An Unexpected Reunion
It was the second annual prison ministry gathering for Catholic ministry volunteers in the Diocese of Camden’s prisons. In the morning, guest speaker Sister Elizabeth Gnam, a Dominican sister who has worked in prison ministry in Northern New Jersey for the past 26 years, told the group of 40 some of her stories.
“We’re involved in divine action. Sometimes we’re the conduit through which God’s mercy and nonjudgmental forgiveness is experienced by people,” she said. “How wonderful that is.”
In the afternoon, former inmates shared their stories and experiences of prison ministry with the group. When the last of the three came to the microphone, no one in the room, least of all Sister Gnam, anticipated what he would say.
Well-spoken, 38-year-old Julio Briones grew up in Queens and Union City. As a teenager he stayed out of trouble, avoiding the gangs and street life in spite of a difficult home situation. At 17, he joined the army to get away. He served for four years in Korea and Kuwait during Operation Desert Shield.
“I came back broken,” he said.
At 25, he was arrested under accomplice liability – as an accomplice he may not have actually committed the crime, but he’s as guilty as those who did for failing to act on knowledge of the crime. He was sentenced to 65 years in prison. Of those who committed the crime, the next highest sentence was seven years.
For years he worked to lower the sentence, spending hours in the prison’s law library, he said. The original 65-year sentence had been an error and was reduced to 39 years, with a minimum requirement of 25 years in prison. He was able to lower the sentence to 20 years and kept working.
Five years after his arrest, as he anxiously awaited the results of his final appeal, he learned that instead of further lowering his sentence, the original 39-year sentence had been reinstated. He was told there could be no more appeals.
Distraught, he resolved to kill himself. But first, he decided to go to the Catholic prayer service being led that night by Sister Elizabeth Gnam. She spoke to the group about hope.
“She said, ‘No matter what, no matter how dark it gets, don’t ever give up hope.’” He looked in Sister Gnam’s direction: “You have no idea how much those words meant to me.”
It was the first time the two had been in the same room together since the night Sister Gnam spoke to that group of inmates at New Jersey State Prison 8 years earlier.
“You all change lives, you save lives,” he said to the group of prison ministry volunteers through tears. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Today, Briones is the director of business development for a home care company. He was recently married. The unexpected reunion with Sister Gnam almost might not have occurred, had it not been for the wedding. Briones received his Confirmation in the Church in prison, and while trying to obtain his paperwork, he was put in touch with Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, prison ministry coordinator for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden. She invited him to speak at the gathering just days before the meeting.
“I didn’t recognize her right away,” Briones said later of Sister Gnam. “It wasn’t until she got up and started speaking that I realized it really was her. I never thought I’d see her again.”
Briones says he made the decision that night in prison to “ask God to take over.” A few months later, he received a letter informing him that his sentence had been reduced to 12 years plus parole. Shortly after he would reconnect with an old friend destined to be his future wife. Her visits got him through the rest of his prison term.
“I know there’s something bigger than me out there,” he said. “The whole experience strengthened my faith in ways I can’t really begin to describe. Only time will tell.”
The Challenges of Freedom
He spent two years on community release in a halfway house where he job hunted for a year and a half, turned down by fast food restaurants and everywhere else he applied because of his record. Finally, his current company decided to take a chance on him and he’s been there ever since.
Many others are not so lucky.
The most recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about 68 percent of prisoners released in thirty states in 2005 had been rearrested within three years; 77 percent, or three out of four, had been arrested for a new crime within five years.
According to a 2009 study conducted in New Jersey, about 53% of released inmates in the state had been arrested again within three years. According to the New Jersey State Parole Board, there were 595 self-reported veterans in New Jersey prisons as of June, 2015, but they believe the actual number of incarcerated veterans in the state to be much higher; often inmates choose not to report veteran status.
“There are a lot of challenges for people coming out of the system,” Briones said. “It’s hard to get a job today under even good circumstances. Lacking an education and having a criminal record makes it that much more difficult.”
He dreams of one day starting a combination non- and for-profit to help released inmates get back on their feet after prison, providing them with job training, housing, and out-patient drug treatment.
At the prison ministry gathering, Sister Gnam framed her remarks with a traditional story from an African tribe that believes that every individual has their own song, composed by his or her mother and other women before the child’s birth.
The song is sung during major life events throughout the child’s life – when they come into adulthood, get married, have a child – and finally at his or her funeral.
The only other time the village sings the child’s song is when that person commits a crime, offends the community in a major way, Sister Gnam told a spellbound audience.
“They sing the song to help that person remember who they are and who they’re called to be,” she said. “That’s what you do in prison ministry.”