One may not associate the word “retreat” with prison. Gina Raymond, DM, however, chose the word carefully for the two-day curriculum at Janet York Correctional Institution, where she has been teaching the word of God for close to twenty years. Raymond’s Bible-based retreats have a waiting list and she calculates that sixty percent of the women who first attend a “Gift of Faith” retreat will return to participate in another one.
How “The Gift of Faith” Retreat Inside Prison Functions
Gina remains flexible to constraints. A ‘free room’ may or may not be available for consecutive days of instruction. She is always aware of the need to adapt quickly to work around an institutional system that houses approximately 900 inmates. Gina prefers to facilitate a series of hours with the same inmates. Time is needed to break the ice and get to know one another. Assigned written homework provides time for reflection and follow-up discussion that she knows will greatly improve getting to know Jesus.
Participants are asked to sign up with open minds in order for the chance to receive the spirit. Gina also sets up boundaries and rules. ‘Cross talk’ is sternly disavowed. She requires the women inside to know an answer to “what do you wish to accomplish during this time?” before signing up.
Volunteers are always in need (one volunteer is required for every ten prisoners). It can take months to receive security clearance and Raymond also wants volunteers to have experienced a retreat first themselves.
The Oxford Bible’s “12-steps” influence is apparent in Gina’s prison retreat model. A large percentage of inmates suffer from mental health problems and addiction. Alcoholic Anonymous’ recovery methodology is also based on the Twelve Steps.
“Writing down one’s inventory is like a confession; an effective method for allowing the gift of faith to enter a prisoner’s consciousness,” Gina says, having witnessed it often.
While Raymond’s retreats support the prison’s Catholic chaplain’s ministry, she also sees how practical faith lessons can help with issues of forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and overcoming guilt and shame. She recognizes sometimes inmates are unfamiliar to the reasons why one may engage in devotions like praying the Rosary or taking Communion so she provides ‘primers’ on them.
Incarcerated women’s spiritual and religious problems range from simple to complex. They include:
- Missing family and children
- Not knowing how to pray
- Not knowing how to be in silence
- Not knowing how to handle guilt and remorse
- Questioning why they took a certain path
- Asking Higher Power to remove pain.
The Gift of Faith, Gina teaches, is like an umbrella that can cover all of these sufferings and tribulations.
A Sample Retreat
Recently, Gina developed and conducted a two day spiritual and religious retreat on the subject of ‘choice.’ Gina framed it with 1 James: 5-6 (New Revised Standard Edition) [i] and the petition: “Ask God for Wisdom and Discernment.” She explained in an accompanying handout:
God gives us the gift of free will so that we can make decisions and also choose to love Him. This means we also must make earthly choices. He doesn’t leave us unequipped, and we can ask Him for guidance and wisdom for these decisions.
“The start of a moral life,” she writes in the homework handout, “is about discovering who we are and the discovery of Christ living within us. When we allow Christ to live within us, we begin to live the life He wants us to live. In this living, we become who we already are.”
In the same takeaway focusing on the nature of choice, she asks for reflection on ‘object chosen, intention, and circumstances,’ explaining these components in decision making. She concludes the homework assignment by providing additional Biblical verses about the freedom to choose (Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Romans 8:7; Ephesians 2:1-3; Galatians, 5:1 (NRSV)).
She requests that they study and reflect upon scripture and return with the answers to these questions in writing:
- What is the decision that I need to be currently making?
- What options do I have in this situation?
- What past experiences helped me to make the right important decisions?
- What accomplishment from the past year surprised me? and
- What am I most proud of?
When the retreat is completed, “Ms. Gina” asks her students to leave in silence. Perhaps the most immediate and recognizable moment of change occurs when they invite others inside of prison to also take the course. In doing so they have transformed into becoming persons of service.
Gina Raymond, DM, is Membership Chair for the Eastern Connecticut Area. She serves on the Prison Ministry Advisor committee for the Diocese of Norwich, CT and holds several certificates in religious and spiritual programs, including from the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.
For more information on starting a retreat inside of a prison, please click here to contact Mary Jo Kriz, co-chair of the Order of Malta, American Association’s Prison Ministry Committee.
[i] If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.