Our faith calls us to help the poor, the immigrant, the stranger, those who hunger and thirst, and the prisoner. As it relates to the latter, it is a delicate balance when considering societal ills, an imperfect criminal justice system, as well as the impact on victims, their families, and the community at large. However, as Catholics, we affirm that human dignity still applies to prisoners. While this may be difficult, as St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassionately on this world.” For over twenty years, the Prison Pen Pal Ministry has been doing such work, building connections and relationships with people sentenced to death at North Carolina’s Central Prison.
The ministry leadership has four areas, with Ellen Zaytoun handling organization and coordination with the Office of Justice and Peace; Lucy Dioguardi managing meetings and presentations; Vicky Jack managing the pen pal coordination inquiries and making matches, while Vince Kavanagh manages communication and outreach. Stephanie Bouis also supports them from The Center For Death Penalty Litigation. Currently, over 60 pen pals of the 137 inmates on Death Row are involved, so the need is great. While the St. Francis Pen Pal ministry has a long and productive history, except for the herculean efforts of Jill Balogh in the early years, handling all the leadership duties by herself, it may have yet to achieve its current success. She is still part of the ministry, writing to her pen pal Jason for many years and sharing her experiences at the quarterly meetings.
Prison Pen Pal Ministry is unique and gratifying because it is a 1:1 relationship between people of diverse backgrounds that grows over time. As Vince says, “It can be emotional, gratifying, illuminating, frustrating, enriching; as in any relationship, you will go through ups and downs, life moments and perhaps disagreements and even arguments. The important thing is to be patient, open, consistent, willing to share, and, most of all, curious.” He continues, “It is important to consider that many of the guys have been in prison longer than they have been outside, and, like all of us, they change. They want to convey to the outside that they are not the same men as when they went in.”
While there are numerous stories of how inspirational and faith-fulfilling this ministry can be, we offer one example from Maureen Copan. Maureen has been writing to her current pen pal for over five years and feels, in her words, “truly blessed to be a part of this ministry.” Her pen pal has been in prison for over 27 years, and she says, “In the many years he has spent in prison, he has undergone a significant transformation. He has become more spiritual and tries to be available for guys on the row who others don’t always want to bother with; he genuinely cares about them.”
Since Maureen started writing, her pen pal has involved himself as a member and then chairman of the Toastmasters Club, has organized countless tournaments for the death row population, attended speech, debate, creative writing, and expressions classes, and participated in many groups, including his favorite, the Restorative Justice group. He spends all of his time trying to improve himself, including furthering his education since he has been in prison since he was 19. “For at least three years now, Maureen says, “He has been trying to find a way to earn a GED or high school diploma. The prison offers classes for inmates not on death row to earn a GED, but he would have to pay for his classes, and they would have to be correspondence classes since he has no access to the internet.” However, all of the courses Maureen helped him find were online, which was very disappointing for her because he was trying so hard.
He never gave up. On June 22, her pen pal informed her that he sent a letter to Governor Cooper telling him of his desire to earn his high school diploma and all he had done to try and make it happen. To his great surprise, the governor acted on his letter. At the end of August, he received a call to a meeting at Central Prison, and there, waiting for him, was a representative from the governor’s office, the woman who oversees educational programs at Central Prison, and four people from Wake Tech. “They told him that the governor’s representative contacted Wake Tech, and he now has the opportunity to take high school equivalency courses,” said Maureen happily. “All of this,” says Maureen, “was a bit of a shock, and all he could do was smile and nod his head. The governor’s representative said she could see the joy in his eyes.” You realize just how wonderful a person he is and how much he cares for the guys who live with him when you hear that as he found out about this new opportunity, he said, “The even better news is that it’s not just for me, but all the others here as well.” Despite his efforts seeming fruitless initially, he never complained or gave up trying. Maureen says, “His mantra is prayer and persistence!”
The leadership team continues to work within St. Francis to build the pen pal ministry, supporting the group via quarterly or individual meetings when needed. “We always tell people that it is a writing ministry,” says Vince, “but as the relationship grows, it can surprise people, and they want more. When I started, I said, ‘I’m writing, and that’s all I’m gonna do.’ Now, I visit four or more times per year, and those 2-hour visits are some of the most in-depth faith sharing I’ve had with almost anybody.” “(My pen pal) got me into studying scripture more and was impactful in the discernment of my charism using the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” While everyone in this ministry is, or was, a Catholic from St. Francis, not everyone in prison is Catholic or Christian. This fact does not inhibit them from expressing with their pen pal some level of spirituality. A critical sidebar is that, even as some pen pals have left St. Francis or the Raleigh area, they continue to nurture the relationships with their pen pals by writing or visiting.
What do the men in prison want from their pen pals? “A connection to the outside, someone to talk to, someone to listen, someone to share with,” says Vince, “and if they can make a contribution or have influence, or ‘be known or recognized’ on the outside, this enhances their self-esteem, makes them feel human, and makes them feel like they are a part of something. They have incredible talents and skills they love to share, and it is so interesting, as a pen pal, to learn about them.” For more information about the Prison Pen Pal ministry, please find the group in Realm or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Mike Watson