January 29, 2021

Corrections Corner / Richard Hoying

Inmates’ conversions offer hope in our fractured world

Richard HoyingAt the start of 2020, I became a visitor/volunteer at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute through the Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS) organization.

Two of the prisoners I have visited, “George and Reggie,” have been “inside” for about 10 years. Each has said that unless someone has been incarcerated for at least five years, they really don’t know what it’s like to be a prisoner. Both have undergone an awakening of their spiritual self-awareness that has led to a conversion in their personal lives.

George is not a well-educated man, but he is the best person I have met at being able to vocalize and write about his personal prayer life and about his relationship with the Almighty. He doesn’t proselytize, but he has a strong conviction that each person can make a difference in the world, regardless of their station. Being a prisoner, he has added, with some irony: “Now Richard, is that nobility or is that stupidity?”

Reggie’s story is an inspiration. His journey into spiritual self-awareness is summarized by his line, “prison is a university for the wise, and a playground for fools.”

About a year ago, Reggie decided that he would always be positive in every situation. He would say that he is not religious, but he has adopted the prayer rituals of his Muslim cell block mates. Prayer gives him the spiritual strength to overcome the daily frustrations of prison life and to help his fellow prisoners through theirs. Reggie has a big personality, and it is impossible not to like “positive” Reggie.

Reggie’s conversion has undergone an ultimate test. Recently, Reggie’s co-defendant at trial was transferred to Terre Haute. Though he was probably equally guilty, this man’s testimony against Reggie led to unequal prison sentences of 17 years versus 25 years.

In the prison yard, Reggie had the opportunity to severely hurt or even kill his co-defendant. Instead, he mustered all his spiritual strength, walked over and forgave the man. This big, strong man then went back to his cell and cried the rest of the day.

Forgiveness, mercy and personal redemption are central attributes to George’s and Reggie’s stories, as is the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen them in their conversion. The men I have come to know are a world removed from the street-educated boys who were found guilty of their crimes.

Terre Haute is the site of the execution of federal prisoners, performed in our names as citizens. Those who have visited prisoners on death row—from PVS volunteers to clergy and spiritual advisors to Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin—all have the same thought: the government is not executing the men (and recently, a woman) who committed their crimes.

Volunteering there has been an extremely rewarding experience. Each interaction teaches me something new. The visits are revelations of our common humanity and our common spirituality, regardless of our past or present circumstances. In our socially, politically and religiously fractured world, one can never get enough of that affirmation.

(Richard Hoying is a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Mooresville.)

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