Pope Francis blesses a prisoner of Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia in 2015. (PAUL HARING | CNS)

Prison outreach needed now more than ever

Port Charlotte  |  Hope is a key component to prison outreach and is needed more than ever as the number of incarcerated continues to skyrocket both here in the Diocese of Venice and nationwide.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 1,220,300 adults are incarcerated. The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 22 percent of the world’s total prison population. The Florida Department of Corrections has the third largest prison system, with approximately 100,000 people behind bars. The average daily population incarcerated in county jails is 52,946, with 6,159 within the boundaries of the Venice Diocese.

Pope Francis has consistently spoken about the importance of reaching out to the marginalized. Those in prison and recently released back to the community are among the most marginalized in our society. The Holy Father’s concern is evident by his choice to visit prisons whenever possible during his trips — even stopping during his busy 2015 U.S. visit to meet with and speak to men and women in a prison outside of Philadelphia.

To better understand the landscape of the prison ministry in the United States, a report is being created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, which is presently chaired by Bishop Frank J. Dewane. The report will be based upon a survey of each Arch/Diocese in the country on how they organize and place this ministry of pastoral care within the Arch/Diocesan structure. The Committee will then be providing information on the topic to the Congregation for Clergy at the Vatican and will include information from the survey.

Within the Diocese of Venice, Prison Outreach extends to work farms, county jails, and prisons from minimum to maximum security through a network of priests and volunteers. One such volunteer is Lois Tucker, who for the past 16 years has been leading a Catholic group which provides outreach to the women incarcerated at the Charlotte County Jail. At 91, she finds Christ in those she tries to assist, while helping them find Christ in themselves.

This is at the heart of what it is to volunteer and provide spiritual comfort to those who are facing difficulties. Tucker, a member of San Pedro Parish in North Port, is one of many people who visit local jails or prisons as a volunteer in the Diocese, but there is always a need for more volunteers.

“I love it,” Tucker said of going to the jail each week. “I center on forgiveness and how the Lord can forgive them for whatever they have done. I use the example of the good thief — the one at Jesus’ Crucifixion — when He says: ‘Today you will be with me in my kingdom.’ You give them hope.”

Joe Dileo, a parishioner of St. Agnes in Naples, volunteers at the Collier County Jail and noted that because of the transitional nature of a jail he never knows who he will see. The jail can hold people for a maximum of one year, but some awaiting trial can be held much longer.

“I go on faith as a service to Christ,” Dileo said. “I see greatness in those I encounter. I don’t look through rose-colored glasses, but I treat everyone as who they are, created by God. I drive home how the Lord works through them and how God created them to do something and be His servant.”

At the Collier County Jail, Dileo said references are “all word of mouth. Each encounter is an opportunity to spread the good news and hope that the Lord offers. The emphasis is that God loves them. Love is important because the highest and best form of love is eternal salvation.”

Dileo prays the Liturgy of the Hours during his sessions and tells those gathered that it is better to pray the Scriptures, and it is best to live them.

Tucker said that when she visits the Charlotte County Jail she goes through the missal recounting the Sunday readings, but she puts a particular emphasis on the Lord’s Prayer. She explains the deeper meaning of each word and passage in something many have never prayed over or even thought much about. Before she leaves, she warns them that they should not give way to temptation. “When temptation comes knocking at the door, let Jesus answer.”

There are many ways to volunteer with Prison Outreach within the Diocese of Venice and all those interested are given the complete information needed to succeed. To that end, there is a lengthy training process as new volunteers are paired with experienced volunteers. Each prison or jail requires different background checks, orientations and have their own policies and procedures. n

For those interested in sharing God’s love and mercy with those incarcerated throughout the Diocese of Venice, contact Robert Hiniker: 863-558-0407,
hinbob5@hotmail.com; or Deacon Sam Puleo: 716-316-1061, sgp@ThePuleoFamily.com.