A Journey Behind Prison Walls: Delegation of Kentucky Catholics Brings Community to Penitentiary

Article excerpt

When an inmate stands on the highest point of the grounds of the Kentucky State Penitentiary he can catch a glimpse of Lake Barkley, a reservoir of over 93,000 acres that touches counties in the western portions of Kentucky and Tennessee. The spectacular waterfront view beyond the prison's stone walls makes incarceration even more difficult for some, according to warden Glen Haeberlin.

The penitentiary at Eddyville, Ky., is the only maximum security facility in the state. Most inmates have been transferred from medium or minimum security facilities because they failed to adjust, Haeberlin said.

People might call Eddyville inmates "hardened criminals," Many serve life sentences for robbery and rape, or lengthy sentences for burglary and assault. Four distinct groups make up the population at Eddyville, each identified by the color of their jump suits. The general population wears khaki; protective custody inmates, kelly green; and those in segregation, the penitentiary "jail," wear canary yellow. The 36 men on death row wear bright scarlet. Rarely do the populations mingle.

Leaders of the Catholic church in Kentucky sought the chance to enter this world, to observe firsthand the implementation of criminal justice in their state. Following the release of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2000 document, "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice," the Catholic Conference of Kentucky arranged the pastoral visit to the Eddyville penitentiary. Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, Bishops John McRaith of Owensboro and Roger Foys of Covington, and members of the Kentucky conference's pro-life and social concerns committees traveled to meet with inmates and to celebrate Mass.

On the day of their trip to the penitentiary in the summer of 2002, conference committee members met first with Haeberlin in the prison chapel. Little identified the room as a place of worship: There was a peaceful picture of a sunset over a body of water. A sign on an altar stated, "Do not move without permission of chaplain. Do not place personal items on it." A chalkboard listed prayer concerns.

After a loud banging on the door to the chapel, inmates wearing kelly green were admitted. One of the men, Phillip Turner, 25, had been incarcerated for six years. Although baptized Catholic as an infant, practiced his faith very little when he was growing up. "My family was close, but I had very little spiritual life," he told the visitors. "After I met [Eddyville chaplain] Fr. [Robert] Drury, he helped me a lot. I really feel like I have a chance of making it."

Turner said he has enrolled in anger management classes and is working to change through spiritual exploration, studying scripture, theology and history. He added, "It's good to know that we can have community with people on the outside."

During his time in prison, Turner said, he has had the opportunity to learn about other religious traditions, including a discussion of Buddhism with the inmate in a neighboring cell. "The commandments they go by are not that different from the commandments given by Moses," Turner said.

He has heard Muslims talk about al-Qaeda and other issues currently in the news. "I was under the impression that most Muslims were terrorists, but they're not. Humans have a bad time lumping all people together, but we have to learn about others," Turner said. "We need to have roots in our faith, but when you learn from your brothers, you expand your knowledge."

Little attempt at rehabilitation

Fleece Johnson threw open the chapel door and called "Can I have everyone's attention please?"

The protective custody inmate was dripping sweat from the hot sun on the exercise yard. In a tense, anxious voice, he told his audience that after 20 years in prison, he was up for parole, but would be denied if he did not find a place to go within four months. …