Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger leads the Mass at the Washington Correctional Facility. View the photo gallery on the homepage for all pictures from the prison's Christmas Mass.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger leads the Mass at the Washington Correctional Facility. View the photo gallery on the homepage for all pictures from the prison's Christmas Mass.

Last week, I went to prison.

I walked through the doors of Washington Correctional Facility in Comstock with a press badge, notebook and pen (no cell phones were allowed.) The guard at the front desk asked for my name and ID and had me sign the visitor’s book.

“Think they’ll let you back out?” our photographer asked. I said I would cross my fingers. 

We waited in the administration building’s front lobby as the room gradually flooded with volunteers from the facility’s prison ministry. Bishop ­Edward B. Scharfenberger walked through the door and a volunteer cheered, “The boss is here!”

As volunteers gave out hugs and hellos, the room was abuzz with excitement; Thursday, Dec. 19, was the facility’s Christmas Mass, which would be celebrated by Bishop Scharfenberger and followed with a holiday dinner. 

Deacon Miguel Fabian, chaplain at the correctional facility, tried to make the Mass special for the inmates. “We try to bring something to make Christmas different,” he said. 

Outside of the holidays, Deacon Fabian is a support system and spiritual guide for anyone in need at the prison, regardless of faith. 

“Most inmates, they’re going home,” he said. “Everybody has hope to go back (and) to be a better husband, a better father, a better life. In prison they have the opportunity to … plant the seed they received in jail.”

Once all the volunteers arrived, we started through security. Coats were off, everything out of your pockets, and all belongs were placed on a long metal table as you walked through a metal detector. A guard stamped our hands and directed us to the room that would lead into the prison grounds. The room was surrounded by large, gray walls. I showed the guard my stamp and watched as the gate slowly closed, locking us in with a bang. 

Outside it really hits that you have entered a prison: Spirals of razor wire wrapped around the tall prison gates that stretch across the grounds for miles. The bright simmer of the metal against the sunlight gave the appearance of elegant icicles, and if the wiring wasn’t so intimidatingly terrifying, I would have found it pretty. 

We boarded a bus to take us to the facility’s gymnasium for the Mass. It was a tight fit, but everybody was in great spirits; the group even managed to fit in a quick rendition of “Wheels on the Bus.” 

Walking inside, the men greeted the volunteers with loud cheers, clapping and standing from the foldout tables around the room. One volunteer walked in late; as she entered, she threw her hands in the air and cheered. All the men cheered back, standing once again and clapping. 

It was like any other school gym, complete with basketball hoops and soft mats covering the concrete walls, but, at this gym, a decorated altar stood at the front, and in the corner was a nativity scene covered in twinkling lights next to a decorated Christmas tree. 

Bishop Scharfenberger celebrated the Mass in both English and Spanish, and inmates helped with the readings, which were also read in both languages. “Christmas will not come unless we let it come,” said the Bishop during his homily. “The heart is the favorite place of Jesus, and it is the most difficult place to reach.”

“I just try to stay focused and pray that God keeps the demons away,” said Shane Allen, a reader at the Mass. “I try to do that so I can go and do the right thing in life. I look to God and pray, and that’s all.”

At the end of the night, as we bussed back to the entrance, I began thinking of how I was going to write this story. As I was flipping through my notes, a quote from Matthew 25:40 popped into my head: “I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

It reminded me that our faith calls us to help those in need, no matter who they are. On that day, the Bishop and the volunteers embraced every person in the facility, regardless of their past, with open arms and an open heart. No one was looking to the past, instead, they turned to God on the path to a better future.