My wife Susan finishes her hair and straightens her collar. It’s early Sunday morning. Time for us to head for the church, St. Mary Mother of Mercy Catholic Church of Macclenny, Florida. We moved from Rome, Italy, to this parish in this town in the summer of 1998. This Church is barely three miles south of the Georgia border and just 15 miles north of Florida’s death house in Raiford, Florida.
Morning mist hugs the stucco white walls of St. Mary’s, embracing the sanctuary with a transcendent shadow against the sunrise. In the three-story stain glass window behind the altar: Mary is welcoming us with open arms while the serpent is securely underfoot. As mist and sunbeams dance around the church, the colored-glass image of Mary the protective Mother seems alive, pulsing from brilliance to darkness and back to radiance.
Susan and I kneel in prayer in the front row of the church, facing a life-size depiction of Jesus baring His Sacred Heart, His pierced and bleeding Sacred Heart which is wrapped in thorns. Then, I climb the steps of the sanctuary to the tabernacle and fill my prison pyx with consecrated hosts. The pyx is now in my shirt pocket as we conclude our prayers of preparation, lock the church, and head to our car.
At that very moment, mothers throughout the five counties of our rural parish are calling their children to Sunday breakfast and reminding them to dress in their Church clothes. Susan and I are praying for the women who are dressing in their jail cells just five minutes away, the mothers who are donning makeup and brushing their hair in the cells at the local county jail.
Susan and I never asked to do an early morning Communion service for the women at the Baker County Jail. It all started because a young woman from up north, a transplanted “Yankee” as some folks here in the South would call her, found herself doing federal prison time in the rural south, a thousand miles from home. That is not unusual. Many small counties of the rural south contract with the federal prison system to hold prisoners for them until beds open in federal prisons. For the federal government, it is cheaper to pay the daily charges to the local sheriffs than it is to build more federal prisons. But inmates can end up half-a-country away from their families.
God bless the ministers at our local jail. The poor fellows had not banked on the tenacity of the Yankee Cradle-Catholic who demanded worship services in her own faith. She knew that was her legal right under the Florida and U.S. Constitutions. She told us that for six months she had written letters through the jail chaplains to our local church and to our Bishop in St. Augustine. That seemed mysterious to me because no one had ever received those letters.
Finally, she met a Southern Baptist Pastor from Macclenny who knew us personally. He called me and gave us her name, saying, “Brother Dale, that girl wants a Cath-o-lic service and nothin’ else ‘ll do her.”
I meet the chaplain for the jail by telephone. He apologizes that all the slots for Sunday worship service are already committed to other groups. He wants to be helpful but says we will need to be flexible. That’s how Susan and I come to be at the women’s unit of the Baker County Jail at sunrise on this ordinary Sunday.
The only space available for our Catholic worship service at the local jail this morning is standing room only in the booking room — the small narrow space where suspects are fingerprinted when first arrested and delivered to the jail. I unroll clean bathroom tissue across the surface of the green table that is sporadically smeared with fingerprint ink. I know the ink is not yet completely dry because I now have dark ink stains on the cuffs of my shirt and the sleeves of my suit jacket.
We stack the Missalettes on the tissue-shrouded table just in time for Susan and me to greet the five ladies as they file in. Hair primped. Makeup perfect. Jail inmate uniforms as clean as they can get them. This is their Sunday church. Only one thing is missing. Their children.
At the end of our Communion service, we join hands in prayer. It’s not really a prayer circle as we are stretched in a zigzag line between the wall and the fingerprint table. No matter. The women offer their deepest heartfelt needs. The prayers are for their children.
One has three children being raised by her elderly mother in the rural Midwest. If only she could look after them, know what they are doing, who they are with. She prays they won’t fall into the ways that brought her to prison.
Another has two children being raised by an aunt in Florida. Her three-year old daughter is sick. The family has decided not to tell the girl that her mom is in prison. She holds Susan’s hand as they pray for Jesus to protect the little girl’s heart from spirits of fear and abandonment.
A third woman has children living with a family member in a large urban inner city. She cannot even vocalize her prayer. All that will come out is tears and sobs.
The jail guard knocks on the door. It’s time for us to go.
The inmates file out to return to their dorm wing. We collect the Missalettes and dispose of the tissue paper. Then we are searched again and escorted by the jail guards to the door to the parking lot.
Susan and I sit quietly in the jail parking lot for a minute before returning to St. Mary’s Mother of Mercy. It is only a few minutes’ drive through downtown Macclenny. The church building is as quiet as earlier in the day, but now the sun is directly overhead.
Years ago, Susan had ministered to women in state prison on Mother’s Day. But today is not Mother’s Day.
“I thought the pain of separation from their children was especially bad on that day,” she sighs deeply. “I did not realize that for a mother in prison, that pain is there every single day. Every day is Mother’s Day.”
That profound experience for Susan and me was more than 20 years ago. Little did we know that we were catching the start of a massive change in our U.S. criminal justice system.
Between 1980 and 2021, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 525%, rising from a total of 26,326 in 1980 to 168,449 in 2021.1
Our U.S. Catholic Bishops raised the alarm on this trend as early as the year 2000.
This rate of increase is higher than the rate of increase for men. Seventy percent of female inmates are non-violent offenders, and an equal number have left children behind, often in foster care, as they enter prison.2
Women incarcerated in the U.S. are disproportionately in jails rather than prisons. Even a short jail stay can be devastating, especially when it separates a mother from children who depend on her.3
Women in Prison — 7th Letter in the Pastoral Series by the Catholic Bishops of the South (U.S.A.) makes several recommendations to improve the plight of incarcerated women in the prisons and jails of the Southern States:4
— Overwhelming numbers of women in prison belong in treatment, rather than in prison.
— Greater advocacy for using probation rather than incarceration.
— Educational opportunities are desperately needed.
— Vocational training must be greatly expanded.
The U.S. criminal justice system is still a far cry from meeting those specific proposals of our U.S. Bishops. Nor have we incorporated into our justice system the spirit of the general guidance provided by St. John Paul ii more than three decades ago.
“When it comes to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination, the Gospel contains an ever relevant message which goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself. Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance, and tenderness. In this way he honoured the dignity which women have always possessed according to God’s plan and in God’s love. As we look to Christ at the end of this Second Millennium, it is natural to ask ourselves: how much of his message has been heard and acted upon?”5
We might rephrase that question for our time by saying: as we look to Christ at the beginning of this Third Millennium, how much of his message has been heard and acted upon?
The words of a Federal District Court Judge who passed away in 2017, may provide an answer to the question:
One result which is especially cruel and will have a terrible impact on American life for many generations is the large increase in the number of women incarcerated for drug violations. [...] Many are the mothers of small children who will be left without maternal care, and most probably without any parental care at all… The engine of punitive punishment of mothers will haunt this nation for many years to come. 6
1 The Sentencing Project, “Incarcerated Women and Girls,” March 2023.
2 Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice: A Statement of the Catholic Bishops of the United States (Washington, DC: usccb, 2000).
3 Prison Policy Initiative, “Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2022,” February 27, 2023.
4 When We Visit Jesus in Prison: A Guide for Catholic Ministry (Chicago: acta Publications, 2016), 384-5.
5 Letter to Women (June 29, 1995).
6 Prison Policy Initiative.
By Dale S. Recinella