Visit the imprisoned: Terry Samaniego brings mercy, love of God to inmates

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Terry Samaniego felt empty inside until she returned to the Church. She visits women prisoners every Tuesday evening. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)

In recognition of the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, every month The Catholic Sun will feature a “Missionary of Mercy” who ­exemplifies one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy. In recognition of the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, every month The Catholic Sun will feature a “Missionary of Mercy” who ­exemplifies one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy.

Practical ways to Visit the Prisoner
  • Donate Walmart gift cards. The prison ministry uses them to buy back-to-school supplies for prisoners’ children
  • Donate paperback or softcover Bibles
  • Sponsor a prisoner’s family at Christmas

Info: Kevin Starrs, director of prison ministry, at (602) 354-2485 or kstarrs@diocesephoenix.org

Three years ago, an announcement in the St. Francis Xavier Parish bulletin about visiting inmates in prison caught Terry Samaniego’s eye. With several family members who’ve served time, the plea for volunteers to visit prisoners touched her heart.

“Who died beside Jesus, one to the left and one to the right? Prisoners. What does He say to me? Visit My prisoners,” Samaniego said. “I’m blessed to do this, to visit the ladies in prison.”

Every Tuesday, Samaniego makes the 60-mile round trip to visit the female inmates at the San Pedro Unit, part of the Arizona State Prison Complex in Goodyear.

She humbly acknowledges that but for the grace of God, she might be the one in need of a visitor. She tells the prisoners:

“The difference between you and me is that you got caught.”

That’s because earlier in life, Samaniego did her share of partying and pill-popping. “The reason I didn’t get caught was because someone yanked at my chain and said, ‘Enough is enough’ with the drinking and the partying. It could have been me, and that’s exactly what I tell them.”

“The difference between you and me is that you got caught.”

That’s because earlier in life, Samaniego did her share of partying and pill-popping. “The reason I didn’t get caught was because someone yanked at my chain and said, ‘Enough is enough’ with the drinking and the partying. It could have been me, and that’s exactly what I tell them.”

Years ago, Samaniego admits, she used to bar hop. “Now I tell the ladies I church hop. They get a kick out of that.” She’s not kidding, either. Although she lives in South Phoenix, Samaniego works in Chandler. Every other week, she gets off at 5 a.m. on Sunday.

“Instead of coming all the way home, getting dressed and trying to stay awake, I sleep in the car or on a couch at work. When you want to go and see God, you’ll do anything,” Samaniego declared.

She means it, too. The day The Catholic Sun visited her home, she had risen at 2 a.m. to pray. “I do my Rosary and go back to bed, then I get back up and I’ll listen to the Mass on EWTN. Then my day starts. My morning has to be with the Lord, all by ourselves.”

Read more about the Church’s outreach to those in prison

Devotion to the daily Rosary is something she said she learned from the prisoners. About 20 of them gather once a week when Samaniego and another volunteer from St. Francis Xavier hold a Communion service at the prison. Some of the women are pregnant. Many of them worry about their children or the fact that they haven’t had a visit from family. More than anything, Samaniego said she is touched by the one-on-one time with each prisoner.

“It doesn’t matter how big our crime is. Jesus loves us, He does, no matter what we do. You might think that He doesn’t, but He does,” Samaniego tells them.

A couple of times, she’s visited the Lumley unit, where prisoners have been convicted of more serious offenses. “It’s tough, but being in there, you have to just be yourself. You’re going in there to take the Word, to take Communion.”

For those behind bars, it’s a small slice of heaven.

“When you have loved ones in prison, you know that side of it. You know how the guards can be. You know the rules. You’re going in and taking God into prison,” Samaniego said. “We go in there and we pray for one another. We ask for forgiveness. We learn from one another.”

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