A night inside the walls – KSU students go to prison ministry weekly for service, learning


Kent State students Stacey Forte (left), Nicole Sauter(center) Paul Billig(right) pray with Tim DeFrange, Deacon at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Kent, before entering the Portage County Detention Center for a weekly ministry with detainees.

Skye McEowen

A first observation

Just about every Friday night during the spring semester, a group of students drive to Ravenna, down Infirmary Road, and pull into the parking lot of a high-security building. By this time in the evening, the sun is setting and the lights are already illuminating the lot as an occasional helicopter flies by. After a few minutes, the deacon pulls into the parking lot, unloads a small suitcase and a guitar, and heads up to the side door reserved for visitations.

“We’re here for the service,” the deacon says. A click, and the group enters.

There is a small room the group enters with another secured door, lockers for personal belongings and a window to an office where the guards receive visitors and hand out a key and a badge: a simple card with a number and logo to the Portage-Geauga County Detention Center attached to a lanyard.

Once everyone is signed in and puts on their badges, the group goes through the door and a metal detector with a guard waiting on the other side, holding a wand in case the detector goes off. The guards are not dressed in any special officer uniform but wear staff T-shirts and jeans with a set of keys attached.

Down another short hallway, past a stainless steel kitchen, there is a visitation room with eight round tables. The center holds no chapel, but instead a modest altar is set up using one of the tables. Once the deacon and students adorn the table with cloth, a cross and a candle, the service begins with plastic chairs placed facing the altar.

One by one, a guard shepherds in the inmates, ranging from one to five on average. Their entrance is marked by a distinct shuffling as their orange sandals scuff against the linoleum floors. They wear what looks like navy blue scrubs, sometimes with a matching sweater and white socks. Most notably, their heads are slightly bowed, and their hands are folded behind their backs whenever standing or walking.

And with that, the service begins.                                                                                                                                       

Going for a reason

Sophomore physics major Paul Billig, junior photo illustration major Nicole Sauter and senior integrated mathematics major Stacey Forte are three students from Kent State’s Catholic Student Association that have gone out to the Portage-Geauga County Detention Center — one of 88 detention centers in Ohio — just about every Friday this semester. Each of them had their own reasons in partaking and getting the prison ministry started.

Billig, Sauter and Forte accompany Deacon Timothy DeFrange, a permanent deacon at St. Patrick Church in Kent. The CSA’s involvement with prison ministry began once Billig got into contact with DeFrange.

“Coming to talking to Deacon Tim came around from a referral… I volunteered to go do (Senior Service Day) in the fall semester, and one of the ladies that we helped… I got to talking with her. I was cleaning the gutters on her roof; I was having a conversation with her,” Billig said. “She happens to tell me she does prison ministry. Up until then I was kicking (the idea) around figuring out how to start it and here it comes to me right there out of the blue. She gives me Tim’s contact, and it’s all downhill from there.”

While the three students gave different answers to why they got involved, all three revolved around the idea of showing love and understanding to those who need it.

“I wanted to do this, especially in a population that’s so isolated, and kind of feels like the world is against them,” Forte said. “Just to make sure they know there are people who love them and care about them, and people who forgive them too. Really share with them who Christ is through the liturgy, the Eucharist and through the prayers and songs.”

“I think there are a lot of stereotypes that in this day and age (about) what’s acceptable in society…You don’t understand so therefore you put a judgement in there or a stereotype because it makes you feel comfortable and you feel like you have an answer,” Sauter said. “And I think the same goes for prisoners, maybe more with fear but also a large part of understanding as well. I think both are very instrumental elements and the way people react towards those who have been incarcerated.”

Once the candle is lit

In the beginning stages of the three’s involvement in the ministry, the inmates coming in would range in numbers from one to five, sometimes mixed in boys and girls, who would then have to be seated on opposite sides.

The Catholic service begins with a hymn from the books provided to the students and inmates as DeFrange would lead with guitar accompaniment. The rest of the service consisted of readings, sometimes done by the inmates, a short sermon and reflection done by Billig and DeFrange, and receiving the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion.

The reading ability varied as different inmates read, but mostly the reading became interrupted by faint hesitations on a word.

During the service, the opportunity also arises where anyone — student or inmate — can say a short prayer for anything or anyone either in public or private.

“My sister,” one female inmate said during the session the second week the students came.

By April, two inmates had consistently shown up for the service each Friday: Chris and Nick.

Following any important Christian holiday, the Friday service accommodates it. For example, Ash Wednesday dominated one Friday service, as did Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The services exemplify a long history of ministry and religious services offered to inmates in general in the United States. The ministry in many Christian churches calls to many deacons, as each deacon takes on a specific ministry.

Lessons from the past

In 1997, DeFrange, about to be ordained at the time, received a calling to prison ministry at St. Patrick Church. During his time serving, the ministry revealed a rich mosaic of stories and lessons over the years.

One particular night consisted of DeFrange and another minister talking to two inmates who were brothers separately.

“I imagined having read what happened: They had broken into this home and killed some people, at least one person… I was afraid. But when Doug came in, I looked at him — he could’ve been my son. He looked so young, and he was so sorry. He was weeping, and he was so full of remorse. That was the end of my Hollywood idea of what these people were like. These people are like you and me,” DeFrange said. (DeFrange was ministering with a Protestant group at the Portage County Jail at the time.)

“These are people that God loves…It’s a privilege to be Jesus to them. They’re Jesus to me,” DeFrange said.

Fear, addictions and learning

Overall, the idea of having students to come help in prison ministry proved to be a learning experience for youth inside and outside the center’s walls.

“We live in a culture where youth is king… There’s also something powerful and holy in young people. These are good Catholics. They may be young, but they are good Catholics,” DeFrange said. “I think the thing that delights me is I really needed help, especially during Lent.”

Sauter said it was scary the first time she heard about going.

“You’re so used to wanting to run away from something like that or protect yourself, and you don’t even know what you’re protecting yourself from,” Sauter said. “I think that’s what prison ministry has opened up my mind and heart and dispelled these stereotypes because these people are people and we all make mistakes and we all have issues. Maybe not all of us make it to (jail). Some sins are worse than others. If we are really true followers in our faith, we say to forgive each other.”

Sauter and Forte said the experience exceeded their expectations.

“Every week I feel like I want to do more,” Forte said. “I definitely want to see it continue.”

“They’re just people. I really wanted to break that idea that these are just criminals and that’s all they’ll ever be, and I just want people to know that if you met these kids just randomly, you would never know,” Sauter said.

Billig agreed with his peers.

“We all have our addictions… that’s so true,” Billig said. “Admitting that is something you have to do when doing this ministry. I think the biggest mistake you probably make is feeling like you’re better than them. I think coming there and doing that — that’s the feeling I get when I’m in there — that I’ve got problems too…We’re together in our problems.”

Contact Skye McEowen at [email protected].