Mercy unchained: How priests and deacons minister to imprisoned Catholics

By Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

Some of the clergy who regularly conduct prison ministry include, from left, Father Richard Collins, Deacon Don Warner, Deacon José Aragón, Deacon Terry Howard, Deacon Eldon Gray, and Deacon Myles Miller, Jr.  (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

When Father Richard Collins walks into one of the county, state, or federal prisons served by the Diocese of Fort Worth, he doesn’t worry about the welcome he’ll receive. Walking down the cell-lined hallways dressed in his clerics, the priest hears inmates call out to him.

“They want to talk,” he said, describing the warm greeting his arrival generates. “They may not be Catholic, or even religious, but the men want an opportunity to talk.”

The chaplain senses an atmosphere of respect as he weaves his way through the prison population.
“Inmates realize we’re volunteers, taking time out of our lives to help them,” Fr. Collins observed. “There’s an understanding. I’ve never had a bad experience.”

Appointed by Bishop Michael Olson in December 2017, the former pastor is the first priest in the diocese assigned exclusively to prison ministry. The role of sacramental minister was developed in response to a growing need for a more visible Catholic presence in the prison system.

“It’s made a big difference for the inmates when it comes to the Holy Eucharist and confession,” said Deacon Jim Bindel, who assists Fr. Collins when he celebrates Mass at the James V. Allred State Prison in Iowa Park. “They didn’t have much of an opportunity for Mass before.”

Father Khoi Tran, parochial administrator at St. Jude Thaddeus in Burkburnett, Christ the King in Iowa Park, and St. Paul in Electra, would visit the men at Allred occasionally.

“But he couldn’t go out there as much as the two of them working together can,” the deacon pointed out.

Allred, the second largest maximum- security facility in the state, is home to 3,629 inmates. Their offenses range from capital murder to burglary and aggravated assault. Many sentences are lengthy.

Fr. Collins never asks an inmate about his crime or sentence. Some will spend the rest of their life behind bars. Others are in the process of being paroled.

Whatever the situation, the priest helps the incarcerated experience God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. 

According to a 2012 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, prison chaplains consider religious counseling, and other religion-based programming, an important aspect of rehabilitation.

“Conversion is the message of the Gospel,” the priest explained. “It’s a ministry Christ taught when He said, ‘I was imprisoned and you visited me.’ So there’s a need for this ministry and making the Mass and confession available is part of that.”

Approximately 60 to 100 men attend Mass at Allred on a regular basis. Participants are vetted by prison officials and identify as baptized Catholics.

“Religious church services are optional so the people who come want to be there,” Fr. Collins continued. “They’re trying to have a closer experience of God in their life and want to change.”

Allred is one of five state and federal facilities in the diocese where the chaplain celebrates Mass on a regular basis. He doesn’t visit the Women’s Federal Prison (another priest serves the unit) and he frequents the Tarrant County Jail to offer pastoral care but not Mass. That task belongs to local parish priests.

“It helps in the sense we all work together providing services to the incarcerated,” said the prison chaplain, who interacts with more than 100 inmates a week. “Before I started this position, some units did not have a Catholic presence on a regular basis. Now the Church is more visible and present.”

At the Denton County Jail, the chaplain arrives to see prisoners who request a priest. The meetings are held in a visitation room behind glass and come with restrictions. 

Volunteers, including ministers, are not allowed to carry messages, contact the inmate’s family, or make death notifications. That job belongs to the staff chaplain.

“I just pray with them, listen to them, and offer pastoral care,” said Fr. Collins, who completed four hours of state-mandated training that prepared him to deal with offenders, guards, and staff. “This is a challenging time of the year because they’re not with their families. I try to be supportive.”

The incarcerated look forward to visits from clergy and other volunteers, according to Deacon Bruce Corbett.

“They trust Fr. Collins,” said the deacon, who sometimes assists the priest at John R. Lindsey State Jail in Jacksboro when he’s not at St. Vincent de Paul Parish. “His presence makes a big difference. It gives them the opportunity for Reconciliation because they trust him. And they get Mass. For a long time, that wasn’t happening.”

Residents of the medium security prison participate in the Mass as lectors and offer prayer intentions. That would surprise some people who think of the incarcerated as thugs with hardened personalities.

“Oftentimes they think of them as having one eye and a hunchback,” the deacon explained, speaking rhetorically. “But they are respectful and Fr. Collins does a wonderful job.”

Dcn. Bindel witnesses similar deference from the inmates. Relatively new to prison ministry, the deacon admits feeling intimidated when the prison doors locked behind him for the first time.

“Then you meet the gentlemen, talk to them, and realize they’re wonderful guys,” he recounted. “They appreciate us and the priests being there.”

One of the men he’s gotten to know is being paroled after serving a 20-year sentence. The inmate never missed a Catholic service when it was available.

“From what I noticed, he appreciated that God hasn’t given up on him and neither have we,” Dcn. Bindel added.

That’s the type of story that energizes him.

“I’m probably the newest one out there but it’s been a blessing to me. Anytime you minister to somebody, they are ministering to you so much more.”

When Father Richard Collins walks into one of the county, state, or federal prisons served by the Diocese of Fort Worth, he doesn’t worry about the welcome he’ll receive.