Saturday, June 11, 2022
Tom Tracy - Florida Catholic
Photography: TOM TRACY | FC
EVERGLADES CORRECTIONAL | A visitor to this remote location in early June would have been greeted with some of the best liturgical music by a praise and worship band which sadly very few will ever have a chance to hear.
The reason: The music was provided by the chapel house band at Everglades Correctional Institution, a Level 5 security prison for adult males located in western Miami-Dade County, on the very edge of the Florida Everglades.
The occasion was an afternoon Mass and reception for some 100 inmates on June 8, 2022, presided by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. The archbishop had not been able to visit here since well before the coronavirus pandemic.
Everglades Correctional is unique in that it is home to a fulltime Catholic chaplain and has developed an incentive-based pilot program to encourage personal self-improvement, education and skills development in order to discourage inmate fights and violence. Inmates who misbehave can lose access to privileges such as the air-conditioned chapel.
The Mass readings were those of the previous Pentecost Sunday. Drawing on that theme, Archbishop Wenski told the inmates, many of whom are older and incarcerated “lifers,” that if their spiritual lives are dead because of sin, “the Holy Spirit can provide the breath of God so that we can walk our life’s journey walking with Jesus as disciples.”
“If we stay close to Jesus on our journey he will give us peace, joy and he will lead us to calvary because Jesus keeps his promises,” the archbishop said. “He also tells us that the road to glory passes along the way of the cross.”
“It's not easy in a world filled with things that want to pull us in a different direction; Jesus found opposition and resistance and so will we. We will have to swim against the tide. That’s why he gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit,” Archbishop Wenski told the men, some of whom he counseled individually at the reception that followed the service.
The archbishop spoke with the inmates in several languages, including Haitian Creole and Spanish.
In keeping with the facilities’ code of conduct allowing some inmates to enjoy access to religious services, minimal security personnel were present.
Adjacent to the prison’s Panoptic Chapel is the office of Deacon Alex Lam, a former engineer who is the senior chaplain at ECI and a Catholic presence here since 1999. Deacon Lam was on hand for the Mass, along with Deacon Edgardo Farias, director of Detention Ministry for the Miami archdiocese, and Deacon Ralph Gazitua, a retired prison ministry chaplain who is still active.
The aim of prison ministry in the Miami archdiocese is to provide religious services and spiritual companionship to inmates with pastoral teams at correctional and detention institutions, as well as helping families of offenders, children of the incarcerated, parents, ex-offenders, and newly convicted offenders (prison consulting).
Deacon Lam, a member of St. Louis Parish in Pinecrest, recalled how he was working with the Chinese-speaking apostolate for the archdiocese and a newly ordained permanent deacon when he was asked to work at Everglades Correctional.
Working in a penal facility has its ups and downs and frustrations, Deacon Lam said, but over the years he has drawn encouragement from the feedback he has received from ex-inmates who reach out to him with letters and phone calls.
“I always tell them, ‘If you respect me and I respect you then we will be alright,’” he said, adding that most inmates realize the tragic mistakes and poor decisions they made to end up incarcerated.
“But by all means they still have their own dignity, and you have to respect them. Once you get their respect and trust, their life can change and you can talk to them as a person, friend or father figure. We spend a lot of time counseling inmates and by the example of our actions they change,” Deacon Lam said.
The pandemic proved a challenging time for ministry, and Deacon Lam said during periods of social distancing and lockdown he often simply stood outside the inmate cafeteria talking to men.
Still, prison ministry is a ministry of presence, he said, and “your presence means a lot because they know you care. Many times, they are here because they think nobody cares.”
In all the years he has been working at Everglades Correctional, Deacon Lam said he has not experienced an incident of misbehavior or security breach during the religious services at the chapel.
The captions in this article have been corrected to reflect the proper name of the prison: Everglades Correctional Institution, not Institute, as originally published.