Dismas Ministry Blog

By Tyler Curtis

Dismas Ministry Board Member Fr. Richard Deshaies, SJ

Dismas Ministry Board Member Fr. Richard Deshaies, SJ

Fr. Rich Deshaies is a Catholic chaplain to the imprisoned in the greater Boston area. While he is engaged in other important ministries of the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus, of which he is a member, he is a strong advocate for the spiritual needs of men and women behind bars. He currently serves as a contract Catholic chaplain with the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office at the Middlesex Jail and House of Correction in Billerica, Massachusetts.

Dismas Ministry Executive Director Tyler Curtis talked recently with Fr. Rich about his ministry to prisoners.

TC: What have you learned from your work with prisoners?

RD: There are common misconceptions about the incarcerated. They are very much like those in free society. They share the common concerns about work, career, and raising children. They come from every conceivable background. Most are U.S. citizens, but a growing number are migrants from other countries.

TC: What are some of the challenges you face in this ministry?

RD: This is definitely a type of mission work. As an institution, our Church has struggled in her outreach to Catholics behind bars. With ever-decreasing numbers of priests and deacons, there is a need for more involvement from parish laity and more support at the diocesan level. The lack of material and human resources, and an increasing unfamiliarity with our faith tradition have created barriers. The challenge is often not with inmates, but with prison and jail administrations, correctional officers, and society.

TC: What do you want others to know about the struggles of the imprisoned?

RD: The men are extremely grateful and say, “Thank you, Lord, for sending Fr. Rich.” They are especially grateful to not be forgotten. They want religious services and faith-based materials. I am a pastor to them and offer other guidance, too. Sometimes they need help explaining themselves in court. I often say, “What about telling the truth, and being a person of integrity throughout the adjudication of your case?” However, the truth is not always completely clear when dealing with mental illness or extenuating circumstances. Also, they might not always grasp the impact of their actions on others, and sometimes have difficulty admitting their crimes. When they realize they have done something abhorrent, there is self-loathing and despair. But the truth is not solely about about what we do; it’s about the love of God. And God forgives. And they want us to pray for them, especially when they go to court. I tell them, “God has a purpose for you and still values your life.” God does not spurn the lowly; He honors the lowly and hears the cry of their prayer. In this ministry, I am helping people return to a normative community after they have committed a reprehensible crime, often against themselves, as in the case of drugs. They want to be forgiven by society but don’t know how to pursue this. To be forgiven enables reparation of their misdeeds and sets them solidly on the journey of moral and spiritual rehabilitation.

TC: What can we do to help support our brothers and sisters behind bars?

RD: Through financial donations, which helps us get faith-based materials into the hands of those who need it. Pray for these men and women and their families. Also, pray for correctional staff and for criminal justice reform. Provide help to those reentering society. And invite others in the Church to engage in this “forgotten” work of mercy. We need to elevate prison ministry as a special missionary endeavor of our Church.

 

A Jesuit priest, Fr. Richard Deshaies, SJ, is a Dismas Ministry board member based in Boston, MA. Born and raised in Connecticut, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1982. Fr. Rich has served in a variety of ministries in the United States and Jamaica throughout his priesthood. A dedicated chaplain to the incarcerated of greater Boston for 10 years, he helped develop a national forum for Catholics in criminal justice and prison ministries – the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition (CPMC). Fr. Rich is also a member of the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the ACCA (American Correctional Chaplains Association).

This article was printed in our 2021 Fall Newsletter, Remember Me. 

The Board of Directors of Dismas Ministry, Inc. is pleased to announce the recipient of the 2022 St. Dismas Award. Paul Caruso will be presented with the award in spring 2022 at a special event in suburban Atlanta, GA.

Caruso has served the incarcerated and indigent for over 32 years, and currently is the leader of the St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries in Georgia, which he founded in 1999. Caruso has said that inmates, though often “treated like lepers,” are in fact “children of God,” and that “conversion of hearts” is his main mission.

Visiting both men’s and women’s prisons, Caruso and his team of 20 volunteers conduct weekly communion services, catechism classes, and faith discussions, as well as RCIA with an attending deacon. He and his team also visit inmates in solitary confinement and have witnessed many conversions even there. Caruso has been present at over 150 baptisms and confirmations during his time in prison ministry.

In the recommendation from the award committee, Board Member Joshua Stancil stated: “The committee was particularly struck by Paul’s response to a life-threatening battle with COVID earlier this year. At 78 years of age, Paul was quite vulnerable to the virus, and spent nearly two months on a ventilator, in a coma. He has since recovered, and recently met with the Archdiocese of Atlanta to assume responsibility for three more prisons.”

