“In our society, we don’t know what to do with people that become other,” says Dr. Kate Lassiter, assistant professor of Religious and Pastoral Studies at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The “other” she is referring to are the men and women incarcerated whose voices go unheard and who, as some people perceive, become permanently identified as a delinquent or criminal. When she was 21-years old, Lassiter found herself working with inmates inside a correctional institution. She did not commit a crime, nor was she incarcerated. Instead, she spent her time inside prison walls dedicating her summer to prison ministry work.
It was the summer of 2000, in Hagerstown, Maryland. Lassiter divided her time working at Roxbury Correctional Institution, Maryland Correctional Institution, and Maryland Correctional Training Center. She entered the facilities not knowing what experiences she would encounter.
Lassiter never expected to be working in prison ministry. “It was just something I stumbled into,” she said.
She worked with a Catholic nun in a male correctional facility where she was known as “Sister Kate,” and for three days a week she performed counseling sessions, organized prayer and worship groups, and led church services. The other two days a week she spent in after-prison ministry at a social service agency that helped those individuals who were no longer incarcerated. This service provided basic needs, food, and also housing referrals.
“Prisons were originally religious institutions intended for solitude and reflection,” says Lassiter. Through counseling inmates, she was able to witness the metanoia or spiritual transformation of men who wanted to turn their lives around for the better.
“It was hard, though, because I was never there 24/7,” she says. “There’s no way I could fully grasp or understand what it would be like to be in solitude all of the time.” She came to this realization on July 4, 2000. As she was walking out of the prison she glanced back at the barbed wire surrounding the facility and then looked up at the dark night sky being lit up with fireworks. Seeing the two elements, one symbolizing freedom and the other oppression, she realized how contrary the two were and how she was simply an outsider trying to understand what the people inside the walls were going through.
“Religion sets up guidelines for our lives,” says Lassiter, “and religion has an ability to empower one person.”
She remembered one man in particular, who at the time weighed over 400 pounds. After he began to accept Jesus into his life, he was inspired to not only turn his life around spiritually, but mentally and physically as well. He taught himself to run and lost nearly 200 pounds. He also went back and pursued his GED. After he allowed God into his life it inspired him to change his entire self.
The justice system uses incarceration to keep people oppressed. But to some of those who are incarcerated it is a “community to call home, where they encourage each other,” says Lassiter. In experiencing incarceration, an inmate can view it as a punishment or it can be viewed as a second chance to look within oneself and realize that through spirituality one has the ability to change his or her life.
Twelve years ago, Lassiter worked with what she describes as “people on the edge.” Now, as an assistant professor in the Department of Religious and Pastoral Studies, she still keeps in touch with her mentor and continues research around social justice issues to “support, guide and nourish those who find themselves incarcerated.
Lassiter believes that she positively influenced men’s lives through her ministry work and counseling.
Humbly, she says, “I don’t want to claim that I changed anyone’s life. It is just something I was called to do.”