The walk from the front gate of the SCI Phoenix state prison in Graterford, Montgomery County to the chaplain’s office is exactly half a mile long. John Killeen knows it well.
He also knows the guards, the parole officers and most intimately the incarcerated people he is there to support, coach and ultimately father through their time in prison and transition home.
He knows who to ring up in Harrisburg, how to set up an inmate with a local telephone number and how to walk a released prisoner through each hour of the overwhelming and tender moments of their first day out.
Rather than packaging his inside knowledge of the prison system into a sterile program — the kind with which many inmates are all too familiar — John simply remains present to share when the time is right.
“There is so much need, but nobody knows what they are looking for, or if they do, they don’t know how to get it,” John said of incarcerated persons and their families.
He doesn’t do this work alone. John and his wife Sue adopted the Mary Mother of Captives support group, now run out of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Drexel Hill, Delaware County about nine years ago.
Established by Jack and Sophie Weber in 1996, the couple carries on the group’s legacy of working together to survive the effects of an incarcerated loved one.
More than a system or program, the work being carried out by John, Sue and their parent organization the Augustinian Defenders of the Poor (ADROP) is a true community built on nothing short of love. Mary Mother of Captives is a family of families facing a crisis.
With John’s knowledge and guidance driving the transition program, it is Sue’s heart that carries the support group because she knows what it is to carry the burden of seeing one’s own child behind bars as she did with their son Jaime.
“Nobody gets it,” Sue said, including “neighbors, family, pastors.” Family members feel isolated as though they are the only ones in the world going through this experience. Mothers especially feel the shame of their child’s incarceration.
“They can tell you how many blocks are on the floor because they never look up from the ground,” John said.
During or before their first meeting with the support group, people feel afraid as to who else will be at the meeting and whether they will be forced to share something they don’t want to, Sue said.
Mary Mother of Captives is a way for participants to find people who will listen understand one another. “The women key into how the other feels,” Sue said, adding they offer suggestions when appropriate and help one another.
She has seen mothers carpool to visit their children in jail as well as attend a child’s court hearing together in support of the mom. Each group member’s child is sent a card on their birthday.
The meeting format is simple. After an opening prayer, each person has the opportunity to share how they are doing, what is going on with their loved one in prison and how their family is coping.
Group members rely on one another for information but everything shared is strictly confidential.
Mary Mother of Captives draws 112 families to St. Charles either in person or over the phone. Sue and John have ministered to people coming from as far as Warminster, Coatesville, Downingtown and Newtown.
This large draw speaks not only to the need that is out there, but to the powerful connections and trust established between members. When John and Sue speak about the people they serve either in prison or out, it is like they are talking about their own children. John said many of his guys call him on Father’s Day and Christmas.
Since its establishment in 1996, the group’s service has grown to include sharing artwork and writing created by inmates, and it circulates newsletters and videos that promote their human dignity.
Today with the support of ADROP, Mary Mother of Captives also runs a national pen pal program. What began as an outgrowth of monthly support meetings in which members would write to each other’s imprisoned family members, volunteers now write to 900 prisoners in over 175 state and federal prisons across the United States.
ADROP’s executive director Lacie Michaelson describes writing letters to inmates as a “gorgeous way to visit.” She calls her own pen pal a friend, and with every encounter she gets more out of it than she gives.
Sue Killeen adds that many people sign up for the pen pal program during Lent as it is a great way for people to get involved and remain protected by the structure of the program and the rules it follows. This letter exchange is the only connection with the outside world for some inmates.
John and Sue want people affected by imprisonment to know they have someone to whom they can turn. The MMOC support group, transition program and pen pal program are open to people of all faiths.
The Killeens and Michaelson encourage all people to explore how they can become a living work of mercy to all people who suffer pain due to crime: family, friends, offenders and victims.
Learn more about the Augustinian Defenders of the Poor at their website, RightsofthePoor.org. Information about participating in the ministries of Mary Mother of Captives follows:
For inmates coming out of prison within six months.
First Thursdays at 7 p.m.
St. Cyprian Parish Hall
501 Cobbs Creek Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19143
Contact John at 610-259-3178 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For those who have a loved one in prison.
Second Thursdays at 7 p.m.
St. Charles Borromeo Parish Meeting Room
3407 Dennison Avenue, Drexel Hill, PA 19026
Contact Sue at 610-259-3178 or email@example.com
Pen Pal Program
For those who want to become a pen pal to a person in prison.
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