Jail Ministry brings Christmas to Justice Center

By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor

Every year, the Christmas season seems to start a little earlier — decorations appear before Thanksgiving turkeys hit tables, holiday sale circulars fall out of the newspaper as soon as the Halloween candy’s marked down. Jail Ministry might have all the retailers beat, however: their Christmas season starts in September.

That’s when Jail Ministry staff start to solicit and sort donations for the holiday gift packages they will distribute to men and women at the Onondaga County Justice Center just before Christmas. They have only a few months to pull together enough pencils, stamps, socks, popcorn packets and other items to make packages for the roughly 650 men and women who will spend Christmas in the Justice Center awaiting adjudication.

For many, the packages are a bright spot in an otherwise bleak day.

“People don’t make appointments to get arrested,” said Nancy Scheutzow, a Jail Ministry screener who has been involved with the group and its Christmas activities for more than 15 years. “People there [in jail] are very sad because they’re spending Christmas away from their loved ones. They’re missing their families and their families are missing them. They’re very thankful for their packages.”

Holiday gifts are just one small way that Jail Ministry, now celebrating its 35th anniversary year, offers support to the incarcerated. The organization is dedicated to being “a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves,” said Brother Bill Cawley, SC, Jail Ministry Coordinator. Volunteer screeners and visitor advocates help those behind bars connect with loved ones, lawyers, landlords or bosses in an effort to minimize the disruption that being arrested can cause in a person’s life. Volunteers also visit people in groups and one-on-one to attend to their spiritual needs.

“We work to address the feelings of isolation and abandonment people feel when they’re arrested,” Brother Bill said. “We let them know that there is someone who cares.”

This is especially important at Christmastime, Brother Bill said, because that is when those feelings of hopelessness are most deeply felt.

“This is a way we say that no one is excluded from the inn,” Brother Bill said of the Christmas packages. “We are called to affirm dignity wherever people are.”

It is through the generous support of individuals and church groups, like the Social Justice Committee at Holy Family Church in Syracuse, that Jail Ministry is able to provide holiday cheer at the Justice Center. Holy Family spent the month of November collecting instant hot cocoa and socks.

“We put boxes by the doors, and every weekend they were overflowing,” said Mary Ellen Masterpole, chair of the committee. “The response was overwhelming.”

Holy Family beat their donation goal three times over — this year, each incarcerated person will receive three packets of instant hot cocoa instead of the usual one packet — but Jail Ministry is still in need of more items. Staff and volunteers will continue working hard to source the remaining items over the next few weeks. Monetary donations will be used to buy ingredients for homemade cookies, which are also included in the packages. (See sidebar for information on donating.)

Come Dec. 20, all the donations will be corralled and about 40 volunteers will spend the evening putting the packages together at the Justice Center. The following morning, roughly 35 Jail Ministry screeners and visitor advocates will deliver the packages to the Justice Center pods.

In addition to the gifts, volunteers will offer carols and conversation. That connection and communication is at the very heart of Jail Ministry’s work.

“Being in jail does not eliminate the same needs and desires that we all have, and when in jail to have a dismal routine diverted by singing and gifts is a wonderful event,” Scheutzow said. “I can’t tell you how much it means to those we visit and how much they appreciate not being forgotten.”

Items needed for Jail Ministry holiday gift packages
Jail Ministry will be making 650 holiday gift packages for men and women in the Onondaga County Justice Center at Christmas. If you, your church or your organization would like to donate any of these items, please call Jail Ministry at (315) 234-9262 for more information.

• stamps
• pencils
• instant decaf coffee
• instant ramen noodles
• microwave popcorn
• white crew socks
• hard candy

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