Ministering faith behind bars: optimism, ‘compassion fatigue’

On a recent rainy morning, Anselma Leon drove to Metro West Detention Center in Doral with her lunch and a bag filled with copies of scripture reference books.

She has dedicated 36 years of her life to spreading the word of God to inmates as a volunteer assistant chaplain for the Corrections and Rehabilitation Department of Miami-Dade County.

A former manager at a GNC store, Leon, 66, retired a few years ago, and is now continuing to volunteer her time by offering religious services to officers and inmates, especially incarcerated women.  

But just like firefighters, nurses and others who tend to heal or help people, she may be experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue.

Throughout her tenure, she has seen young people return to jail after serving time and has felt disappointment, and at those times might have felt she didn’t make a lasting impact on those she ministers.  

She has a biblical approach to counseling inmates, and provides prayers for them, but compassion fatigue may be an obstacle to what she sees as a privilege.

Rabbi Menachem M. Katz also serves inmates in Miami-Dade facilities as a director for the Aleph Institute’s prison and military outreach program.

The Aleph Institute, based in Surfside, is a non-profit organization that provides financial, emotional and spiritual needs for people who practice the Jewish faith.

Katz joined the Aleph Institute in 1984. He has seen how Jewish inmates are treated and believes it’s only harder for them to rehabilitate themselves.

“Jewish prisoners have a harder time than other prisoners because there’s a lot of anti-Semitism in the prisons, both from the staff and the inmates.”

However, the endurance needed to serve those in difficult situations may be dependent on the personality of an individual caregiver.

According to Tom O’ Connor, a researcher and religious scholar, there are chaplains who don’t experience compassion fatigue.  

Tom O’Connor is the CEO of Transforming Corrections, a company that aims to make the criminal justice system more effective, compassionate and affordable. He has conducted research with the intent to help inmates make better choices.

As a former director of a chaplain group for the Oregon Department of Corrections, O’Connor has plenty to say about the work of chaplains who serve in detention centers.

He says unpaid chaplains may experience compassion fatigue and that prison is “not a humane environment,” but thinks compassion fatigue is more dependent on the individual.

Volunteers with less experience may be less prone to emotional numbness as they work with inmates who practice faith.

Daniel Zahavi is an attorney who also works for the Aleph Institute. After a rabbi introduced him to the non-profit, he wanted to spend his time visiting incarcerated people as his disciples, not as his clients.

He has been a volunteer with the Aleph Institute for the past three years and has a different approach than Leon or Katz, and feels more optimistic about the prison experience.

Zahavi, 55, visits about 10 to 12 facilities every week in South Florida. He drives wherever is in his range, with his farthest trip being three hours away from him to meet with prisoners.

“If God did not want them to be in that place where they are, then they would never be there,” said Zahavi. “So, most of the people would start realizing that, after. I’ve seen that a couple times, when I teach them that.”

He believes Jewish inmates are treated with respect, because  practicing the Jewish religion — one of the oldest ones according to Zahavi — garners appreciation inside the facilities and outside.

“Usually most of the times, what I can say is, when people say that they’re Jewish it’s kind of like they respect that,” said Zahavi.

He believes it’s very important for inmates to have their spiritual needs met so they “can start to clean up their spiritual mess” by understanding that there is a purpose to the punishment.

“And they will start to understand that they are basically there for a reason,” he said. “The ones that understand that, then they could start working, helping, get out of the situation, in a spiritual way.”

Joadan Caldeiro, who has been a volunteer chaplain in Miami-Dade county for 25 years, is an example of someone who has endured the stress of working in the criminal justice field.

Caldeiro claims she has never felt compassion fatigue as she currently meets with inmates every Saturday.

She believes her work is incredibly important, saying that for the inmates, it’s like “having a glass of water in the desert.”

Although part of her time in county facilities has been spent on preparing paperwork, Calderio embraces her role as a chaplain.

“If I was able to cheer them up, that, to me, is worth more than a paycheck,” she said.

Ultimately, time spent in these facilities can affect the sentiments of volunteer ministry, but regardless, all of them see their work as necessary.  

Katz visits facilities because he knows the needs of inmates, despite the chance of encountering what is known as secondary traumatic stress.

“What motivates me is the insurmountable need of inmates’  spiritual, mental, emotional support that they need because it’s such a traumatic experience to be behind bars.”

Caplin News Reporter

A journalism major in her last term before graduation, Kassandra is working as an intern for the Caplin News. She cares about the communities of her city and is currently writing about Little Haiti.