The Criminal Justice Working Group of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet works for reform of the current criminal justice system by advocating for policies that focus on rehabilition instead of retribution.
October is Criminal Justice Month in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minnneapolis and the group has observed it with talks and prayer.
Criminal Justice Month was established as Criminal Justice Week in 2002 in response to the statement by the U. S. Catholic Bishops, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.” It was expanded to a month-long event in 2006.
The theme for this year’s observance is “Seeing Change Through Redemption: Recognizing people who have been harmed, those who have harmed and those who are advocates and supporters.”
Three people with experiences in the criminal justice system share their stories of redemption in these reflections provided by the sisters’ Criminal Justice Working Group:
When I was a little girl about 5 years old, I was running in one of the fields. I heard my name being called gently and playfully, “Ronnie.” I knew that it was someone really special and not any family members who called my name.
Over the years I did not think about this event until after I experienced God’s love. It was then I knew that God was the voice that called my name.
Meanwhile, around 1992, I began using drugs and alcohol as a way to medicate myself. I was given prescriptions and didn’t realize I was abusing them. By 1994, I was ready to go to treatment and I did. Following that, I was sober for about six months when I was in a car accident and was unable to return to work. That’s when the drug use accelerated and my marriage fell apart. I had lost weight, hadn’t been able to sleep for months and was unable to get out of bed. I cried out to God and said to God, “Just take me or let me sleep.” God picked me up off the bed, wrapped me up, and then laid me back down. That’s when I knew God’s love. I was redeemed. I began to change my life. It was not immediate, but it was a process.
I think prison was necessary for me so everything else could go away — my house, my marriage, my finances, my career – all those distractions. I became free to depend totally on God and grew closer to God each day. Today, I have a strong relationship with the God who called my name when I was 5.
Community member: Kevin Stefonek
I remember the question I had of my life at the time I saw the church bulletin asking for volunteers for the Amicus One-to-One program: what can I do to be useful? It took me 5 months to call Amicus, and every day I had some type of reminder to make the call.
My biggest fear came in the questions of: what do I have to offer a person I never cared to know existed before, a prisoner? How do I carry on conversations with someone I have nothing in common with? What I’ve found is that I can’t talk to my friend enough. The hour ends so quickly. Barry teaches me about trust, compassion, unwavering faith in God, and letting go of the small stuff so there’s room to enjoy the good stuff. Yes, he teaches me.
What I get out of this One-To-One relationship with Barry is exactly that, a personal relationship. When you see the person they are and not the person they used to be, and when you don’t define them by their place in society, you see life, love, laughter, and friendship. You’ll know a person who has faith, hope, goals, and desires for a happy future. Someone who is challenged every day to overcome in an environment where being powerless is the norm. You will find so many aspects of your lives in common you’ll wonder why you never made this friendship before.
The most important gift you can give is to show up, be there. It’s what we all want in life. To know someone is there for us, to know we matter, that we’re remembered, to know we’re loved.
Corrections official: John R. King
Shortly after I was promoted to warden at the Stillwater Prison, my wife gave me a bible verse from Isaiah 61:1-2:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.”
I was at a point in my life when it was important to witness to those in prison about the salvation found in Christ Jesus. It became clear to me that I had a responsibility to be a father figure to many who never had a positive male role-model. I was also blessed to be warden at the Lino Lakes Prison, home to the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI). Up to 200 men at any time are involved in this faith-based reentry program. Those who complete IFI have a reduced risk of returning to prison for a new crime by 40 percent.
There have been many opportunities for me to witness to the men confined to prison in Minnesota. Most are open to the words of the Bible that I offer to them. Several would recite their favorite verses to me. Some would send me a letter with their own favorite passages and why it is important for them. The men knew that my favorite Bible verse is Luke 9:62, “He who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for service in the Kingdom of God.” I follow up that verse with a message of redemption — that Christ is present at each of our horizons; all we need to do is focus on him as we plow ahead each day. King is assistant commissioner in the Minnesota Department of Corrections.