Parishioners Find Pen Pals In Prison
Published: January 7, 2010
Carol Rump writes a letter to her inmate pen pal from the desk of her Alpharetta home. Rump has been participating in the inmate pen pal program for a little over a year. (Photo illustration by Michael Alexander)
ALPHARETTA—Some people write letters to their friends and family. Others have pen pals halfway across the globe. But when a prisoner named Buck approached Paul Caruso during a prison ministry visit and said he had never received a letter in over 15 years of being locked up, Caruso knew there was a ministry to be found.
Buck had been in prison for 16 years and never once received a letter, a phone call, or anything from the outside world. Touched by the candid outreach for companionship, Caruso brought the story back to his parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Alpharetta. The story also had an effect on his friends, with a couple volunteering to become Buck’s pen pals after hearing the story.
News spread about the new ministry opportunity throughout his parish, with word also reaching St. Matthew Church, Tyrone, which has a strong prison ministry, said Caruso. Nearly 40 people came to him with an interest in the project.
“And guess what? I had just the same number of men and women to match with pen pals,” said Caruso with a knowing chuckle.
From that encounter grew a ministry that reaches multiple prisons, including Hays State Prison, Trion, and Lee Arrendale State Prison, Alto, and even more inmates. While the program is just a few years old, Caruso is no stranger to prison ministry. A parishioner of St. Thomas Aquinas for 18 years, Caruso is very involved with his local community through the Knights of Columbus, Cursillo and St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, a nonprofit organization founded by Caruso in 2000 after he gave up his part in his Squeaky Clean Internet filtration company to focus on prison ministry.
According to St. Joseph Cafasso’s Web site, there are over 54,000 people in correctional facilities in the state of Georgia, in 40 prisons and 24 Department of Corrections county jails.
“Many are Roman Catholic, members of the Body of Christ. Sentenced by the criminal justice system to pay for their transgressions, these men, these women, and these young people are among the most despised of human beings, living outside the pale of compassion or even acknowledgement from the larger church community. And they are starving for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the sacraments,” the Web site states.
“You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that the percentage of hardened criminals in jails and prisons is very low,” Caruso wrote on his Web site. “In fact, most inmates are just like everyone else. They have family issues and personal problems and they have made mistakes in their lives. Often they are truly repentant.”
Caruso and St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries are “dedicated to providing the sacraments and catechesis to Roman Catholic inmates in maximum- and medium-security state prisons and Georgia county jails.” Nearly 20 inmates have been brought into the Catholic Church as a direct result of St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, and six more women are expected to join the Church early this year.
The inmate pen pal program has aided the goal of Caruso’s ministry as well, by allowing people to share their faith with inmates through the written word. Caruso drew up some guidelines during the first weeks of the new ministry to make sure the program achieved the result he envisioned. The relationship between the volunteer and the inmate is strictly described as “not a material one, romantic one, or any other kind.”
“It’s a spiritual relationship,” said Caruso. “People don’t realize that (prisoners) don’t have contact with the outside world. Out of sight, out of mind.”
The pen pal must agree to keep the communication going as the program is not designed for people to write just one letter or one response. The hope is to build connections and relationships between those on the inside and those outside the prison walls. He believes spiritual development is not that different for people wherever they live.
The guidelines also keep the safety of the volunteer in mind. Before participating in the program, the inmate must agree that it is “always inappropriate to make romantic or other rude comments or overtures” and also must agree that it is “always inappropriate to ask a free world pen pal for money, gifts or anything of significant value.”
Caruso also encourages the inmates to make a serious effort to maintain an active spiritual life and avoid sinful practices by participating in Bible study, attending Mass or church services and praying regularly.
He also provides volunteers with some tips on how to write letters to the inmates. Volunteers send only what they care to share, but he mentions that inmates are usually interested in their families, special interests and hobbies. Volunteers can only include prayer cards, bookmarks or pictures with their letter. They are advised never to send stamps or money.
Carol Rump of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Alpharetta, writes a letter to her inmate pen pal, Dorine Tyson, a woman incarcerated since 2003 at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto. (Photo illustration by Michael Alexander)
Carol Rump, a Stephen Minister and parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas, saw a note about the program in the parish bulletin a little over a year ago. She said she felt called to become involved with this unique ministry.
“I’ve enjoyed corresponding with my girl,” she said. “She is a kind and spiritual person. … I don’t know much about her crime, but she is a person with feelings.”
Rump said the experience has been positive and she has learned a lot from her correspondence. She said she would recommend it to those interested in prison ministry and that many people might be surprised at the people they meet.
“They are people who have made mistakes, some small, some big. But they are still people,” she said.
“I have a lot of sympathy for my girl and I wish her well.”
St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries and the inmate pen pal program are not official ministries of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and rely heavily on the generous donations of volunteers or others willing to help an important ministry right here in the local community.
The inmate pen pal program is one of the components of the prison ministry headed up by Paul Caruso at St. Thomas the Aquinas Church, Alpharetta.
“It’s nothing too sacrificial for us, but it is huge for them,” Caruso said of the pen pal program.
Especially around the Christmas season, reaching out to people in need seems to be almost second nature. But true dedication, as shown by Caruso, continues for the long haul. Driving 800 to 1,000 miles per week throughout North Georgia recruiting new members from parishes and visiting prisons, this ministry is his life.
“Prisoners need to know that God loves them,” Caruso said on his Web site. “They can only know this when we reach inside the razor wire and celebrate Christ with the inmates. Prisoners need something to gentle their souls so they can hear the voice of God.”
“I believe in my heart that every one of them, whether a hardened criminal or a wounded victim, is created in God’s image and deserving of dignity and love,” Caruso said. “Each prisoner represents a family in crisis. We are all connected in some way to the imprisoned and their victims.”
For information visit www.stjosephcafasso.org.