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.
Dismas Ministry Board President Sr. Patricia Weidman, CSA shares a reflection on her chaplaincy experience in an article featured by the National Association of Catholic Chaplains.

By Sr. Patricia Weidman, CSA, BCC

My twenty years with the Federal Bureau of Prisons began with the supervisory chaplain telling me that inmates are people, too. They are humans, whose lives have value. His paradigm inspired me to understand that inmates are more than the offense for which they are convicted and that we share a common humanity.

This was in 1997, before we had access to computers. The inmate chapel clerks used typewriters, and we chaplains searched the chapel library in case the clerks were using the typewriters to prepare sports betting slips. I was among the first Catholic sisters to be hired as chaplains, because of the shortage of priests. We had transferable skills in education, ministry, and pastoral care.

At the federal penitentiary, I was the first woman to work alone behind the grill with inmates. The officers wondered if they could protect me, but after I wrote several incident reports, they realized that I followed the policies and procedures. I learned to set boundaries with inmates and to not cross the line of professionalism. I am their chaplain, not their friend. I provide a respectful presence, while coordinating groups of inmates whose interactions can be manipulative, creative, and challenging. As prison chaplains, we protect our own privacy, while also sharing the human condition of feelings, values, and beliefs.

Chaplains are trained in the major tenets of different faith groups, and we help inmates develop their faith by listening and guiding them in finding meaning in their incarceration. Catholic inmates and others sought my spiritual guidance. During my time in correctional chaplaincy, diversity increased among both staff and the inmate population. Diversity is both enriching and challenging. The bureau recognized and valued the diversity of the staff to correspond with the diversity of the inmate population.

Once, I overheard an inmate spokesperson of a non-Christian faith group correct a fellow inmate for using foul language in chapel. I privately thanked the spokesperson, after which he met with me regularly for spiritual guidance. I was blessed by his trust and openness. Chaplains promote and model respect for religious diversity.

When an inmate is angry, and then I become angry, there is the potential for violence. My growing edge is to de-escalate a volatile situation by honoring his feelings and stress. I seek to find goodness in each one, regardless of the wrong he has done.

Sr. Patricia Weidman

My friend and classmate in religious life was murdered in 1990, which gives me credibility in promoting nonviolence at every opportunity. Inmates have been both the victims of violence and the perpetrators of violence. I feel empathy for their trauma, while also motivating them to be peacemakers. Sometimes an inmate would learn that a family member was murdered, and I would counsel him. Seeking revenge would harm himself and his family, I would say – but he could honor the life of the deceased by seeking the listening ear of a trusted confidant. And if the inmate responded that he trusted no one, I would notify the staff to support that inmate in his sorrow.

Of course, religion can also be misused toward radicalizing and extremism. Chaplains received mandatory and frequent training and were occasionally the instructors, working with inmates to influence their faith group for peace and nonviolence. Training was required of all chaplains to recognize and deter religious extremism.

Reentry programs prepare the participants to return to family and society. Facilitating the reentry programs brought out the best of my transferable skills. Whatever we do to help inmates indirectly helps their children. Some inmates confided in me as they would their mother or grandmother. One day, an inmate saw that I was alone with an unstable inmate, distracted the unstable inmate and walked him out of chapel. We all may one day need the good will of another. I pray for protection.

Correctional chaplaincy provided relationships of privileged conversations with both staff and inmates. It is a challenge to be a skilled listener with persons of all or no faith practices, but these privileged conversations are gratifying and sacred. We all share a humanness within our diversity, regardless of whether we are inside or outside the fence.

Sr. Patricia Weidman, CSA, BCC, was most recently chaplain at Federal Correctional Institution Schuylkill in Pennsylvania.

 

This blog post was reposted with permission from the NACC and originally appeared in Vision, the newsletter of the NACC at 
https://www.nacc.org/vision/may-june-2021/twenty-years-in-correctional-chaplaincy-sharing-humanity-and-setting-boundaries/

As a former college basketball coach, Bill Gaertner had seen his share of contests won and lost on the court. More importantly, he helped young adults strive to reach their full potential as student athletes. Over a career that spanned 15 years, Bill made an impact on the lives of others.

