and then develop a household,” he noted. “We have a large network of people who through very small acts can make a difference. We are premised on the smallest acts of kindness.” A number of advocates spoke about their experiences helping inmates over the last 25 years. Many of the visitor advocates said being involved with Jail Ministry has been spiritually rewarding. Phil Kelley, one of the advocates working with those in the Clean and Sober Living Pod 4B at the Justice Center, said all people need to do something to keep inmates out of prison once they come back to the community.
“Recidivism is a great big problem in the Justice Center. The same faces keep coming back,” Kelley said. “Relapse is part of a disease. But we attempt to do something about it in 4B. I attend AA meetings just to get to know the guys there. I’m trying to coordinate AA meetings for outside of the jail, so that when they get out, they can go and be with their friends. I want to call it the Butterfly group — no more crawling on your belly, it’s time to fly.” Carol Burrit, another visitor advocate, has had experience working with individuals incarcerated at state facilities. She said she has been called to help these inmates. “When you do this advocacy, you can take it as far as you want it to go. It means so much to these fellows when we come to help them. And it means a lot to them when they come out. They try really hard to get their life on track,” Burrit said. “I enjoy this, it’s very rewarding. God has led me to this and helped to give me the strength.” One advocate, Danita Brown, talked about the individuals she has worked with over the years. “There was one inmate that I meet with that had had no contact for two and a half years before I came. His wife didn’t want anything to do with him, but I went to Rochester and picked up his mother so she could come visit him and brought her back,” Brown said. “This man always wanted a new pair of sneakers, so I went out and got them for him for Christmas. You have to build a relationship. Another man I worked with said one day he would pave my driveway, and he did.”
Brown said she still talked with all her released former inmates. “I offer to consult with them. I always leave the door open for them. They need someone to care,” she said. “Everyone of the people I have worked with, three guys and four girls, I still communicate with all of them. I let them know that God is still with them. God helps me to do this. I have had great support from Curt and Bill.” A number of supporters of the Jail Ministry movement, calling for change to legislation and the prison system, made the trip from across Upstate New York. Father Peter Young, a priest from the Albany Diocese, is the director of the Altamont Program, which offers treatment for alcohol and drug addiction and community reintegration services for inmates across the state. There is an Altamont Program location at Le Moyne Manor in Liverpool. Through an apprenticeship, many former inmates learn the restaurant business and will have jobs in the industry upon completion.
“I’m very grateful to be here. I’ve worked as a jail chaplain and I understand what all of you are doing. Currently, the Altamont Program is housing 3,000 inmates at 72 locations in the state. We are making a dent in the problem of after-care,” Father Young said. Members of a delegation from Rochester spoke about the importance of the Prison Pilgrimage. One man explained that the Rockefeller Drug Laws are killing people’s spirits and there is much oppression in the prison system. This individual said he had been in prison for 26 years and said people leave the system but can’t find a way to stay out of jail and keep returning.
A woman from Rochester spoke about how important being a presence is to the movement. “There is something very powerful when you stand outside of a prison, standing in the silence, thinking of brothers and sisters who have failed, but are aware of the people praying for them outside,” she said. One of the men from Rochester said he hopes the walk will eventually include the whole state. “I have a dream that in two years we will have a walk that circles the state. We need to build on the momentum that has connected us. We need to lift up hope,” he said. “All faith communities should call for justice. There is a need for rehabilitation and a there is a need for justice.” Another person talked about how on each walk with an anti-death penalty organization, the group would leave a butterfly as a symbol of hope. The hope of the people gathered at St. Lucy’s helped encourage all participants in their ministries. Andino said Slocum House, located at 208 Slocum Ave., currently sees between 30 and 35 people each week from the streets of Syracuse. Andino hopes parishes will join the community advocacy movement. “The ultimate goal would be to have parishes invest themselves and time on an individual. Not an expenditure of money, but of time,” he said. “We will train any person, as much or as little as they need.” If you are interested in being a volunteer at Jail Ministry, call (315) 424-1877.