Throughout more than three decades in prison ministry, Caruso estimates he has served nearly 40,000 people.

“In all my life, I have never seen a humble ‘servant of God’ like Paul, who serves as effectively as he does. He has taught me so much about my faith, and how to serve others. All on his volunteer team feel deeply about Paul and his ministry that he performs humbly and selflessly,” said Kevin Reidy, a prison minister who nominated Caruso for the award.

Past Awards

The St. Dismas Award is given annually, by Dismas Ministry, to persons in recognition of their outstanding service to the incarcerated. The first annual St. Dismas Award was given posthumously in honor of Rev. Christian Reuter, OFM, in 2019. In March 2020, the second annual St. Dismas Award was to be presented to Bill Gaertner. Due to the pandemic, the event was postponed. On September 30, 2021, Bill Gaertner was presented with the 2020 St. Dismas Award. The Board of Directors suspended the program in 2021.

Summer Hicks at work behind the scenes.

Summer Hicks joined the Dismas Ministry team in June 2021. As a part-time Mission Associate, Summer manages all incoming requests for materials from prisoners, chaplains and prison ministry volunteers. She maintains the inmate database, and oversees the packaging and mailing of parcels on a weekly basis.

We invite you to learn more about Summer, and her position as a Mission Associate, from her point of view: 

Mission Associate Summer Hicks

“My name is Summer Hicks, and I am new to the Dismas Ministry team. As Mission Associate, I work part-time managing the inmate and bulk mail service areas. I am a senior at Messmer High School in Milwaukee. I have been attending Messmer High School since my freshman year and have been involved in many extracurricular activities since then. I participated in community service my freshman year of high school. I would stay after school on some Tuesdays and Thursdays to visit St. Ben’s Community Meal Program, which is an organization that provides food to not just the homeless, but for people who are in need as well as people that just want to stop by, sit down and have a free meal. I also participated in band my freshman year, playing the clarinet. Sophomore year, I also decided to take on volleyball and have been perfecting my skills ever since. After high school, I plan to attend college going into Nursing, Criminal Justice, or Early Childhood Education.

Working for Dismas Ministry has taught me a lot. I have learned to balance my workload by doing certain tasks on different days of the week. For example, on Thursdays I prepare packages of the tests that inmates take as participants in our study courses. These get bundled and sent to local parishes for grading, then the volunteers share feedback and notes of encouragement that are sent back to the prisoners (along with their certificates of completion). This is in addition to my normal daily tasks, which include opening the mail from inmates, figuring out what they are asking for and/or need, entering the information into our database, and preparing their packages to be mailed. I have only been working for Dismas Ministry for a short time, but I can definitely say I am pleased to be a part of this amazing organization.”

Summer Hicks packages materials that are sent to prisoners.

Thanks to Summer for her hard work and devotion to Dismas Ministry and our brothers and sisters behind bars. There are several people – staff and volunteers – who work behind-the-scenes to keep the mission moving forward, and we are blessed to have Summer Hicks as part of our team!

 

This summer, we enjoyed working with Communications Intern Yolotzin (Yolo) Mendez Benitez, a student at Cardinal Stritch University. Yolo recently completed a six-week internship with Dismas Ministry and was a tremendous asset to our team. This is just one example of our collaborative relationship with students, staff and faculty of the University as we continue to build our presence on campus. (Dismas Ministry moved its home offices to the Cardinal Stritch University Campus in 2019.)

We invite you to learn more about Yolo, and her internship experience, from her point of view: 

“I’m a Senior at Cardinal Stritch, majoring in Political Science and Spanish Translation and Interpretation. When I first chose my Political Science Major, I wanted to be able to have a better understanding of the legal system without bias as I worked at a Youth Shelter and it made me feel like the legal system was broken and it needed fixing. As of right now, I am undecided as to what I want with my future and I’m exploring my options. I do want to do more work that analyzes policies and the legal system. From the translations I have done for “the forgotten work of mercy” my feelings on how the justice system is broken have been reinforced. It seems like it is built to put those at a disadvantage at a bigger disadvantage, letting those with higher resources loose.

Working at Dismas Ministry has been a unique experience for me. It has shown me that regardless of anyone’s past, Dismas is willing to offer Catholic support for those who are looking for it. It has helped me grow as a person by allowing me to care about others without judgment. On a professional level, I feel like I have gained more confidence in how to conduct my own research and be more confident in my work as my mentors at Dismas offered great support and feedback. They also pushed me to “think outside the box” and encouraged me to follow through with my ideas.

Yolo Mendez Benitez, Cardinal Stritch University Student

I would encourage other Stritch students to consider working with Dismas. It is a great opportunity because they are flexible with your schedule, and they are located at Stritch which makes it even easier to squeeze in extra hours, if needed, without having to leave campus.”

