By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published May 29, 2014
ALTO—Glinting razor wire tops the fence that separates the women serving time at Lee Arrendale State Prison from the rest of the world.
Located in a rural Habersham County landscape of cow pastures, cemeteries and country churches, the prison is for adult and juvenile female felons.
Each week, Paul Caruso of St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Alpharetta, makes the long drive from Atlanta to the prison.
Joining Caruso are volunteers from several parishes, along with Deacon Bernie Casey and retired priests Msgr. Bill Hoffman of Roswell and Father Thad Rudd of Cleveland.
For many of the prisoners attending the Tuesday evening service, this encounter with the Catholic Church is their only contact with the outside world.
Caruso said that after the five-year mark of incarceration, 85 percent of inmates have no visitors or contact from friends or family.
“Out of sight … out of mind,” he said. “It breaks your heart.”
Caruso has been involved in prison ministry for nearly 29 years in county jails and maximum and medium security prisons. He formed the nonprofit St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries in 1999, driving 800 to 1,000 miles a week to reach the various jails and prisons.
Allotted the time of 6-8 p.m. on Tuesdays, the St. Joseph Cafasso volunteers might hold RCIA classes or lead a communal rosary at Lee Arrendale. Either a Mass is celebrated or a Communion service is held. When not at Hays State Prison for men or working elsewhere, the priests come on Tuesdays and hear confessions.
In addition to the religious program, volunteers provide cards or candy at Christmastime or for other occasions when permitted.
Caruso said 42 inmates are on the Catholic roster, but about 30 women regularly attend services. One of three state prisons for women, Lee Arrendale can hold more than 1,475 inmates as the prison population fluctuates.
Once held in the non-air conditioned chapel, the Catholic ministry now takes place in a concrete-block classroom at the visitor’s center.
On May 6, Deacon Casey baptized three inmates and Msgr. Hoffman confirmed five.
As Caruso welcomed all of the women before Mass he reminded them of who they are. “You are a child of God,” he said. “Don’t ever forget that.”
Inmates Beverly Barber, Felicia Greenway and Carla Hopwood were celebrating the sacrament of baptism.
“You are coming into a very special community,” Father Rudd told the three. “The Catholic Church welcomes you with great joy.”
Father Rudd questioned them asking, “Why have you come to this Church this night?” They each answered, “to be baptized.” Father Rudd marked each woman’s forehead with the sign of the cross as birds chirped outside the classroom windows.
The women gathered around a stainless steel bowl serving as the baptismal font to wait their turn to be baptized.
Inmates Melissa Deal and Alma Mitchell were confirmed later in the evening along with the newly baptized.
Msgr. Hoffman anointed the new Catholics with chrism as they took the confirmation names of Teresa, Kateri, Bernadette, Martha and Catherine.
Barber, with the encouragement of Father Rudd, announced that her grown children and their spouses had enrolled in RCIA classes.
Each of the five women received a “token of love,” a devotional book called “A Monastic Year,” wrapped in white paper by volunteer Catherine Boys.
A seven-year volunteer, Boys is a convert and parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.
One evening, Boys was looking at holy cards and St. Josephine Bakhita’s caught her eye. St. Josephine is the patron saint for the enslaved. When she was asked to fill in as a prison volunteer, Boys realized what she was supposed to be doing in life.
What could be more enslaved than being addicted and in jail, she asked.
Boys, who has no children of her own, looks at the inmates in a motherly way.
“Nobody in their lives showed up,” she said about why people end up in jail.
Boys wept as the inmates were baptized and confirmed.
Other volunteers attending the Mass were Dolly Fairclough of St. Thomas Aquinas, Marge Pizzolato of St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, and Ginny Smith of St. Michael the Archangel in Woodstock.
Pizzolato was invited to come a few months ago by Msgr. Hoffman, who is “Father Bill” to her and her neighbor in St. George Village retirement community.
“I wanted to do some payback,” she said of her volunteering. The work isn’t exactly what she expected. “It’s all a surprise,” said Pizzolato.
Smith agreed that serving inmates is a more joyful experience than anticipated.
“I was so elated walking out,” she said, recalling her first visit.
The prison is within the boundaries of St. Mark Church in Clarkesville, and three parishioners recently applied to volunteer for the ministry, Caruso said.
The prison’s clinical chaplain, Susan Bishop, also attended the Mass and remarked that the inmates who attend the Catholic programs have a good spirit about them.
Sonya Bamberg, who agreed to be interviewed, is serving a life sentence plus 30 years for murder.
