By Connie Berry
Brother Bill Cawley professed vows as a Brother of the Sacred Heart 45 years ago but he became the new coordinator of Jail Ministry only last June. He brings a deep sense of restorative justice to the job. There is much restoration going on through Jail Ministry — restoring people to their families, restoring communication between people and restoring some dignity to a not-so-dignified situation.
Jail Ministry has been around in the Syracuse community for decades. Currently, through 40 volunteers, the ministry manages to provide basic services to those incarcerated at the Justice Center. Visitor advocates establish a relationship with the inmate and can act as a lifeline to the outside. Communication with a lawyer or a parent can be arranged, as well as access to a Bible and spiritual guidance.
Brother Bill said that there is a need to get the community to express the fact that they value their young people but not the crimes that have become part of the community.
“We hope to branch out and work to restore the community and the victims,” Brother Bill said. “There are families at risk and we need to restore families. These are fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters in jail.”
Brother Bill isn’t a stranger to prison ministry. He worked at the Nassau County Correctional Center on Long Island before coming to Syracuse.
What he found here was a well-organized operation where the staff at the Justice Center and the legal system are familiar with Jail Ministry and the Bail Expediting Program. Onondaga County supported the bail program for a number of years and just recently dropped the funding due to budget cuts of non-mandated programs. Brother Bill explained the program is being picked up again by Jail Ministry.
“This time there will be one part-time staff person and $15,000 to work with,” Brother Bill said. “For every dollar they [the county] gave us, we saved them $4. Ninety percent of the people we bailed didn’t serve time for what we bailed them out from.”
The bail program has saved the county a lot of money over the years, Brother Bill said, and it doesn’t make sense to abandon it. Inmates who are locked up for misdemeanors or petty crimes can call Jail Ministry through a direct line from the Justice Center. Jail Ministry will work with the person’s family to raise bail of up to approximately $1,000 with Jail Ministry providing half that amount. Jail Ministry does not post bail for violent offenders, Brother Bill explained. They find out what the charges are first and interview the offender hoping to make a connection with their family.
“We want to be able to return this person to family, or at least know there is a secure place for the person to return to,” Brother Bill said. “We bring him to court or make sure he has a way to get there. We put the money together for the bail and actually go pay the bail and get the person bailed out that day and hopefully back in touch with his family.”
The Bail Expediting program means that petty offenders don’t languish in the Justice Center for days because they can’t make a low bail. The common denominator for these offenders is usually poverty, Brother Bill said.
He knows facts and figures about the prison population — there is a large population of persons with mental illness in the prison system and up to 70 percent of crimes are carried out by someone who is intoxicated or high on drugs.
“There are a very high number of crimes due to alcohol and we don’t always think of that,” Brother Bill said.
With the budget cuts in the county, Jail Ministry is looking for investors in the bail program. A parish could invest $1,000 for a year and get 90 percent of their money returned, excluding court costs, Brother Bill explained.
“We go to court and the money comes back,” he said. “These are poor people with no collateral. If it wasn’t for that bail program that person might be in jail for days and lose a job. This program means that person is back home and back to work.”
This time of year Jail Ministry volunteers are busy putting together Christmas gift bags. They collect hot cocoa packets, ramen noodles, microwave popcorn, new socks, note paper, stamps and other items and make up the bags in time for a holiday visit just before Christmas.
“We can always use socks and Bibles all year round,” Brother Bill said.
One former inmate remembers more than one Christmas he spent at the Justice Center, then the Public Safety Building.
“The little gifts they would give us, that was huge,” he said.
He also said it was Jail Ministry that arranged for his wife and children to visit him while he was incarcerated.
“If it wasn’t for Jail Ministry, I wouldn’t have had those visits,” he said. “Separation destroys families.”
The telephone never stops ringing at the Jail Ministry offices on Slocum Ave.
“The days fly by,” Brother Bill said. “We’re never bored here.”
He said there are many parishes who help Jail Ministry and the staff is available for presentations explaining the ministry.
A Scripture passage painted on the wall in Jail Ministry’s waiting room reads, “I was in prison and you visited me.”
For more information about Jail Ministry, call (315) 424-1877.