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GUARDIAN OF THE FAITH

Doug Austin tends to the Body of Christ behind prison walls

The following story appeared in the January 13 Idaho Catholic Register.



By Gene Fadness

Editor


Doug Austin, 64, has been a Catholic now for nearly two decades. His life’s dream: “To be able to attend a Mass in a Catholic church.”


Austin is Inmate No. 18341 at the Idaho State Correctional Institution, the medium security prison where he is serving an indeterminate life sentence for second-degree murder, a crime committed more than 40 years ago.


Since his conversion to Catholicism in 2003, he’s attended some Masses inside the prison. He’s led Bible studies, rosaries and let other inmates to the Church. But his whole experience as a Catholic has been within the confines of prison.


The “indeterminate” life sentence, means there is a chance he could get released on parole. He appears before the parole board every five years, a time when hopes of an early release are then quashed by the news that he must stay at least another five years.

In fact, in 1996, his sentence was changed to “fixed life,” meaning no chance of parole.

“That devastated me,” Austin told the Idaho Catholic Register. “I figured that if I’m not worthy enough to be out on the street, I’m not worthy enough to be on the planet. I interpreted their decision to mean that my life was unredeemable.”


So, on Feb. 26, 1996 – he remembers the day because it was his mother’s birthday – he decided to end his life. He waited for everyone to leave during meal time, allowing time for him to end his unredeemable existence.


“Then God came into my life in the strangest way,” Austin said. A sergeant knocked on the door, handcuffed him and led him out of his single cell.


“I assumed they had figured out what I was going to do. I was afraid they were going to go back to my cell and find razor blades and other things.”


But then he noticed a large group of other men, also handcuffed. “They told us we were going to Texas.” Austin and the others were sent to the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas. Though unhappy about the move, he looks back on it now and attributes it to saving his life.


His cell in Texas was near the library, where a number of inmates held church services. He could hear the music through the walls, bringing back a flood of memories from his Baptist upbringing in Connecticut.


“They asked if anyone wants to go to church. I figured it sure beat sitting in a cell.” It was at one of those services where Austin says he gave his life to Christ, and things changed quickly. Addictions, which had continued even in prison, were gone. He began attending Bible studies with a group of men he calls his “Pearsall angels.” His attitude about life, even if the rest of it were spent confined behind prison walls, also changed. An unredeemable life was redeemed.


AUSTIN GREW UP in Norwalk, Conn. His grandparents and mother were devout Baptists. His parents separated when he was about 8, so he was raised primarily by his mother. As an adolescent in the mid- to late-1970s, he got involved with the party lifestyle, including alcohol and drugs.


He graduated from high school in 1976 and enrolled at University of Connecticut, where his alcoholism and drug addiction became more severe. He dropped out of university to enlist in Army where he served for 3.5 years


“I dropped out of school, looking for some kind of help and discipline which I thought the Army life would give me, but the peacetime Army is one of the worst places an alcoholic can be. So that whole idea backfired.”


Still, he gave it 3.5 years. He was stationed overseas in Germany at Ayers Kaserne Air Base (which has since closed and returned to the German government) as an armor reconnaissance specialist. Then he returned stateside, first at Fort Bliss in El Paso and from there to Gowen Air Base in 1981 to help train members of the National Guard.


It was while he stationed at Gowen that he says “he got into serious trouble.” It’s still too difficult for him to recount the details of his crime, only to say that a life was taken because of his rage and his addictions. He was convicted of second-degree murder and given an indeterminate life sentence, not eligible for parole until his first parole hearing in 1991. He’s had a hearing every five years since, with the next set for 2024.


He wasn’t surprised when he wasn’t granted parole in 1991, Even though it had been 10 years since he committed his crime, he still kept to old habits.


“I was about 23 or 24 when I entered prison, already an alcoholic and into drug use.” It was not hard to get drugs in prison. “I was spending most of my time staying high, working my job, and doing stuff that most do that I shouldn’t be doing.”


By the time his next parole hearing came in 1996, he was told he would spend the rest of his days in prison.


He was in Texas only one year. Allergies in the southwest climate wreaked havoc on his system, and he was sent back to Idaho, but this time a believer in Jesus Christ.


He renewed a friendship with a fellow inmate, Tim McGuire, who he described as “a popular fixture and a powerful Catholic.”


McGuire, who had just completed a Master’s Degree in history asked Austin if he knew church history.


“When I came back to Idaho, this time as a believer, I told McGuire that I wanted to know about the faith the Apostles had and what did they do after Jesus.”


McGuire loaned him a copy of Warren Carroll’s multi-volume set of “A History Christendom.”


“I soaked that up, except it was too Catholic, so I read other histories.” From the Idaho prison library, he read “A History of Christianity,” by a Protestant historian, Kenneth Scott Letourette. But even that sounded too Catholic for him.


His Baptist upbringing gave him serious pause when it came to considering the claims of the Catholic Church. “In my younger years, there was a slight draw to the Catholic Church. My only association with Catholics was St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which I passed every day on my way too school.”


He was intrigued by the “beauty and architecture” from the outside but never worked up the courage to step inside. Besides that, Austin, an African-American, viewed Catholicism as a “white religion.”