Today, he continues to make an impact by helping ex-offenders rebuild their lives through Gatekeepers – the nonprofit he founded in Hagerstown, MD in 2014. He personally conducts inside-the-walls programs at several facilities and, outside the walls, Gatekeepers meets released inmates at the gate and provides them with immediate and long-term resources.

Re-entry seminars are presently being held at the Washington County Detention Center, the Federal Penitentiary in Cumberland, and state correctional facilities in Hagerstown. Mentors help ex-offenders navigate the critical first few weeks after each one is released. Program participants are then exposed to Gatekeepers Business of Living Program that is a combination of learning and doing to prepare and equip each person for positive growth and success.

Bill knows well the challenges of being “outside” and trying to start anew after spending time in prison. Following a series of events that led to his incarceration at the age of 61, he had hit rock bottom. “During the first five months at a jail facility, I was trying to kill myself,” he explained. But, a letter from his friend, Ed Ionni, changed all that. He had a renewed purpose. “One guy turned my life around. Eddie was the shining light. I thought ‘if I ever get it going, I’m going to do that for other people,’” said Bill. Through rediscovering his Catholic faith, meditation, and encouragement from friends, Bill was determined to help others.

“Jumping back into my faith, I never realized what it meant to perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy – to realize what it means to be Catholic,” he said, adding that it took sitting in the rat-infested, third story of a penitentiary to reflect on his life.
Sitting alone in his cell, Bill focused on a hole in the wall that held his gaze while he meditated. “I can still see it in my mind,” he said. “Prison was an ugly place that had more beauty than I ever imagined. It was there that positive things started to happen for me.”

From an early age, he struggled with alcohol addiction. “I didn’t really know who I was. Now, every day, I wake up and have a purpose. And, I say, ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’ I pray, I think, and I laugh. I’m still in recovery. I’m aware of this every day, but I am doing as much as I can for other people in honor of those I’ve hurt,” said Bill.

The resource club (pictured above) at Gatekeepers typically hosts small groups of 8 to 12 people who meet on a regular basis to talk about job searching and career goals. (This photo courtesy of Gatekeepers.)

Throughout his coaching years, and then partnering with a few IT companies,
Bill made a lot of business contacts. “I didn’t realize there were people with whom I (continued on page 3)
can use my tools,” said Bill, of his life after prison. “I didn’t realize there were so many people in this world working with people on the margins.”

With limited resources at Gatekeepers, Bill shared that they need people helping people. “I work with people coming out of prison and addiction houses. Anyone coming out of prison has mental health issues, because it’s so rampant. Each person feels so alone, which is why we need someone at the gate,” he added. To recover from anything, there is a spiritual component that is necessary for success. And, it takes time, love, and forgiveness.

“We’ve given each of them a platform. I’m so lucky to do this, and the key is to convince each person that it works and ‘you must allow us to coach you.’ As a young coach, I learned this,” said Bill.

No matter what, Bill encourages this approach when seeing or working with ex-offenders: “Don’t judge others whose sins are different than yours.”

In prison, everyone called him ‘coach.’ Formerly on the sidelines, but now at the gate, Bill continues to encourage and help others achieve their goals in life.

Congratulations to Bill Gaertner on being named the 2020 St. Dismas Award recipient. This award will be presented by Deacon Seigfried Presberry, a representative of the Dismas Ministry Board of Directors, on March 26, in Baltimore, MD.

 

If you had a loved one incarcerated during the holidays, how would you “keep hope?”

Keeping Hope is a resource developed by Dismas Ministry.  Ii includes stories of families who have experienced incarceration. They share their wisdom, their struggles, and even their joys. The book contains recommended resources and ideas for dealing with incarceration and is also interactive.  It includes questions for your personal reflection at the end of each chapter.

This book is a culmination of surveys, interviews, personal stories, reflections and resources.

Who should read this book?

Spouses, parents, siblings, or friends of the incarcerated.  Volunteers, pastors, prison ministry program participants, counselors, educators, social service agencies, socially-conscious employers, especially those who employ parolees and anyone concerned about the criminal justice system!

This book is available for purchase now in our store at www.dismasministry.org/shop.

Available in English and Spanish.