The dignity of the prisoner

By Jenara Kocks Burgess

Correspondent

Images courtesy of Deacon Russell Detwiler

Inspired by Pope Francis’ visit to a prison last Holy Thursday, inmates at the Allred Unit outside of Wichita Falls painted a portrait of the Holy Father and sent it to him as a gift ...

Here’s the kicker — he responded

This painting by inmate Terry "Buster" Watkins was inspired by Pope Francis’ washing of prisoners’ feet during Holy Thursday Mass last year. The painting was sent to the Holy Father as a gift.

Inmates of the James V. Allred Prison Unit in Iowa Park who take part in the Diocese of Fort Worth’s prison ministry read last spring that the newly-elected Pope Francis washed prisoners’ feet during Holy Thursday Mass: They were more than impressed.

Some of them were moved to express their appreciation to the Pope for directly ministering to people in prison, said Deacon Russell Detwiler, chaplain for the ministry.

“They couldn’t imagine a pope going into a prison and washing inmates’ feet,” he said.

Last year the Holy Father washed the feet of 12 young people of different nationalities and faiths at Rome’s Casa del Marmo prison for minors during the evening Mass there. According to the Catholic News Service story, almost 50 detainees, including about a dozen women, attended the Mass. Detainees also proclaimed the readings and led the prayers of the faithful.

Inmate Terry “Buster” Watkins, Jr., 39, has been at Allred for the past nine years, and has attended Catholic Mass for the past two. In a written interview, Watkins said that reflecting on Pope Francis and “his act of humbling and humiliation … it is inspiring and truly insightful in helping us to understand how Christ would want us to serve others in our daily lives.”

The James V. Allred Unit is an all-male Texas Department of Criminal Justice correctional facility with a capacity of 3,722. It sits on about 320 acres four miles northwest of Wichita Falls in the town of Iowa Park. Dcn. Detwiler has served as a volunteer chaplain at the Allred Unit for a total of 10 years and had previously served four-and-half years at a large county jail in Michigan.

After the Holy Thursday Mass last year, Dcn. Detwiler said one of the inmates asked Watkins to draw a portrait in pastels of the Pope on an 18” by 22” canvas, and they asked Dcn. Detwiler to send it to the pope.

Deacon Detwiler says he learned it would cost $284 to mail the artwork to the Vatican City State. “So I contacted the Apostolic Nunciature, which is the Vatican Embassy to the US in Washington D.C., and they told me if I could get that picture to them, they would see to it that the pope got it,” he said. “So I sent it to them, and it cost me $24.”

Later, Dcn. Detwiler received a letter from the Apostolic Nuncio saying that they had received the painting, and would make sure the Pope would receive it. Sometime later, he received a letter from the pope’s secretary saying the Holy Father had received the painting and appreciated it. As a sign of gratitude, the pontiff responded by sending a picture of himself with his signature and his papal coat of arms to the deacon and to Watkins.

Signed-back-of-Pope-Francis-Portrait-by-Allred-WEB.jpg

The prisoners at the Allred Unit signed the back of the painting they sent to the Holy Father.

“So I made copies of it,” Dcn. Detwiler said. “About 125 copies, 4-by-6, I think, and passed it out at the (weekly Communion) service to all the guys who were involved in this.”

The Allred inmates were very pleased by the letter and photo the pope sent, Dcn. Detwiler said.

“We got a standing ovation when they found out what happened,” he said.

Sacred Heart parishioner Jim McSorley, who has been involved as prison ministry volunteer for six years, assisted Dcn. Detwiler that day, and reported that the inmates were “just overwhelmed.”

“They were like, ‘Little us, little old prisoners in the Allred Unit in Iowa Park, and we got a notice back,’” McSorley said.

Watkins said in his written interview that receiving the letter back from the Vatican as well as the photo meant a lot to him.

“I felt like I had finally been heard and seen and was blessed knowing our Pope took the time to recognize something that a ‘nobody’ like me had drawn,” Watkins wrote. “I’ve always wanted my work to be seen, and for the first person to recognize it to be our blessed Pope Francis is amazing!”

