Bishop Frank J. Dewane has stressed the importance of prison outreach since his 2006 appointment as Episcopal leader of the Diocese of Venice, making a point to celebrate Mass at many prisons and jails each year while also conferring the Sacraments on numerous inmates.
Therefore, it was distressing for Bishop Dewane to learn that the prison outreach effort came to a halt when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) to close chapels and stop all programming and prohibited visitors. This extended to county jails and impacted some 150 volunteers, including 25 priests and 10 deacons, providing a variety of services, such as Bible study, religious education and assistance with receiving the Sacraments such as Baptism, First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
This new reality motivated Diocese of Venice Prison Outreach volunteer and program coordinators Bob Hiniker and Joe Mallof to find a practical solution in a complicated and challenging situation. With the assistance and support of Bishop Dewane, Hiniker and Mallof developed a multi-pronged solution targeting the inmates in the state prisons. This effort was made with the encouragement and support of Father Severyn Kovalyshin, Region 3 Chaplain, and the State Chaplain Johnny Frambo.
The first part of the solution included, thanks in part to private assistance, donating televisions to the state prisons, Mallof explained.
“In return for donating the TVs, we were able to leverage this to get a guarantee from prison leadership that the TVs would be used on Sunday to show the Catholic Mass from the Diocese of Venice, and for any other religious programming at that time,” Mallof said. “The TVs would be another source of entertainment for inmates confined to their dorms at other times to keep them occupied. This was a good solution for the chaplains to get religious content to the inmates despite the chapel closures and other restrictions. And this was a huge concession by prison management, to mandate religious programming in the dorms on Sunday morning.”
The large TV donation also allowed the chaplains to leverage this with their prison management superiors, to get religious content put on JPAY, a program which provides each state inmate with a tablet with controlled access for content such as emails, video visitation and other services.
“This would be for all inmates state-wide, not just in the three prisons with the TVs,” Mallof explained. “I believe this is the first-time religious content other than the St. James Bible is on JPAY.”
The state chaplains chose to work with the Diocese of Venice because of the TV donation, and the great respect and trust they have in the Diocesan Prison Outreach program. This will provide the inmates additional religious content at a time when the chapel and its programs, including all ministry, were suspended.
That content will include the Mass celebrated by Bishop Dewane for the prisoners for the month of June, which are recorded in advance at Santa Maria Chapel at Epiphany Cathedral in Venice. This is needed because a month of recorded Masses are uploaded at one time, Hiniker said.
“This allows those who did not have an opportunity to watch on TV on a particular Sunday, or those who want to watch again, the chance to watch at their leisure,” Hiniker said.
Additional religious educational material is also being prepared to be loaded onto the tablets. This material will be available in English and Spanish and will be periodically updated. This part of the outreach is made possible through Anne Chzran, Diocesan Director of Religious Education, and Father Claudio Stewart, Diocesan Director of Hispanic Outreach.
The cataclysmic and sudden stoppage of spiritual efforts at the prisons, generated new opportunities as the Prison Outreach in the Diocese of Venice was correctly positioned to capitalize on, Mallof said.
“It is truly a win-win for the inmates, the chaplains, and our Diocese,” he said. “The relationship we have continues to build with the chaplains, by strengthening their position within the FDOC, and will bear additional future fruits in ways yet to be seen.”
Please check back with the Florida Catholic to learn more about the religious education aspect of the ongoing Prison Outreach effort.