Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki celebrates Mass at the Waupun Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison, March 18. At left is Fr. John Radetski, who celebrates Mass there weekly with other volunteers, such as guitarists. (Submitted photo)

Out of sight, out of mind — prisoners of the 15 jails and 17 prisons within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are invisible to most people.

For more than 50 Catholics involved in prison and jail ministry, however, they are definitely known, held in prayer and visited in person.

“Our job as ministers is to bring Jesus, the Word, to those who desire to hear it and let the Holy Spirit take it from there,” said Dcn. Jim Matthias, who directs the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Prison and Jail Ministry. “I am there to help them draw closer to God, seek his mercy and forgiveness, and help them on their path to rehabilitation.”

Dcn. Matthias became director of the archdiocese jail/prison ministry, part of the Office of Catholic Social Responsibility, in 2021 after 12 years of visiting jails and prisons as part of his ministry as a deacon. His first goal was to work to build back visiting privileges for ministry volunteers because no visitors were allowed during the pandemic.

“We have made great progress in getting services into the prisons and most jails.  (Recently retired) Secretary Kevin Carr of the Department of Corrections has been very helpful in getting us more involved,” he said. “It was difficult because there is no set list of people who were already doing ministry and parishes usually don’t know if any of their parishioners are doing this ministry and the facilities themselves don’t share their lists.”

In addition, new volunteers must be approved by each facility — a process that can take as long as six months. State prisons and each county jail have their own procedures, including their own orientations, fingerprinting and background checks.

“The people who attend our services are hungry for the Word and are appreciative of the opportunities,” Dcn. Matthias said.

Dcn. Matthias accompanied Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki March 14 when he celebrated two Masses at the Milwaukee County Secure Detention Facility — the first Masses offered there since the pandemic began in 2020. About 13 prisoners attended each Mass held within a 40-man “pod” area, one of which housed special needs prisoners.

Four days later, Archbishop Listecki traveled to the maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institution to celebrate Mass two weeks before Easter.

“One of the great corporal works of mercy is to visit the imprisoned. Those individuals need to be reminded that there is still very much a dignity to their lives and they’re very much human beings, part of our society,” Archbishop Listecki said.

“When you go there, it’s really a conflict of emotions. You are very happy to be there, but then you see the constraints,” Archbishop Listecki said. “Many of us cannot imagine what it is to be in prison and how much every aspect of your movement is monitored.”

A primary message is that no one is forgotten, Archbishop Listecki said. “The great theme is given — Christ overcomes all things and with him, there is always hope, and there is life beyond this world and what we have to do is surrender ourselves basically to Christ.”

Just 36 percent of Waupun’s roughly 1,000 prisoners identify themselves as Christian, a 2023 fact sheet said, and it did not include a breakdown by denomination such as Catholic. The 15 men who attended Mass with Archbishop Listecki at Waupun had previously signed up as being interested in ministry offered to Catholic prisoners.

Increasing the presence of Catholics for ministry inside facilities is only the beginning for Dcn. Matthias. He would like prison/jail ministry to address or advocate for many related concerns in future months and years, including:

  • Alternative sentencing and diversion programs, especially for nonviolent crimes.
  • More ministry and help to the loved ones of those incarcerated.
  • “Reentry” resources for people who are preparing for release from facilities.
  • Assistance with housing, transportation, employment and proper medication.
  • Consideration of restorative justice that helps victims find healing.
  • Justice system refinement, in particular for probation violations for minor infractions.
  • Possible parish mentorship of someone recently released.

“No one wants to be judged by the worst thing they did in their life,” Dcn. Matthias said. “From the parish standpoint, we need to see those imprisoned as our brothers and sisters in Christ. They have the same sanctity and dignity as any other human being. We must make sure they are being treated fairly and humanely.”

Dcn. Matthias said he is often asked if he is afraid when he is at a prison or jail.

“I believe it is more dangerous driving to the facilities than actually being in them,” he said. “I never look up to see what someone has done because of my fear it may affect my judgment of them. We’re all sinners.”