By Fr. Dustin Feddon
As a Catholic priest serving in Florida’s panhandle, I’ve had privileged access to see up-close the realities of life inside prisons. Though my main job was as a parish priest, I made time to visit the incarcerated, especially those in solitary confinement. In the spring of 2018, a few parishioners, my bishop, and I decided to lay the groundwork for establishing a ministry to those returning from prison.
It was a leap into the dark, as I knew very little about how to navigate the various social service channels that are involved, not to mention the precarious psychological and spiritual situation of the people we hoped to minister to.
We had agreed to give priority to individuals who would be homeless upon release or were considered high risk for recidivism. Davy was set to be released in five months straight from solitary confinement. He would be led out of his cell, transported to the local bus station, and then sent to wherever he designated his dropoff.
A 24-year-old black man, Davy seemed more like 15 with his scrawny stature, dimpled face, and bubbly personality. Many of those in solitary confinement intentionally bring on disciplinary referrals so they can escape abuse, debtors, peer pressure for gang violence, rape, or any other form of violence inside the walls. Davy was one of these. His appearance didn’t bode well for him in a prison population often structured by power dynamics.
I had visited Davy a couple of times, but one day he told me he was getting out soon but didn’t have a place to live. He would leave solitary confinement only to go back to the streets in his hometown of Tallahassee. A few friends, a social worker, and I agreed to accompany Davy for the next year. This included paying some court fees so he could get his driver’s license, shopping for clothes, helping him open a bank account, going out to eat, playing John Madden football together, and yes, plenty of exhaustive arguments and bouts of utter frustration.
Soon after his release, I drove Davy to a probation appointment. He became increasingly agitated and belligerent towards me – mocking my classical music on the radio, and then just numb and silently fuming. He put on his headphones, clearly distancing himself from me. Slamming the car door, Davy insisted on going to his probation officer alone, although I usually went in with him.
Afterward, Davy’s fury was unleashed. “These police are ruining my life!” he said. “They want me back in prison. I can’t do anything right. They might as well put cuffs back on me and haul me back to prison, because I’m done.” When Davy entered that office, with the DOC sign on the door and rules like no cellphone, no eating, no drinks, it provoked all those feelings, rendering him muzzled. Trapped. He has walled me in and I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy (Lamentations 3:7).
And I had escorted him into this trap the state had set for him. Or so it felt. And that entangled me in this hostile system. His anger towards me earlier had made me angry as well, and I distinctly recall thinking: we’ll quickly get Davy a job and move on to the next person needing our assistance. But when he exploded afterwards, I realized his aggression toward his perceived persecutors was initially directed toward me.
I don’t really recall what I said, but I was moved by how poisonous these probation visits were for Davy. Understanding that was important for our relationship. Davy calmed a bit, but not because of my words. Rather, I think it was because I stuck by him. Future visits didn’t bring on nearly as much anxiety and conflict. We tried to temper these probation visits with other residents with things they enjoy doing or going to a park afterwards.
When we choose to accompany newly released prisoners, we must be willing to enter into the private hell of others. Praying the office as I think of the prisoners I have met also helps me envision a future of redemption. I don’t mean simply mercy and justice for them in some vague, remote afterlife. No. By redemption I mean dignity restored to their present and future, the possibility that light may shine in their darkness.
Davy’s probation visit was a moment of revelation for me. It was an opportunity for me to hear his anguished plea for a secure home. In these past few years, I have discovered that when we patiently walk with others, we not only discover the mysterious hidden depths of human nature, but we also may create a more just world hospitable to all.
Fr. Dustin Feddon is executive director at Joseph House in Tallahassee, FL.