Prisoners and formerly incarcerated individuals do not immediately invite empathy or even sympathy. Yet, a Jesuit-led prison ministry, Thrive for Life, has committed itself to the transformation of members of this oft-neglected population, accompanying them in their journey from behind prison walls to their successful return to society.
Fr. Zach Presutti, S.J., leads teams of spiritual mentors to provide monthly retreats in several correctional facilities throughout New York and New Jersey. These retreats, attended by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, are rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and take the form of the Daily Examen. Through this accompaniment, our imprisoned brothers and sisters discern a sense of purpose in life, recognizing their inviolable human dignity and worth. From purpose flows other graces including a recognition of the transformative power of education. Some take advantage of prison education programs offered by local universities but are discouraged from continuing after their release due to key obstacles to successful reentry: lack of housing, employment, and education.
This led Thrive for Life to establish Ignacio House, the only one of its kind. It is a transitional housing program offering a holistic suite of support services that provide a continuity of care. Defying the statistics that 70% return to prison after 3 years, there has been zero recidivism since Thrive for Life started Ignacio House in 2019. In May 2022, the first resident graduate received his MBA degree with distinction from Mercy College. Encouraged by the success of its unique model, it has recently relocated to a larger convent in Harlem, thanks to the generosity of Cardinal Timothy Dolan. It is now preparing to open another house in Queens in partnership with St. John’s University – this one for women! It is also poised to establish houses in Milwaukee and Washington DC in partnership with Marquette and Georgetown Universities, respectively.
Key partners include institutions of higher learning that offer scholarships to Ignacio House residents (like NYU, CUNY, Cornell, and Columbia) in addition to other organizations that include the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. There are currently three IVC volunteers placed at Thrive for Life. My assignment includes developing partnerships with parishes and other diocesan organizations. This has been a particularly suitable placement because I retired from a career at Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens where I was Director of Community Outreach and Services and of the diocesan Campaign for Human Development.
The fact that Thrive for Life and IVC share the charism of St. Ignatius of Loyola adds special depth to my volunteer experience. Both value “the dignity and equality of all women and men regardless of race, age, education, economic deprivation, or social status” and I might add, regardless of their criminal justice background. This placement has deepened my faith, hope and charity as I accompany forgotten brothers and sisters on their journey of transformation.
This IVC placement at Thrive for Life has given me the opportunity to be in solidarity with people in need while they inspire me with their newfound hope and belief in a future that fully accepts them as contributing members of society. Thrive for Life gives me the chance to continue to search for the Magis, and like the Jesuits, to “never be content with the status quo, but reach out in ‘holy boldness’, beyond boundaries and frontiers, searching for new challenges and opportunities toward fuller service to God and others.” Indeed, transformation is not just for the incarcerated but for us all.
- Nina Valmonte, IVC Corps Member