The prison ministry of the Anchorage Archdiocese reaches out to inmates through weekly sacraments and special visits from clergy and laity. It’s part of a multi-faceted, ecumenical effort to enkindle a spiritual awakening in Alaska’s prison population.
Deacon David Van Tuyl is a longtime volunteer of the prison ministry based out of Holy Family Cathedral. He also coordinates the wider archdiocesan outreach.
Deacon Van Tuyl has a deep appreciation for area priests who hold a chaplaincy card, which is issued through the state Department of Corrections, but he knows that the existing network of deacons and lay ministers are crucial to serving the incarcerated.
Parishioners at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, for example, have a longstanding outreach to women at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center.
Additionally, Father Michael Ko, parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla, serves the nearby Goose Bay Correctional Center by offering weekly Masses. He credits Sacred Heart and Our Lady of the Lake parishioners in Big Lake for assisting with prayers during his visits.
In the Anchorage Correctional Complex roughly 15 inmates attend regular Communion services or Masses at the jail. Deacon Van Tuyl said he relishes the chance to answer inmates’ questions about the faith. He distributes Catholic Bibles, holy cards and rosaries, and maintains contact via mail with anyone who reaches out.
Statewide Chaplaincy Coordinator Rev. James Duncan knows that spiritual outreach makes a difference in the lives of inmates.
He cites the decreased recidivism rate, which is halved (from 66 to 33 percent) by inmates who participate in the chaplaincy programming.
At the Anchorage Correctional Complex, this program encompasses an ecumenical model of 28 beds, within which pre-trial inmates can apply to reside. Inmates call the program the “faith mod.”
“We look for those with an existing faith background, of any sort, since our time is often limited — something to build from,” Duncan said. “And a willingness to ‘track’ with our program is key. The guys will call out anyone who’s not engaged — they don’t last long.”
Monday mornings at the Anchorage Correctional Complex means Bible study, led by a former inmate turned local pastor who volunteers to expound on Scripture with the men each week. Success here is measured as producing a low-maintenance population, including peers who encourage spiritual growth.
The wide stairwells and hallways are gleaming, hollow and spare. The men dress in orange cotton and sit in a circle of plastic chairs. For some, this setting is the beginning of interior penance and conversion.
“I never read the Bible, until I came to the faith mod,” said Michael, a middle-aged Hispanic man with salt and pepper hair. “My mind is completely renewed. I pray every night with my cellmate.”
Some of the inmates in the program are mentors, or faith ambassadors, embedded in the pre-trial facility from institutions where they would have had more privileges. They chose to sacrifice relative perks (such as free time, a gym, commissary) to live in the more utilitarian facility. According to Duncan, the program is unlike any in the nation and authorities were skeptical at first.
Duncan, however, believes chaplaincy programming can have an exponential effect if allowed to prosper in a structured way. Three men who have served seven months at the Anchorage Correctional Complex in the ‘faith mod’ are now prepared to establish similar missions in prison facilities located in Southeast Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula and the Mat-Su. Engaged in the fraternal exchange, they’re careful to keep a broad ecumenical tone beneficial to all Christians.
“I’m Pentecostal, but I don’t preach it,” said one inmate with a Southern accent.
“These men are often fearful of authority, and a sense of mission is the first step towards seeing the light,” explained another.
Whether it is the statewide program or local parishes reaching out, the goal is to spark spiritual renewal.
Deacon Van Tuyl described a poignant Christmas Mass offered by Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne in late 2017 at the Anchorage Jail.
“These men deserve to be ministered to, and to have the successor to the Apostles was quite meaningful to them,” he said.
As for follow up, Deacon Van Tuyl receives handwritten letters expressing the role the rosary has come to hold in the salvaged lives, post incarceration. Some send modest cash donations and express their appreciation for the sacraments being administered behind bars. A few even inquire about religious vocations. One inmate wrote, “I do pray, and do the readings on the Magnificat every day — me and my cellmates, it gives us peace. I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
An inmate named D.C., one of the faith ambassadors at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, emphasized the rewarding experience of sharing his faith.
“These guys are all going to go somewhere else. Either out on bail, or on to another facility,” he said. “Our goal is to avoid them becoming a further liability — becoming institutionalized, as we say. We want them seeing the futility of sin and the freedom of obedience.”