Thanks to Yolo for sharing her talents with Dismas Ministry, and supporting those we serve – women and men behind bars. And, we send our best wishes to Yolo as she begins her final year at the University and embarks on a new chapter after graduation. 

By Tyler Curtis

It was September 13, 2015.

Curt Gibson, Dismas Ministry Board Member

For most people, it might have been an ordinary Sunday in late summer. But, for Curtis Gibson, it was the beginning of his next chapter. It was the day he walked out of a minimum security prison in Oregon.

“I had a rough experience,” said Curt. During his four-and-a-half years behind bars, he went through a painful divorce and annulment of his marriage. Curt also lost both parents while he was incarcerated.

His mother’s passing was swift and unexpected. She contracted a virus and died just three days later. Curt’s father was losing his battle with
bladder cancer, and his remaining days were spent in hospice. A prison minister named Ariel Fauley had been visiting Curt throughout all of these
trials and helped him obtain the permission he needed to see his father one last time.

Shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, Curt was escorted to the hospice care facility to say his last goodbye. While waiting in an adjacent room to his father’s, he could hear the voices of his children on the other side of the wall. He was not permitted to see or interact with them. The room was cleared of all visitors, and it was only then that Curt was allowed to enter. He had just 20 minutes with his dad before being transported back to his prison cell to grieve in isolation.

“Prison wrecked my family and the people I loved,” said Curt. “But, I needed to go to prison. I was the ‘winner’ in this scenario. I was miserable, but it gave me time to pause and reflect on who I was and who I needed to be.”

While Curt was incarcerated, his three children experienced some turbulent times. His daughters moved out of their mother’s home. Curt’s son became addicted to heroin but is now, thankfully, seven years clean. “You don’t realize how far removed you are in prison,” he said. And, the pain of so much discord and loss is a heavy load to bear.

“Ariel was a friend to me. She was a rock. Ariel led me through Bible study and prayed with me. She listened and talked through things with me. I don’t know what I would have done without her,” said Curt. Ariel Fauley passed away in March 2021 after a long battle with breast cancer, and the loss of this friendship has had a profound impact on Curt.

Now that he has been out of prison for more than five years, he is eligible to go back as a prison ministry volunteer. He must meet certain requirements in order to be granted permission to volunteer, but Curt is determined to carry on Ariel’s good work ‘inside.’

“Ariel built up a pretty good ministry. I know firsthand the impact she made on me and others. I want to be able to pick up where she left off,” said Curt. “With her help and guidance, I was set on a new, positive path for myself and my family. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of her.”

For more than a year now, visits to prisons and jails have been banned due to the pandemic. This means that prisoners are even more isolated and forced to go without certain programs, services, and visits from loved ones.

Some prisoners have been very sick, and some have died as a result of the virus. “No visitors are allowed. Often, it takes a long time to get mail. Church services are suspended. All the things that kept me sane when I was in prison are gone,” he added.  According to Curt, there is no GED preparation, no Bible study or other classes. He believes it’s a rough situation for inmates right now.

“To say that ‘the punishment fits the crime’ is not fair,” he added. Those who are imprisoned have been denied opportunities to better themselves and have gone without ways to cope with the increased tensions and fears caused by the pandemic. Curt’s friends on the ‘inside’ report a lot of fights, guys sent to ‘the hole,’ and increased hostilities. This is in addition to dealing with the loss of fellow inmates who died from COVID-19.

Curt believes the resources provided by Dismas Ministry are so vital for prisoners right now. Receiving materials through the mail provides prisoners with something to read that stimulates them and leads them in a positive direction. “It’s all they have: a letter from a loved one, study material, a Bible,” he said. “What Dismas Ministry is doing is filling the void, and these faith materials mean so much to people.”

In reflecting on life after prison, Curt said: “I’ve been very blessed with my children, my career, my faith, and even some of the bad things I experienced. It took me a long time to get my life back on track, but I had a place to live, family support, and a friend who gave me a job.”

He added: “There are a lot of remorseful people in prison and they want help. They are the most willing to learn, and the most willing to change.”

Dismas Ministry Board
Curt Gibson bottom row, left side.

Curtis Gibson is a Dismas Ministry board member and a native of Oregon. He is often invited to share his story of incarceration, and re-entry experience through speaking engagements. Curt is the Controller and Fund Manager of Riggins Investments LLC, based in Clackamas, Oregon. When not working or volunteering, Curt enjoys spending time with his three adult children. And, he anticipates the opportunity to “pay it forward” by ministering to those behind bars.