Xavier Magazine

Spiritual Life Behind Bars

Gene Carmichael, S.J., has been at Xavier nearly 30 years, serving the University in a number of capacities, currently as interim vice president of Mission and Identity. Recently, he began taking his skills as a Jesuit priest outside of the University, volunteering as the Catholic priest for the Lebanon Correctional Institute, a level-three prison. 

“What I do is provide the Catholic services in more than one spiritual direction for them.”

“There is a movement called Kairos in which people lead retreats for prisoners. I was helping out with this movement three years ago doing confessions and one of the guys said, ‘You know, we haven’t had Mass here in five years.’ I checked with the deputy warden and he said ‘That’s true.’ The diocesan priest who had been there full-time for many years left and there had not been Mass since. One thing led to another and now I’m the one that goes up there.”

“After the authorities got to know me, they gave me a silent alarm that I wear on my belt so if I think I’m in trouble and I push it, supposedly I would be surrounded by guards and be protected. The value of having that and having a badge is I have a right to be anywhere in the walls of the prison, including the ‘hole.’ That means if any of my guys are in there I can go in and visit with them.”

“There are two types of guys: guys who had been Catholics all their lives and want to learn more about their faith, and guys who are interested in becoming Catholic. Last summer Archbishop Pilarczyk came in and baptized and confirmed 10 of our men. If you look at the faces of these guys, there’s no doubt that a number of them are in prison for some mean and nasty things, but once you get to know them, you realize that they are, really, very good people.”

“Their being in prison is, just about always, I would say, the result of one of three things: drugs, alcohol or Vietnam.”

“Drugs and alcohol are understandable, but Vietnam—for some guys who came out of Vietnam, they were taught to kill. Hand-to-hand combat in Vietnam was very important to know. One guy was out with his platoon and most of his platoon members were killed, and he felt terrible guilt that he lost so many men and he should’ve done more to protect all the rest of them. He was so agonized over it that they sent him back to the States. He got off the boat in San Diego and was at a bar talking to some young woman and I suppose drinking alcohol. Some guy came up and made fun of the man and was demeaning to the woman so, without even thinking, he just did what he did in Vietnam and killed him. He didn’t want to kill this guy, but it was spontaneous. So he’s in for life, with no possibility of parole.”

“I’m not saying we should free all the prisoners or something, but I think we should be dealing with the guys who are in prison in very humane ways to the extent that I can spend a little time with them or the volunteers who come in. It brings a dose of reality to their lives.”

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