Visiting the Monroe County Correctional Facility was nothing like what Angela Heaney expected.
Heaney, who went to the facility with fellow students from the University of Rochester Newman Community’s St. Sebastian Society, a Catholic athletic service club, said her experience was eye-opening.
"You have this idea of inmates living in a locked jail cell, when come to find out that they just live in this huge open room," she said.
Another revelation for Heaney was that many of the 18- to 23-year-old inmates they met had simply made bad decisions that landed them in jail.
"You come to realize they are just normal people, just like us," said Heaney, who completed her undergraduate degree in 2007 and a master’s degree in human development in 2009.
During the fall and spring, college students from throughout the diocese took time away from their books to travel into the area’s correctional facilities to worship and talk with prisoners.
Heaney and others from the St. Sebastian Society traveled once a week for seven weeks to the correctional facility, where they and a group of young inmates studied the book Yes Pa.
The book tells the autobiographical story of local entrepreneur Fred Sarkis, whose father locked him into the back of a produce truck as a child so that the father could go out gambling. Sarkis learned from his father that the way out of the truck was to study. By excelling in school, Sarkis became a successful entrepreneur with ventures including Bristol Mountain and Bristol Harbor Village, both in Ontario County.
"The powerful message of Yes Pa is, ‘What does one do with one’s prison?’" Sarkis — a parishioner of St. Januarius in Naples who lives in Bristol, Ontario County, and in Florida — told the Catholic Courier. "Recently a lot of people are prisoners of the economic downturn. You accept that prison, and you make it a study center."
This is the second year the St. Sebastian Society has worked with young people in the Monroe County Correctional Facility in reading and discussing Yes Pa, although the book also has been used in several other correctional facilities.
Thanks to a foundation grant, the program and book are available for free at www.yespa.org, so users need only pay for printing.
"We are hoping to create a model for use throughout prison systems in the United States," Sarkis said.
Sarkis, 83, connected with the Newman Community’s St. Sebastian Society through a good friend whose son was an active member.
Sarkis said the program targets incarcerated young people who are slated to be released within a year. Even if the program could help reform only a few inmates, it would make a major difference, he said.
"These are the kids that we are trying to prevent from coming back to prison," Sarkis said.
Heaney said the college students weren’t expected to preach morality to the inmates; instead they were simply there as peers to read and discuss the lessons in the book and reflect deeply on their choices.
"Through engaging in conversation with one another, they will share stories about their thoughts and opinions," said Heaney, who also works with at-risk children at Crestwood Children’s Center, part of the Hillside Family of Agencies. "It brings a different perspective on some of the situations that happen through the book."
In the Southern Tier, students from the Cornell Catholic Community likewise travel to the Lansing Detention Center on nearly a weekly basis to host prayer services. In addition to taking part in the ecumenical service, the students also distribute Bibles, rosaries and holiday gifts to inmates.
"The biggest impression that it makes on (the students) is being in a place that is so secure," said Cornell Campus Minister Sister Donna Fannon, a sister of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart. "It feels very much like going into a secure place and that you are losing your freedom."
During the past several years, some students from the Newman Catholic Campus Center at SUNY College at Brockport also have taken part in a three-day weekend "Fully Alive" retreat at the Women’s Correctional Facility in Albion, said Margot Van Etten, director of the Newman Center at the Brockport college.
"The kids who have done it find it so rewarding and also a real eye-opener to see the suffering that they (prisoners) go through," Van Etten said.
Inmates also give the program high marks.
"It makes a huge difference that you just show up, that somebody would bother," Van Etten observed.
This story was updated on June 9, 2009.