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Local churches reach out ot detention camp

In simple gesture, inmates give their

Posted: August 8, 2008 8:35 p.m.
Updated: October 10, 2008 5:03 a.m.

A group of inmates from the Pitchess Detention Center during a MERIT graduation ceremony in July. In October, volunteers from Grace Baptist Church will host a Returning Hearts Celebration event at the Castaic center, allowing the male inmates to spend a day with their kids.


It may be been weeks since the retreat, but Patti Rizzo still remembers all of the details of the day that brought the women of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Parish and St. Clare's Catholic Church together with the teenage girls from the detention camp.

At one point, the girls were asked to write down all of their burdens on what the retreat leaders called "a special piece of paper."

Not knowing how the ordinary half sheet of white paper would be used, Rizzo said the girls began to write their concerns.

"It would be between them and God," said Rizzo, secretary at Blessed Kateri's, who was one of the 12 facilitators working with the 45 incarcerated girls.

The girls, ranging in age from 13 to 18, focused on the piece of paper.

Some filled the sheet quickly.

Others ask for a second sheet of paper.

With their burdens laid out on the sheet of paper, at the end of the day-long retreat, three big bowls of water were placed on the tables of gymnasium that had been converted into a safe spot.

Here in the room filled with flowers and plants, the girls learned about God and how to work through their poor choices with the help of the Bible and support of the Catholic parishoners.

What made the paper "special" was that it was dissolvable, almost immediately disappearing upon touching the water. Only the color from the markers and pens were visible in the water.

Through that simple gesture, the girls gave their burdens to God.

At that moment, Rizzo remembers how emotional the girls and leaders became.

"Most of them were in tears," she said. "We prayed with them and just loved them."

‘A view of the other side'

The activity was one of the many held throughout the day as the women of the Catholic parishes worked with the girls.

While Rizzo said members and priests from St. Clare's and Blessed Kateri regularly visit detention centers in the local area to offer prayers and special services, the retreat was a first.

By partnering with Mercy Reigns, a nonprofit ministry based in Arizona, the teenage girls learned about the Bible and God under the day's theme of transformation.

"They get to know that God loves them" while understanding God's word, Rizzo said.
Rizzo, who has worked with incarcerated teen girls for more than 10 years, said the day-long retreat gave the girls a chance to "come forward" and share the troubles they've faced overcoming abuse and addictions.

"It was very emotional," she said. "The girls opened up a lot."

Rizzo considers it important to initiate retreats to create opportunities for inmates to transform and change their lives while understanding that there is a community beyond the walls of the detention center.

Rizzo said a lot of times, inmates grow up knowing a life of crime because they have parents or siblings that have been in jail.

Her hope is to give them "a view of the other side of the world" through encouragement and blessings.

Rizzo also feels blessed to work with the girls.

"You realize how thankful you are in your own life," she said.

But Blessed Kateri and St. Clare's aren't the only congregations reaching out to inmates.

On Oct. 10, about 400 volunteers from Grace Baptist Church will host a Returning Hearts Celebration at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, giving the male inmates a chance to reunite with their children.

Reducing assaults

The event was inspired by Awana ministry's trip to Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., which promoted fathers and their children working together to break the cycle of crime, according to Joe Feinstein, chaplain for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Feinstein, who went to the state prison four years ago as part of the program, said a long-term effect of Returning Hearts Celebration has been a reduction in the number of assaults within the center's walls.

"That's what we want to see here," Feinstein said, referencing the 2006 riots at Pitchess, which killed one and injured 46 inmates.

The chaplain, a Grace Baptist member, said the event will mark the first time a California jail has taken part in the program.

He would like to see the Returning Hearts Celebration expand to the entire prison system.

Breaking the cycle

The October celebration will pair members of MERIT, a jail-sponsored program that teaches inmates how to overcome their violent ways, with their kids with the help of volunteer facilitators, Feinstein said.

Throughout the day, fathers will be able to play games and share meals together.

Feinstein's hope is that the program will give the dads a way to "apologize for not being the dad he was supposed to be."

The next step would be for the fathers to establish a relationship with their kids.

"It's just a day for dad to bond with their children without other things spinning around," said Feinstein, adding that it could become a way for "dads to be dads" and for families to break the cycle of incarceration.


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