First of a two-part series.
Prison chaplains wear hope on their sleeves. Many talk about ex-prisoners who transform their lives in prison and, after release, become contributing citizens and good parents.
One of the chaplains, the Rev. Dietra Wise Baker said that most judges and others who work in the justice and corrections systems are “loving,” but the system is flawed.
“We have to deal with that as a society and begin to dismantle those systems.” For 10 years, Baker has been a full-time chaplain at the three juvenile detention centers in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
For her job, one key is connection. Chaplains are generally trusted, and that trust often allows in-depth, one-on-one conversations that can lead to helping a prisoner find the hope and courage to make wiser choices.
“I never take notes,” said Jeff Fabbiano, a chaplain at the same three youth facilities. “We don’t talk about what they tell us.”
Baker said the juveniles seem to know that chaplains will keep what they say private and she finds that “almost intuitively, they … are respectful, don’t use bad language with us.”
Baker and Fabbiano’s salaries are paid by the Episcopal City Mission ministry, which is funded by the Episcopal Church of Missouri. The program focuses all of its prison ministry on youth.
Baker, who has a doctorate in ministry, also is pastor of the 50-member Liberation Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation that meets in rental space at the Regional Arts Commission in the Delmar Loop. Fabbiano is a former youth minister at a non-denominational church.
A chance to learn
For many prisoners. detention is the first time they have lived in a structured environment with three meals a day and regular quiet hours for sleep.
Many teens in detention — some as young as 12, none older than 17 — are poorly educated. They may, however, make educational strides in detention centers’ closed educational environment with the support of encouraging teachers, counselors and chaplains. Some teens have been told by their parents that education does not matter.
“Some don’t expect to live long enough to get a job,” Baker said. Many assume that the world beyond their neighborhood is against them, she said.
Baker is impressed by the teachers who work with juveniles in detention residences. She’s observed youth in long-term detention improve their reading as much as three grade levels in six months under the structured, drug-free environment. They can be tutored by reading specialists and own books given by the nonprofit group Reading Is Fundamental.
Fabbiano first gets to know new residents by playing chess or basketball.
“You try to build trust, show you care about them and later that day they may come to you and want to talk,” Fabbiano said. Once residents have opened up, he gently motivates those who had been on drugs to reflect on their improved mental health. He helps them realize that they sleep better, eat better and that their minds are clear and focused away from drugs, he said. He often tells Christian inmates that Jesus promised a “full life” and encourages them to make positive “full life” choices. Baker and Fabbiano stress that God forgives the teens and loves them. Volunteer rabbis and imams also attend to needs at the three youth residential facilities.
About three-quarters of the juveniles voluntarily show up for Sunday Christian worship services at the facilities, Baker said.
“They often have good memories of going to church with a grandmother maybe or a parent, and they don’t want to sit in their rooms,” Baker said. “Spirituality is one tool to help them.”
Baker and Fabbiano, as well as other chaplains interviewed, hope for transformation even though they brace themselves for disappointment.
“I saw a young man today (at the St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Center in Clayton) who had returned,” she said. “I knew him from last time, I knew his name.”
Close to her heart is the memory of one boy from St. Lous who was in detention at the rustic lakeside facility near Creve Coeur Lake. He made the honor role at a nearby Parkway school where Lakeside administrators enrolled him. Many Lakeside staff were surprised at his honors, but Baker had had many conversations with him and knew he was bright.
“He never had had such educational structure and resources in his old school,” she said. “The wider community needs to care more about children in under-performing school districts.”
When released, the honor-roll student returned to his environment and his old ways, was arrested and now is in an adult penitentiary where he likely will be until he is middle aged.
"He got help too late,” she said.
This Parkway honor roll student is typical of those who needed a safe residence upon release, away from old neighborhoods, street friends and drug pushers, she said. If a teen’s immediate family is part of the problem, he or she may be placed with a grandparent, uncle or other relative who lives in a different neighborhood.
“They need structure and guidance, many don’t know much about how to earn money and how to prioritize their spending,” she said. Parents often don’t either.
However, once an offender is released from prison or juvenile detention most need help starting a new life away from the temptations of former addictions and criminal cronies who may include neighbors, classmates and family members.
“There is a big gap in the criminal justice system especially once juveniles are released,” Baker said
“No organized entity, no agency here helps young people under 18 with re-entry, not one agency,” Baker said. “There’s talk, Mayor (Francis) Slay called people together to help but nothing yet. That gap speaks to (juvenile) recidivism rate in Kansas City and St. Louis of 60 percent.”
Nationally 2.5 million teens are arrested each year. Some federal studies say one in five youth are at risk. In Missouri, a young black male is six times more likely to be in detention than a young white male.
Baker said, “Whether they are black or white, most are poor. We just don’t see kids who privileged, rich and white; and I don’t think it is because they are not doing (illegal) things.”
Affluent, savvy parents hire lawyers instead waiting for an assigned lawyer to take a case. If middle-class children land in detention, they are released quickly, Baker said.
“As a society we have to become aware and begin to have hard conversations around white privilege, racism, classism and poverty,” Baker said. “Hard conversations … about how systems including the incarceration system and the juvenile system lock up people who are poor and people of color more than they lock up anyone else.”
A Worcester, Mass.-based, interdenominational ministry Straight Ahead, led by the Rev. Scott Larson provides job readiness programs, entry level jobs and “discipleship homes” for former juvenile offenders. Baker has visited the ministry and considers it a role model, as long as these teen residents are near family members.
“Family is so important to them,” she said.
Fabbiano said when he started as chaplain after years as youth minister, he realized that teens in detention are much like the church kids he used to work with.
“They are just kids, with the same fears, same worries, same desire to fit in and be accepted,” he said. “They have different circumstances surrounding them but their make-up is still an adolescent trying to figure out life.”
The wider community needs to have an open mind about offenders and the chance of transformation, Fabbiano said. “It is easy to look at offenders and judge them and put them in a box saying this is who you are and this is who you will always be.”
God calls us to be more respectful, he said. With respect, more people can help them make wise choices, he said.