Dennis Alexander OMI
Dennis’s presentation about his ministry and time in the federal prison is somewhat disarming at first. He looks with hesitation at his audience and confesses, “I am not used to reflecting on this ministry” and then he adds, “It is difficult to measure what you do.” From there on he held everyone’s attention with life within the prison walls.
A very unique type of personality can function in a federal penitentiary of three hundred and fifty inmates. Dennis was first exposed to prison ministry while in Peru. It was Danny LeBlanc, OMI, who brought him along to the prison. In Puerto Rica he spent four years as prison chaplain and has worked in the prison system since returning to Canada.
The work of a prison chaplain is to establish a presence, a presence of faith, toward prisoners and the staff. Each group has a different set of needs. It is from their presence that the chaplain can then build relationships with the prisoners and staff. From here there can be built a dialogue an anger, relationships, guilt, grief, frustrations and hope or the sense of hopelessness.
What It’s Like Inside the Cement Walls
In a very simple way, Dennis used slides of a prison. This is a building the cement and steel, but it is what happens within the physical structures of the prison that matter. He imaged a cell, a cement room, but there is no privacy, you can smell all unpleasant odors of others, you hear all the shouting and insults that are hurled at other prisoners. The atmosphere does not promote dignified human living. How do the prisoners get along with all the others in the prison setting? How can and will they relate to each other in a world that is meant to separate and to isolate the prisoners from each other?
There is a very distinct culture behind prison bars. Anyone on the outside has difficulty understanding the loss, the loneliness and the violence (i.e., stabbings, beatings and verbal abuse) that prisoners suffer while in jail.
The role of the chaplain cannot be outlined in a business chart fashion. Often, the chaplain must be one of the first responders when there is a crisis within the prison. The chaplain needs to be of assistance when there are moments of critical trauma. Dennis framed the work of the chaplain as “one who safeguards the rights of the prisoners within the system” and the “ethical voice for the interactions within the prison.” There are times when the chaplain must challenge certain behaviors and negative events.
Today there is a very strong emphasis on restorative justice. What do we have to do to reintegrate these prisoners into a healthy and contributing part of the larger society? How can we give a vision to the prison that there can be a new future? How can they reinterpret their own reality and embrace a lifestyle that is healthy and life-giving?
A strong position of his work with the prisoners is to “look to tomorrow, not so much as what happened yesterday.” The prisoner must grow to believe in himself to become a better person who can and will make a contribution to the society at large.
The person in front of you is “a different face, a different person, with his own unique needs and life experiences. He is different from anything you have ever known.” Dennis continued to describe that there are times when a dangerous prisoner is brought to him, shackled by his feet and hands (correct procedure to move a dangerous prisoner within the prison building). Then the shackles are removed and “I am alone with the prisoner. Here is where you trust in God and God’s presence with you. The behavior of this man could flip and you could be in danger.” There was a pause in the sentence. “You spend a lot of time in prayer.”
Faith in the Prison
The ministry of the Catholic / Protestant chaplain is not limited to their own faith community. They are mean to provide spiritual services, counseling and support to the prisoners of all other faith traditions and those of no religious connection. There are dietary considerations to be recognized and religious materials in the library that other faiths can consult and use. Of the thirty-eight volunteers that are walking with the prisoners, there are volunteers from many different faith traditions. This is a very adaptive and accommodating way of working. “This ministry takes time and takes patience. The prisoners do not necessarily want your spiritual stuff. There is a very strong reluctance to get involved in institutional religion.”
Difficulty of Prisoner Upon Release
Dennis pointed out to us the difficulties of the prisoner upon release from prison. Who does he use as a reference when applying for a job? How welcoming is the larger community, i.e, renting a place to live, social reintegration, to the former prisoner? This is often a time of extreme alienation and loneliness. Many times the family has disassociated themselves from the prisoner. He has suffered much loss in his family relationships. Where do you go to rebuild? There are situation where the prisoner has only a hundred dollars in his pocket upon release. “How do you start a new life when you do not know where the welfare office is?”
Dennis shared the painting of Christ behind bars that is hung in the chapel. He asked his listeners as he asks the prisoners: “Is Christ the visitor or is Christ the inmate?” This painting identifies the prisoners with Christ who is with them in all this brutality and hurtful language of the prisoners and guards.
Dennis, what keeps you going in such a rough and dangerous atmosphere? He straighten up. “Prayer is extremely important. It is the hope that is connected through prayer.”
“The strong supportive chaplains and social staff that ensures that this is not done in isolation. This is a peer-to-peer system that keeps us going.” Without stopping for a break, he finished the sentence. “Without prayer you could not do this work.”
“If I saw that I had to be responsible for change in the prisoner’s life, I would be a failure. I can only point the way. I am only the agent for change. No one can take responsibility for the life of other people. Sometimes the prisoner does not want to change their life.” And that is the limitation of this ministry.
Lockdown in Prison
There are regular lockdowns within the prison. This is in response to an incident within the prison when there has been a breakdown in security. In a prison there can be many tensions: gang fights, stabbings, arguments and brutal forms of prejudice and exclusion. In the lockdown no one can move. The prisoners are locked in their cells for very long periods of time. During a lockdown, Dennis will visit from cell to cell and speak with the prisoners. This is also an effort to hold the level of frustration down.
The work of the chaplain is not only for the prisoners. There is a strong outreach to the guards and support staff of the prison. Many times the outside population is not even aware of the serious difficulties the guards have in their work and the crisis situations that they have to work through. There is counseling and support that is given to the guards and support staff.
Are you ever afraid?
Dennis responded immediately. “Often it is only after the crisis is over that I experience fear and anxiety. At the moment, I do what has to be done. Just go ahead into the crisis.”
This ministry is to bring emotional reorganization within the life of the prisoner. Instead of feeling pain all the time, they can learn to once again be happy again. He then clicked to another slide which is used to encourage the prisoners to see that the “best preparation for tomorrow is to do your best today.”
What does this do to your faith?
After a reflective moment, Dennis answered: “This has called me to a more authentic Christian lifestyle. This call is to a life that is more than I can give. This ministry is directly connected with our Oblate Founder. He had a relationship with those who were incarcerated.”
While not neglecting to take full cognizance of the seriousness of the crime Dennis summed up his ministry and work with these men who are incarcerated for many years: “Always, you must look at what can be rather than what is.”