The following story appeared in the October 21 Idaho Catholic Register.
Joey Sabatino, left, prays with his family. Thanks in part to the witness of prison ministry volunteers, Sabatino experienced a reversion to his Catholic faith. After he was released in 2017, his family members were baptized and they are parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish in Boise. (ICR photo/Joe Egbert)
By Emily Woodham
When Joey Sabatino got out of prison in January of 2017, he knew he never wanted to go back. He had spent 20 years of his adult life in and out prisons (a total of 13 years incarcerated), struggling to find direction.
As a boy, he attended Sacred Heart Catholic School, and his grandmother would take him to church. However, in his teen years, he lost his faith and stopped going to church.
It wasn’t until 2016, when he met Deacon Mark Geraty and Denny Wilkin through the prison ministry of the Diocese of Boise that his life changed. Their friendship helped bring him back to faith in Jesus and to the Church.
He knew that after he got out of prison that the key to staying out “was through Christ and His forgiveness,” he said.
Joey Sabatino enjoys a hug from his son. Separation from his family was one of the most difficult challenges he faced while in prison. (ICR photo/Joe Egbert
Immediately after he got out, Deacon Geraty gave Sabatino a ticket to the Idaho Catholic Men’s Conference. “It was great to go to that. It rooted me. It made me know what I wanted to do and how I was going to stay out of prison; how to seek the Lord and how to put Him first in my life again,” Sabatino said.
Joey Sabatino’s conversion has impacted his entire family. Friendships built through the diocesan prison ministry helped him turn his life around. (ICR photo/Joe Egbert)
Sabatino’s conversion impacted his entire family. All of his family members have since been baptized. Wilkin, the prison ministry volunteer who visited him is a parishioner at Sacred Heart and now the godfather of Sabatino’s youngest daughter. Another daughter graduated from Bishop Kelly High School last year, and his younger children attend Sacred Heart School. Extended family members have also felt the impact of his new life and have started going to church.
The friendships he has with Deacon Geraty and Wilkin and his friendships at his parish continue to encourage him to live a faith-filled life of integrity. “Having strong men in my life, especially Mark and Denny has helped me. When I see strong Catholic men at church on Sundays, how they are with their families, I want to be more like that,” he said.
Sabatino is one of many who had been positively impacted by the diocesan prison ministry, until the COVID pandemic put a stop to the Masses, Reconciliation services and RCIA classes that were are all part of the ministry.
“When we could not go to the prisons for two years because of COVID, it was a stressful time for the residents, the volunteers and for me,” said Father Evarist Shiyo, the prison ministry chaplain for the Diocese of Boise. “When we were able to go back in June, the residents were excited to see us.”
Although not all the prisons are consistently open for ministry, volunteers are working to be prepared for every opportunity. Since June, there have been two baptisms, said Father Shiyo, who is a priest with the Apostolic Life Community of Priests.
In order to achieve the outreach the ministry was attaining prior to COVID, more lay volunteers are needed.
“We cannot do anything without the cooperation and help of lay volunteers,” he said. “They are desperately needed.”
Lay Catholic volunteers entering prisons and jails in a formally organized effort goes back many decades in the Diocese of Boise, according to Deacon Geraty, the volunteer coordinator for the diocesan prison ministry.
While it is true that only priests can offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation and preside at Masses inside the prisons, lay volunteers are needed to provide help in other areas. “Prison and jail visits have always been part of the pastoral duties of professed religious and ordained clergy, but it is the lay volunteer who has become the backbone of corrections ministry for the Catholic Church in the United States,” Deacon Geraty said.
Volunteers lead scripture studies, sacramental preparation, and assist priests in providing Mass and Recon-ciliation. Each volunteer receives training through a joint effort of the Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC) and the Diocese of Boise.
IDOC houses about 8,000 individuals in nine state-owned prisons and five community re-entry centers, Geraty said. Volunteers minister to all custody levels in all prisons throughout the state including county jail facilities. In addition, the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections operates three facilities housing juvenile offenders where volunteers are needed as well.
Interested persons are interviewed in advance. If accepted, they take a one-day IDOC training and orientation. They are also introduced to diocesan-approved catechetical and educational programs. A cumulative period of 24 hours of volunteer work is chaperoned by a prison chaplain or experienced prison ministry volunteer. After those chaperoned hours, volunteers are authorized to conduct classes and/or scripture study independently.
The training and chaperoning may seem intimidating, but it is not, Geraty said. “There is no need for in-depth theological expertise, just a heart to serve. We’ll take care of the rest.”
“We work hand-in-hand with prison chaplains to provide prison inmates with study materials, sacramentals, Bibles and access to the sacraments of the Church,” he said.
Volunteers must be 21 and can choose where they want to serve.
A common concern, Geraty noted, is for the safety of the volunteers, but there is no reason to be fearful.
“We are warmly welcomed and appreciated in the prisons by residents and correctional officers, who keep a protective eye on us. It’s safe to say that volunteering inside a prison is an order of magnitude safer than driving around Idaho every day,” Geraty said.
Leaders of the Office of Prison Ministry are Deacon Tom Mannschreck, director prison outreach; Deacon Geraty, volunteer coordinator; Barbara Mannschreck, administrator and Father Shiyo, chaplain.
The Diocese is also extending its prison ministry outreach to those released from prison.
“As more than 90 percent of individuals in prison return to our com-munities, meeting those released from incarceration is just as important as bringing the gospel to them while in prison,” Deacon Geraty said. To continue ministry outside of prison, the Diocese of Boise is teaming with the St. Vincent de Paul Re-Entry Conference to present a catechetical evangelization program called Alpha to recently released prisoners.
Alpha is a 9- to 11-week series of sessions where a meal is served and a video presentation on Christ and the gospel is given. The presentation is followed by small group conversations.
Alpha is an effective tool to connect recently released prisoners with Christians in the community. The goals of the program to help recently released prisoners deepen their faith and connect with community is what will help keep them from returning to prison, Geraty said.
For more information about the prison ministry or the Alpha re-entry program, contact Deacon Mark Geraty at email@example.com or go to catholicidaho.org/prisonministry.
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