‘I was in prison and you came to visit me … I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:36, 40
Not many have the confidence and rock solid faith to speak about God’s forgiving love with inmates, but that is exactly what Sister Kathy McGuire does. As a Daughter of Charity for the last 24 years and a member of the Province of St. Louise, she’s walked alongside those who are often considered outcasts and witnessed their share of injustices and broken families. The statistics are startling: Women are incarcerated in the U.S. 10 x more than women incarcerated in European countries, with 85% of those women behind bars for nonviolent crimes. Sister Kathy says other areas need reform too: undue heavy sentences, abuse and control by guards, and overcrowding.
“I’ve seen how much our brothers and sisters need to have someone show them respect, love, to help instill faith and hope in them again. Many times, individuals are broken due to the misuse of power and control, emotional, physical, sexual abuse, so they just give up hope,” said Sister Kathy. “That’s one of the reasons why I do prison ministry.” She draws strength from prayer and the words of St. Vincent de Paul: ‘Go to the poor: you will find God.’
She first began prison ministry in Delaware, collaborating closely with the St. Vincent de Paul members to do reading and scripture reflections weekly within a women’s prison. She was also part of a summer program that allowed inmates’ children to come do summer camp, and she worked with the St. Vincent de Paul members to research and begin a job readiness program to assist the women prior to and upon their release. Then Sister Kathy worked in Troy and Albany, New York, meeting with the inmates individually and offering counseling and spiritual care. She contacted numerous parishes to request donated Christmas clothing and toys for the inmates’ children.
Now Sister Kathy is a Social Worker working part-time at the Ubuntu Center for Peace in East St. Louis, Illinois and part-time in local prison ministry.
Court Assistance Program (CAP)
Magistrate Judge Donald G. Wilkerson oversees the Court Assistance Program known as CAP. Attendees consist of recently released high risk offenders who are at risk to reoffend and who voluntarily agree to participate in bi-monthly meetings for 18 months. The program has been in existence for 10 years with 150 graduates who are now law-abiding citizens.
Sitting among Probation Officers, Federal Public Defenders, US Marshalls, US Attorneys, and the Judge, Sister Kathy visits the courtroom twice monthly, offering ongoing support with benefits to individuals within the program. Through CAP, parolees are provided with limited resources to help their transition back to civilian life. Sister Kathy meets people at the Ubuntu Center for Peace and connects them with resources for housing, computer access for job searches, etc. Unless recent parolees have support, direction, housing and food, Sister Kathy says the recidivism rate is high – it is very likely that offenders without support will return to prison. They don’t know how to function in society.
Pen Pal Program
Sister Kathy also oversees a newly formed pen pal program for women and men incarcerated within Illinois’ state correctional facilities. She extends invitations to recruit more volunteers, some who are members of the Catholic Church and some not, to write letters to inmates who have requested a pen pal.
“We send a letter to anyone who’s interested, and tell them exactly what the pen pal program is about – providing spiritual support, providing emotional support, and encouraging them to do the right thing, whether it’s finding Jesus or go back to their faith, or find a new faith they feel called to be a part of.”
180 Program Bible Study
Prison chaplain Father Christian Ruter OFM and lay person Lou Slapjack invited Sister Kathy to join a small team of volunteers dedicated to providing a weekly bible study program. This program takes place at the Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center, a minimal security men’s prison located in East St. Louis, Illinois.
“This is an ideal opportunity for inmates to come together and learn about God’s immeasurable love for them,” she said. “How is God working in their life? They know they’ve done something wrong, and they don’t know how to make amends, and they have to learn how to forgive themselves – although God has already forgiven them and welcomes them back home like the story of the Prodigal Son.”
Throughout her time in prison ministry, Sister Kathy has listened, learned, and continued to advocate for those who have no voice outside the walls of the prison.
“I try to be a voice for the voiceless, I ask God to instill hope and rekindle the faith in our brothers and sisters, and help them to know that God loves them tenderly…” Sister Kathy said. “God loves who we are right now, we all have a past, and can find forgiveness and healing.”