By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator

Sleepy teens from St. John the Baptist Church in Brusly boarded a bus around 6:45 a.m. on July 14 for the almost 2-hour drive to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, considered “the end of the road,” both geographically as well as the end of the lives for a majority of the inmates housed there. 

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Confirmation candidates at St. John the Baptist Church in Brusly take a photo before boarding the bus for a confirmation retreat at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Photos by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator

 

 

As the bus ambled along Hwy. 66 some of the youth looked out their windows at the rolling hills of Tunica Trace, topped with various hardwood and pine trees, and appeared to ponder what they would experience at their confirmation retreat at the maximum security prison.

When the bus reached the front gate, the teens looked at the imposing guard towers and razor wire fences around the property and visitors preparing to enter a building to visit their incarcerated loved ones, no doubt stories of broken lives. It seemed it would be a tough visit. 

But many retreatants’ assumption going into the day were flipped upside down as they found warmth, redemption and new life in the midst of the prison’s dark confines. 

The youth’s first stop was Angola’s hospice program, considered the nation’s best-known prison hospice program. 

Inmate hospice volunteers do “the dirty work” in caring for dying prisoners, such as bathing the inmates and changing their diapers, after working their “regular jobs” during the day, said Jay Jackson, Angola chaplain. 

In the hospice chapel, which walls were adorned with quilts made by inmates for the dying, the youth learned about the love, compassion and community present at the hospice. For example, 72 hours before a prisoner’s expected death, a vigil is kept so he does not die alone. 

A funeral procession for inmates buried at Angola’s cemetery include an ornate horse-drawn hearse built by inmates. The teens were moved as they watched a slide show accompanied by music capturing the hospice process through the final burial. 

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Peer ministry inmates challenged retreat attendees to evaluate what is important to them in their lives. 

 

The youth also toured the notorious Red Hat Cell Block, which at one time was the last stop for prisoners who were executed in the electric chair. 

The last stop before the retreat was the death chamber. Jackson discussed challenges to the constitutionality of Louisiana’s lethal injection process, the higher cost of appeals of death sentences versus life in prison and the number of inmates on death row who are found innocent because of DNA evidence. Before leaving, the youth placed their hands on the bed where the inmates were executed and prayed the Our Father. 

Upon arriving at St. Augustine Chapel, which was built in the 1950s, the youth unloaded ice chests filled with sandwiches, water and other goodies and ate lunch with the Catholic inmate peer ministers. Some of the ministers completed the Ministry and Theology program (MAT) and the Loyola Institute for Ministry Extension Program (LIMEX). 

Inmate Frederick Kirkpatrick urged the youth to commit their lives to God. 

“It doesn’t take long for something to happen that will affect the rest of your life,” warned Kirkpatrick. 

He said amidst the difficulties in prison, he felt peace when God called him to peer ministry. He assured the youth their confirmation journey will result in peace. 

“Each one of you will stand before your family and friends and commit yourself to the Catholic faith. That’s the best decision you will ever make,” said Kirkpatrick. 

Inmate Robert Stewart urged the teens to select friends carefully. 

“If you try to be cool and hang out with the wrong crowd, it opens up the door to the wrong things,” said Stewart, who said he identifies with people who come from broken families. 

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Youth listen to stories of redemption at Angola Prison Hospice chapel. 

 

Stewart said when he arrived at Angola prison he didn’t care about himself. After he attended Mass, he felt called to peer ministry. 

“Who got me into it? Jesus. He’s the role model,” said Stewart. 

He acknowledged, “Everyone in here has a challenge. But God will find a way. Do I suffer? Yes, I suffer. But he changes you all the way around. And now you have a choice. Make each day better than the rest.” 

Inmate Gary Boudreaux stressed violence is not the way to solve tensions. 

“You have to release the hate in your heart and fill it with love,” said Boudreaux. 

Through prayer people strengthen their identity in God, according to Boudreaux. 

“What do you stand for?” asked Boudreaux. “For me it’s my church and my church brothers. You are also a church community, where you are able to pray for people and be prayed for.” 

Inmate Emmerson Simmons said when it comes to faith people must be ready to suffer and sacrifice, pointing to Jesus as a man with a ministry to the cross. 

“Know what you believe and why, because you may be called on to defend it,” said Simmons.

After small group discussions led by the peer ministers, some youth cried as each one of them shared with the peer ministers standing before them what they learned from their encounter.

After Mass celebrated by St. John pastor Father Matt Lorrain, the youth toured the new Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel. As they walked toward the chapel entrance they and the peer inmates affectionately waved goodbye to each other, though separated by a razor wire fence. 

The inmates’ messages then went forth to the outside world through the youth. 

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Angola inmate peer ministers led confirmation candidates at St. John the Baptist Church in Brusly in small group discussions.

 

“I think it was most inspiring that these guys who, though they hit rock bottom, were able to strengthen their faith and use it to pull them out of the darkest times of their life,” said Emily Hemba. 

Michael Sanchez said, “One of the most unforgettable things about the Angola trip was they (peer ministers) are living proof of how God changes people. It was inspiring to see how these prisoners were changed to disciples in the Catholic faith.”

Breanna Dupuy said, “I thought it would be like going to see a jail you usually hear about … I actually felt quite comfortable. I know God impacts certain people’s lives, but to see how he changed the inmates’ lives made me realize he can impact everyone.” 

“It made me feel hope that the world can be good,” said Kristyn Alford. “They look after each other like family.” 

Jaselyn Berthelot said, “The (prisoners’) stories showed me I can re-evaluate my life and really think about my decisions. It made me realize how big a step confirmation is going to be. I didn’t expect it to be that big, but it’s one of the most important decisions I will make in my life.” 

Jade Dicapo said, “It’s powerful seeing people bringing Jesus even though they are having hard times.” 

Logan Zimmerman was touched by the stories of redemption that occur at the prison’s hospice and said he saw a new side of prison. 

“It made me more confident of my confirmation journey,” said Zimmerman. 

Dax Delapasse said, “I was wary going in, but I was amazed how people stepped into their (peer ministers’) lives and that made them happier, and now they are doing that for others.” 

Katie Tuminello, who went as a mentor, said, “It made me realize that a lot of stuff happens in life, but God still made them an instrument to share his message of faith, peace and grace.”

Thad Webb leads youth in song at the Angola Prison confirmation retreat.