Watkins wrote that the prison ministry is important to him.

“It helps me to stay grounded in a spiritual walk that helps me stay out of trouble and act in positive ways,” Watkins said in his written interview.

“These volunteers are blessings, with the work and unconditional love they bring,” he wrote. “The amount of work they put in benefits us, and it changes the lives of these inmates. They bring a passion and light into a dark place like this to bring us a better way of serving Christ,” Watkins continued.

Dcn. Detwiler, who pulled back from his diaconal duties at Sacred Heart Church in Wichita Falls (except the prison ministry) this year, said he hopes this story will help people see what a blessing the prison ministry is to both the inmates and volunteers.

“It’s really hard to get people to come into this ministry,” Dcn. Detwiler said. “It’s a really dark place because of the human tragedies in the lives of the [inmates], and people are afraid to venture out there.

“We’ve never been threatened,” he said, “or had any fear of being hurt because we are there for them, and they understand that. The last thing they want to happen is for one of us to get hurt and for us to go away. They take good care of us. And the staff is very supportive too. They are actually kind of glad we’re out there trying to bring a little peace to the place.”

Dcn. Detwiler said he, McSorley, and another prison ministry volunteer, Sacred Heart parishioner Bob Butterfield, who has helped with the ministry for 13 years, go to the Allred Unit every Thursday and Friday year round.

“I think I get a whole lot more out of it than I put in,” Butterfield said. “There’s so much to be done out there, and we’re just skimming the surface. I’m truly inspired by some of these men.

“They know they’ve done wrong; they’re truly remorseful for it, [but] they’re trying to get their faith back, and the conditions,” he said, “you know, are never good — But they pursue it.”

Dcn. Detwiler said on Thursdays, Butterfield teaches the RCIA class, and occasionally he distributes Holy Communion at one of the secure buildings. Also on Thursdays, Dcn. Detwiler and McSorley teach a Catechism class, and lead a Rosary. A Mass or a Liturgy of the Eucharist with distribution of Holy Communion (depending on the availability of a priest) is held every Friday.

Watkins said that he attends many of the Catholic prison ministry’s activities and helps set up the gymnasium for the weekly liturgy as well as helping with the music and ushering.

Dcn. Detwiler said the Catholic ministry at Allred started with just 25 men in an RCIA class. Now there are 35 inmates in RCIA, 47 in a Catechism class, 20 in the Marian Movement Rosary, and 100 to 110 attending the Friday liturgy. Dcn. Detwiler also said they have baptized and confirmed 36 since he’s been at Allred, including 14 this past October. As part of the prison ministry, Butterfield, McSorley, and Dcn. Detwiler all said they serve not only Catholics, but people of other faiths as well.

McSorley said he first began volunteering with the prison ministry because Butterfield, a fellow Knight of Columbus, piqued his curiosity. He said he also felt that beyond the Knights, he needed to give back to God for the blessings he had been given.

“One thing led to another. I kind of liked it and thought, ‘Gee whiz, this is a way to give back,’ and I promised myself I was going to do it because there is a tremendous need,” McSorley said. “Let me put it to you this way, ‘the harvest is plentiful, abundant. Laborers are few.’ You know that Gospel. This is true. There’s only three of us out there. We could use more volunteers.” 

For more information about volunteering with the Diocese of Fort Worth’s prison ministry, visit www.fwdioc.org/pages/prison-ministry. To volunteer with the prison ministry in the Northwest Deanery, contact Dcn. Detwiler at 940-692-1194.

Inmates of the James V. Allred Prison Unit in Iowa Park who take part in the Diocese of Fort Worth’s prison ministry read last spring that the newly-elected Pope Francis washed prisoners’ feet during Holy Thursday Mass: They were more than impressed. Some of them were moved to express their appreciation to the Pope for directly ministering to people in prison, said Deacon Russell Detwiler, chaplain for the ministry.

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