Bamberg grew up in an area of western New York that was largely Italian and her former husband was Catholic. She tried to attend other church services but found them lacking. “They weren’t as worshipful,” she said.
Often times, the services were loud and jumpy and very social.
“I was looking for religious,” she said.
Father Rudd gave her the sacrament of confirmation in April 2013.
Calling prison life discordant and noisy, Bamberg finds serenity through Mass.
“There’s very little peace and quiet here,” she said.
Being Catholic also helps throughout the week, she said.
“The Catholic community here … it’s strengthening,” said Bamberg.
You might see another inmate you know from Mass and say, “Peace be with you” or “I’ll see you Tuesday,” she explained.
During the week, Bamberg prays the rosary, reads the Bible and other literature that Caruso brings.
“They’re marvelous. We can depend on them,” said Bamberg about the St. Joseph Cafasso volunteers.
The ministry gives each inmate a book bundle that includes a Catholic Bible, the Catechism, a rosary, scapular and book of prayers, and a current Catholic periodical.
Bamberg, who has a degree in sociology from Furman University, in Greenville, S.C., said many of the inmates are incarcerated due to drugs and mental health issues.
“So many of the women in here have been betrayed,” she noted.
She smiled when explaining that Caruso gives the same speech every week.
The crux of his weekly message is that all of the women are welcome and that the volunteers are glad to have them attend Mass. However, Caruso offers a caveat for those set for parole—that he hopes never to see them back behind bars, and that if they are released and hang out with “thieves and druggies,” then they will lose out.
The weekly Mass and relationships with volunteers offer an important structure for the inmates.
“We can be human again,” said Bamberg. “Even though we are wearing brown.”
For Bamberg, “being away from family … being separated” is the hardest part of serving time.
Bamberg has two living sons, Damon and Mark. Damon is also serving a life sentence plus 30 years. They were convicted in the shooting death of Damon’s former wife.
Mark, the younger of the two, visits and corresponds with his mother.
Participating in church also allows time for fellowship and prayer time for loved ones, friends, officers and fellow prisoners.
“We discuss our families. We pray for everybody,” said Bamberg.
Through an Emory University program, Bamberg has earned a certificate in theology behind the prison walls. She said her biggest fear is that “we’ll never clear our names.”
Amy Walden, mother of three, has been at Lee Arrendale for three years.
“I’m a lifer,” she said.
Walden’s parents visit her, as does her oldest child, Heather.
“I was raised in the Catholic Church,” said Walden, age 37.
Having already received the sacraments of initiation, Walden rediscovered her faith in prison.
“This keeps me sane,” she said. When Walden misses Mass, it throws her off. She reads the Bible, attends a Bible study and prays a lot.
“I do a lot of novenas,” she said.
Once a quarter, the Catholic inmates and friends coming because of interest in the church, draw a saint’s name and compare the saint’s life to their own.
Walden said she most identifies with St. Jude, patron of lost and desperate causes.
Convicted of the murder of her husband, Walden briefly discussed her sentence and spiritual growth.
“I’ll just say I don’t want to be here,” she said. “I’ve grown a lot closer to God.”
Before the jail sentence, Walden took college courses in mechanical engineering. Now, she is a teacher’s aide for GED classes for inmates in math and science.
Walden explained that many prisoners forget what’s outside for them and called that sad. “It’s a community within itself,” she said.
For Walden, the prison ministry brings her God’s peace.
“The volunteers bring love. It’s really hard to feel accepted and loved,” she said.
Caruso shared a miraculous story relating to his teaching the women prisoners the devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots. The devotion is hundreds of years old but recently became more prominent because Pope Francis promoted it.
One of the inmate’s mothers came for an emergency visit from Florida. This prisoner had not seen her mom in seven years, but she had been praying a novena to Mary, Undoer of Knots.
The mother told her daughter, “You were dead to me,” but that out of the blue she was compelled to come and see her. Now, the mother is trying to arrange a transfer for her daughter to a Florida prison so they can be closer.
Deacon Casey of St. Thomas Aquinas Church gave the homily for the confirmation Mass.
He reflected on the Gospel reading of Luke 24 when Cleopas and an unnamed disciple meet the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus but do not recognize him.
“What can we take with us this evening?” asked the deacon. “Each of us is special to him. Are we really recognizing Jesus in ourselves and others?”
In identifying Deacon Bernie Casey as the minister of the sacrament of baptism, this article has been corrected from the print edition of the story.
For more information on St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, Inc., visit www.stjosephcafasso.org. Donations can be made online or mailed to: St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, Inc., 12460 Crabapple Road, Suite 202-213, Alpharetta, GA 30004.