However, reading history convinced him he could no longer be Baptist.


“There was only one option as far as I was concerned, I had to become Orthodox.” He considered Orthodox Christianity because an Orthodox priest from Boise was regularly visiting the prison. “If an Anglican priest had been coming, that would have worked for me, too, but becoming Catholic was a leap too far.”


Then, inexplicably, the Orthodox priest stopped coming. However, the Catholic Diocese of Boise dispatched Father John O’Sullivan and a lay volunteer, Dick Gallegos, who became well-known in the Diocese for his many years of ministry to those in prison.


Father O’Sullivan and Gallegos began a series of classes called Catholic Inquiry. “I asked a lot of tough questions which is pretty standard fare for me, especially about race and where the Church was during the years of slavery,” Austin said.


Gallegos, who retired from prison ministry after 20 years in the prisons and five years volunteering for the Re-Entry Program for released inmates, remembers Austin well.


“After a while he and I became very close friends. In fact, he became one of my best friends inside,” Gallegos said.


A turning point for Austin came when the Diocese decided to help make the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) available in the prison. “That was one of the greatest gifts in my life,” Austin said. “I got to see people who looked like me in the Catholic faith. From that point on, I was Catholic.”


“I couldn’t wait to receive the sacraments, but Father was putting me on hold until Easter.”


AUSTIN HAD PREVIOSLY been baptized, so all he needed was Confirmation. Bishop Michael Driscoll gave him the Sacrament of Confirmation in Easter 2003.


Austin took some ribbing from fellow inmates during the days leading up to the Confirmation. “You know, the Bishop is going to slap you on the cheek,” one of the inmates told him, referring to the former Catholic practice of slapping confirmands on the cheek. “I thought to myself, ‘This is going to hurt.’ I decided I would hold my hands behind my back to avoid my natural instinct to strike back,” Austin said, laughing. The slap never came. But, Austin says, the Holy Spirit did. He was Catholic and he was home, even if home is inside a prison cell.


Since then, he has continued to read and study about his faith, participate in Bible studies and lead rosaries. He helped set up for Mass whenever it was offered in prison. However, the COVID pandemic ended Masses in the prison for 2.5 years.


In fact, the first Mass offered at the medium-security prison was the week before Christmas when Bishop Peter Christensen, joined by Father Evarist Shiyo, Deacons Tom Mannschreck and Mark Geraty, celebrated Mass.


Near the end of his homily, Bishop Peter called Austin forward and presented him the “Guardian of Faith” Award, presented annually by the Bishop to someone in the Church who “watches over and cares for the Catholic community in a quiet way.”


Past recipients of the award have included Cece Curtis-Cook of Sacred Heart Mission in DeSmet; Dave Wilper, caretaker or Our Lady of Tears Church in Silver City; the late Cecil Jayo and his, wife Maria, who were well-known volunteers and ushers at the Cathedral; and Debbie Chicane, who is retiring this year after more than 20 years of youth ministry at the Tri-Parish Com-munity in Cottonwood, Ferdinand, and Greencreek.


The Bishop recounted Austin’s service to the Church and allowed him to share some of his faith journey.


“It was obvious before Mass even started that Doug is a well-respected spiritual mentor to many of the men,” said Deacon Mannschreck, who, along with Father Shiyo and Deacon Geraty are heading up a team of volunteers to resume ministry in nine Idaho corrections facilities across the state.


About 60 attended the Mass. “As I looked out at the congregation, almost all of the men had smiles on their faces, acknowledging Doug’s mentor-ship and spiritual presence,” Deacon Mannschreck said.


John Mebane, another inmate, wrote Bishop Peter after the Mass, thanking him for celebrating Mass and honoring Austin. “I’ve known Doug since 2005, and he was instrumental in my becoming Catholic in 2007,” Mebane wrote.


Since that 1996 parole hearing that sent Austin into a suicidal spiral, Austin was able to secure the help of yet an-other deacon, Deacon Tom Dominick, an attorney, to represent him at parole hearings. After the 1996 hearing, Austin wrote a letter to the parole board. “I told them I was done, that I had lost hope, but then one of the wonderful volunteers out here put me in touch with Tom Dominick, and he was my attorney at the last one. That gave me hope and, back then, it was hard to keep hope alive in here. I praise God for having him (Dominick) come into my life, even though I got passed over (for parole).”

However, after appeals to the pa-role board, Austin’s sentence has been changed from fixed life to indeterminate life, meaning parole is a possibility.


Austin was taken back by the honor and the attention.


“It was simply amazing. I was completely numb, I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” Austin said. “I don’t’ feel worthy of such an award, I’m just doing what I felt I should be doing. I was giving back to other people what was given to me.”


Doug Austin, still serving a life sentence, is a free man.


If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, please consider buying a subscription to the Idaho Catholic Register. Your $20 yearly subscription also supports the work of the Diocese of Boise Communications Department, which includes not only the newspaper, but this website, social media posts and videos. You can subscribe here, or through your parish, or send a check to 1501 S. Federal Way, Boise, ID, 83705: or call 208-350-7554 to leave a credit card payment. Thank you, and God bless you.

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