Volunteers reach out to those in prison

By Doris Benavides

As she thanked the four women who surrounded her at the California Institution for Women, Sofia started weeping.

“I feel His (God’s) presence and I don’t know how to explain it, but I never thought this would happen,” said Sofia, referring to the visit of parishioners to the women’s prison in Corona, where she has lived for the last year. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

On Dec. 12, 75 parishioners from 25 churches in the counties of Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles joined 150 women in prison at a Mass to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The event was organized by the Center for Restorative Justice Works in coordination with the facility’s chaplain, Dr. Maryloyola Yettke.

Sofia said that in the last year — her first time in the prison — she has learned to be patient, “because before I got desperate very easily.” Through visits with therapists inside the facility and her attendance at 12-step groups, she has learned that alcoholism is not the answer to her problems.

“I have learned to live with and accept people,” said the woman of Mexican heritage, who is looking forward to the day when she gains her freedom to go back to her family: three adult children and grandchildren. She is scheduled to be released in 2011.

Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala, a frequent visitor to the detention facility that houses more than 2,300 women, presided at the liturgy. His bilingual homily stressed the need to change, to truly live the message of the Gospel and La Virgen de Guadalupe.

“What does it mean to be a follower of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Guadalupano)?” he asked the assembly gathered in the prison’s auditorium. “It’s not enough to carry a golden medallion engraved with the Virgin’s image. It’s not enough to have a daughter named Guadalupe, or to have an image of the Virgin hanging in a room of our house, or even to attend Mass today.”

Many people, he noted, “got up early today to go to church to sing and dance to the Virgin, but even all that doesn’t mean we are followers of the Virgin. To be a Guadalupano means to live like the Virgin Mary; to say yes to the Lord, to evangelize and take the good news to others. It means to change, to love our neighbors and to help those in need. It means to follow the law of the Lord.”

“God loves us and calls us. He has given us gifts and He asks that we use those gifts to build the church.”

After describing how the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Juan Diego, Bishop Zavala addressed the importance of talking to others in their own language and to understand the needs of the less fortunate.

“That wise woman picked St. Juan Diego,” he noted, “and she spoke in his language, Nahuatl. After that day people converted by the thousands. She understood their reality.”

Bishop Zavala acknowledged that some people don’t agree with visiting people in prison. “But,” he added, “we recognize the dignity God has given you, the goodness in you. It is very important for us to visit you, the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten in the margins of society, to bring the message of God’s love, care and concern for you. Jesus takes us in his hands, he looks at us and says, ‘Change.’”

Raul Carlos, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Pomona, attended the event to deliver a positive message to the inmates. “I accepted the invitation to bring comfort and the hope of God to these women,” he said.

A father of five children, Carlos understands that many women in prison have lived in abusive environments for the majority of their lives, and he wanted them to know that there are many men who believe and share the love of God.

“It is a beautiful experience to be able to come and share God with all these women. They can’t go to us, so it’s great that we can come to them,” said Carlos. “I told a woman that real freedom is in the heart, deep inside; that even inside these walls she can be free.”

Yettke, the facility’s chaplain for the last two years, told The Tidings that “there’s a lot of desolation and sadness in these women.” She said 90 percent of the women in prison have been victims of all kinds of abuse, which in turn leads many of them to display abusive behavior as well — with jail often an end result.

In addition to the spiritual guidance provided by the chaplain and a group of volunteers, several liturgies are celebrated every Sunday in the auditorium and in the units where the women are locked down. (An interfaith Thanksgiving celebration was held in the prison in November.) Twelve-step group meetings, support classes and therapeutic treatment are also provided.