The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Christ behind bars: inside prison ministry

Ever wonder what it’s like to work in prison ministry?

Here are some answers, from a few of those involved — and a growing number are deacons:

1119_HandsBarbedWTH.jpgFather Ernie Gauthier has kept going back to the jails, prisons and halfway houses to visit inmates, celebrate a Mass or a communion service, and bring God to the residents for more than 25 years.


The priest, a licensed clinical social worker who retired from parish ministry in 2002, has seen changes in the jails and the criminal justice system over the decades. Sheriffs ran the jails in the days before a charter form of administration took over. Buildings and facility campuses have opened and closed. One thing that has remained the same, however, is that it’s depressing.

“It’s not the inmates that are depressing,” Father Ernie said, “it’s the criminal justice system.”

In a Catholic Key story dated April 18, 2003, Father Ernie said the behaviors that often put people behind bars are often only a symptom of deeper problems. He described it as the tip of an iceberg. “How much is above the surface? Only about 10 percent. Beneath all this is a co-occurring disorder or distraction that must be treated or the problem above the surface is not going away. Unfortunately, society is more interested in punishing behavior than curing it.”


He is the founder of “Co-Occurring Distractions,” a non-profit agency in Lee’s Summit that works with addicts and professionals assigned to them to understand the underlying causes of anti-social behavior. The agency collects and has processed meat from deer during hunting season to augment food supplies in prisons, halfway houses and food pantries.

Father Ernie praised the Sisters of Mercy of Omaha whose donation of seed money helped establish the Criminal Justice AIDS Network — healthcare case management for inmates with HIV/AIDS.

A number of people regularly visit prisons, halfway houses and county jails. Father Ernie said that a group of ordained deacons and several priests hold scripture and communion services, celebrate Masses and initiate discussions on the readings including Kansas City -St. Joseph Bishop Robert Finn and retired Father Tom Wiederholt who celebrates Mass and Sunday services.


Deacon Mike McLean of St. Elizabeth Parish, who ministers to inmates at the Regional Correctional Center downtown, said a particular kind of person gets into prison ministry. “You have to be strong enough to avoid the con-games. Some of the guys are really good at cons. It’s important to keep showing that you care, you love them and want to help them, but you can not and will not do certain things for them.”

Deacons Don McCandless, Darwin Dupree and Mike McLean visit the Regional Correctional Center next to the Jackson County Jail on the first and third Sundays of every month.

Deacon McCandless, now retired, had gotten involved in prison ministry in Canada long before he moved to Kansas City. After his move to this diocese and his ordination to the permanent diaconate in 1978, Deacons McCandless and Ross Beaudoin were assigned to the now-closed Municipal Correctional Institution, also known as Leeds Farm.


“We visited there until the program was discontinued,” Deacon McCandless said. “We started visiting again when it restarted. There were six of us: deacons Darwin Dupree and Mike McLean; Deacon Ken Albers and his wife Cathy; a layman, Alex Pope, and me. We visited MCI regularly for another year or so. Then Governor (John) Ashcroft created a Citizens Advisory Board. We visited each institution and listened to inmate’s complaints. If there were justifiable complaints, we went to the administration and tried to rectify the problem. There was an inmate who was diabetic and he was bothered by the blood stained lab when he had blood work done. He didn’t feel it was a healthy place for him to go. I went to see for myself, and sure enough, there was dried blood on the table and on some of the lab equipment.”

Deacon McCandless and the others continued to visit the correctional facility until other commitments became more demanding.

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Comments read comments(3)
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Debra Lauderbaugh

posted November 20, 2010 at 9:09 am

I agree with what your saying,about punishing the crime without getting them help.My son has been getting into trouble since he was 18yrs.old and now he is 21 and serving 1year,all his trouble were pot and alchol related,non-violent crime.I often wondered myself why they did not send him to a half-wayhouse or rehab,but instead he got probation and jail time and they sent him right back out there to drink and drug once again with no help.He is a good kid with a big heart and loved GOD.But he has an addiction to alchol and society whom,no matter where he turns drugs and alchol are present.He is to blame for his decisions,but socoiety is to blame for not being there for him,to help him beat the addiction.Locking him up is not curing him of any addiction,and most people end up back in jail because of it!It’s a money racket,why can’t they use that money and put a rehab on the premisis or make their sentence mandatory lock-up at a rehab facility,where he can get help? I will never understand the justice system and feel that they are letting are children down in todays sosiety,and all they care about is the money.They are still human-beings and GOD forgives us all of our sins and people make bad decisions on drugs and alchol,that changes their life forever.They get out and have a record and can’t find a job because noone cares,because they think their bad people because they have been in jail or prison,and never give them a chance to change their lives,so they usually go back to drinking and drugging just to survive.Its a circle that keeps repeating itself,and I know GOD is disapointed in the system,he never turns us away.These men and women are Sons,Fathers,brothers,uncles….GODS children,why don’t they help them?somethinf in the justice system has to change.They need help to be cured,not locked-up like animals.It’s wrong!

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posted November 24, 2010 at 4:58 pm

lord cares for, loves prisoners, and knows prisoners well there 24-7-365 in yard or in their cell great confident that does no tell.they just have to ask to receive our free SPREAD THE WORD TALK WITH THE LORD offers its fun co0ol song lyrics free plus clergy using our blog posts for sermon and group discussion themes info/lyrics free for asking g. hubbard p.o. box 2232 ponte vedra fl 32004

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posted June 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm

My cousin ‘s son is currently in prison awaiting his sentencing this August. He was wrongly accused and serving in prison for a crime he did not do.There was not a single proof against him that the defense presented. Now he is jail.His mother for one is so devastated. He is catholic,and there are no priests who visit him in jail.Where can we get support in this cases.
Thank you

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