ALTO, Ga. (CNS) — Glinting razor wire tops the fence that separates the women serving time at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto from the rest of the world.
Located in a rural Habersham County landscape of cow pastures, cemeteries and country churches, the prison is for adult and juvenile female felons.
Each week, Paul Caruso of St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Alpharetta, makes the long drive from Atlanta to the prison.
Joining Caruso are volunteers from several parishes, along with Deacon Bernie Casey and retired priests Msgr. Bill Hoffman of Roswell and Fr. Thad Rudd of Cleveland.
For many of the prisoners attending the weekly Tuesday evening service, this encounter with the Catholic Church is their only contact with the outside world.
Caruso said that after the five-year mark of incarceration, 85 percent of inmates have no visitors or contact from friends or family.
“Out of sight … out of mind,” he said. “It breaks your heart.”
Caruso has been involved in prison ministry for nearly 29 years in county jails and maximum and medium security prisons. He formed the nonprofit St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries in 1999, driving 800 to 1,000 miles a week to reach the various jails and prisons.
Allotted the time of 6-8 p.m. on Tuesdays, the St. Joseph Cafasso volunteers might hold classes for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults or lead a communal rosary at Lee Arrendale. Either a Mass is celebrated or a Communion service is held. When not at Hays State Prison for men or working elsewhere, the priests come on Tuesdays and hear confessions.
Caruso said 42 inmates are on the Catholic roster, but about 30 women regularly attend services. One of three state prisons for women, Lee Arrendale can hold more than 1,475 inmates as the prison population fluctuates.
The Mass or service takes place in a concrete-block classroom at the visitor’s center.
On a recent Tuesday in May, Deacon Casey baptized three inmates and Msgr. Hoffman confirmed five. Four of the women received their first Communion.
As Caruso welcomed all of the women before Mass he reminded them of who they are. “You are a child of God,” he said. “Don’t ever forget that.”
Inmates Beverly Barber, Felicia Greenway and Carla Hopwood were being baptized.
“You are coming into a very special community,” Father Rudd told the three, who gathered around a stainless steel bowl that served as the baptismal font. “The Catholic Church welcomes you with great joy.”
Inmates Melissa Deal and Alma Mitchell were confirmed later in the evening along with the newly baptized. Msgr. Hoffman anointed them with chrism as they took the confirmation names of Teresa, Kateri, Bernadette, Martha and Catherine.
Among the prison ministry volunteers at the Mass was Marge Pizzolato of St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell.
“I wanted to do some payback,” she said of her volunteering. The work isn’t exactly what she expected. “It’s all a surprise,” said Pizzolato told The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Additional photos and original story from The Georgia Bulletin
Sonya Bamberg, who agreed to be interviewed, is serving a life sentence plus 30 years for murder.
Bamberg, confirmed by Fr. Rudd in 2013, grew up in an area of western New York that was largely Italian and her former husband was Catholic. She tried to attend other church services but found them lacking. “They weren’t as worshipful,” she said.
The services were often loud and jumpy and very social. “I was looking for religious,” she said.
Calling prison life discordant and noisy, Bamberg finds serenity through Mass. Being Catholic also helps throughout the week, according to Bamberg. “The Catholic community here … it’s strengthening.”
She might see another inmate she knows from Mass and say, “Peace be with you” or “I’ll see you Tuesday,” she explained.
During the week, Bamberg prays the rosary, reads the Bible and other literature that Caruso brings.
The St. Joseph Cafasso ministry gives each inmate a book bundle that includes a Catholic Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a rosary, scapular and book of prayers, and a current Catholic periodical.
Bamberg, who has a degree in sociology from Furman University in Greenville, S.C., said many of the inmates are incarcerated because of drugs and mental health issues.
The weekly Mass and relationships with volunteers offer an important structure for the inmates. “We can be human again,” said Bamberg. “Even though we are wearing brown.”
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For Bamberg, “being away from family … being separated” is the hardest part of serving time.
Bamberg has two living sons, Damon and Mark. Damon is also serving a life sentence plus 30 years. They were convicted in the shooting death of Damon’s former wife.
Mark, the younger of the two, visits and corresponds with his mother.
Amy Walden, mother of three, has been at Lee Arrendale for three years.
“I’m a lifer,” she said.
Walden’s parents visit her, as does her oldest child, Heather.
“I was raised in the Catholic Church,” said Walden, 37.
Having already received the sacraments of initiation, Walden rediscovered her faith in prison.
“This keeps me sane,” she said. When Walden misses Mass, it throws her off. She reads the Bible, attends a Bible study and prays a lot.
“I do a lot of novenas,” she said.
Convicted of the murder of her husband, Walden briefly discussed her sentence and spiritual growth.
“I’ll just say I don’t want to be here,” she said. “I’ve grown a lot closer to God.”
Before the jail sentence, Walden took college courses in mechanical engineering. Now, she is a teacher’s aide for GED classes for inmates in math and science.
Walden explained that many prisoners forget what’s outside for them and called that sad. “It’s a community within itself,” she said.
For Walden, the prison ministry brings her God’s peace.
“The volunteers bring love. It’s really hard to feel accepted and loved,” she said.
— By Nichole Golden Catholic News Service. Golden is on the staff of The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese.