Ministry volunteers ‘champing at the bit’ to return to J. Reuben Long Detention Center

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J. Reuben Long Detention Center (Source: Braley Dodson)

CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — Bibles are still being handed out at the J. Reuben Long Detention Center in Conway. Inmates still get rosaries. Staff are able to provide Qurans, prayer rugs and kufis for male Muslim inmates to wear for their five daily prayers. 

But, during the pandemic, as the jail’s 200 annual religious volunteers haven’t been allowed in, things continue to look different more than a year after shutdowns.

“Our inmates are still able to exercise their religious freedom, it’s just restricted a bit,” said Eddie Hill, the jail’s chaplain. 

To keep that religious connection alive, the jail has used blank Bible study sheets to replace in-person meetings. The inmates fill the worksheet out, which are then graded.

Providing different editions of the Bible based on an inmate’s belief, along with shifting face-to-face visitation to a video format, helps to keep connections alive during a time when movement has been restricted even more for those inside the facility.

“We think it’s critical because we want them to stay connected in the community,” Hill said. “Think about how isolated people were during COVID, and now imagine you’re in jail and isolated even further.”

In the meantime, Mass has been provided to 21 correctional facilities statewide through the use of tablets on a secure, internal internet server, according to Deacon John Leininger with St. Andrew Catholic Church in Clemson.

Leininger, who coordinates jail and prison ministry efforts in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston — which includes the Myrtle Beach area — said the diocese has provided pre-recorded Mass services that are tailored for the incarcerated population. The services are limited to 33 minutes and include a priest, a deacon and parishioners who do the same readings done at the traditional Sunday service. There is no singing, and the language in the messages is tweaked to be more sensitive to a population that might have been abandoned by their families, haven’t talked to their children in years or had children outside of a marriage. 

Leininger said that although the terminology is different, the message is the same. 

“The homily is just targeted to awareness that you are talking to a population who are confined,” he said.

The diocese provides rosaries, which are breakaway for safety reasons, and had several requests from inmates during the pandemic for Catholic Bibles. When there weren’t enough to fulfill a request at one facility, Leininger said churches got together to raise money to purchase more. 

Instead of bringing in a Christmas meal at one facility this year, the diocese raised money to send food packages. For Lent, the diocese was able to provide a six-week series on the sacrament.

“Being able to get to them on the tablets now has really made a difference,” Leininger said.

He said most inmates have made a mistake that led to them being incarcerated, and that they’re still God’s children who he needs to serve.

“To me, they have just as much right to hear God’s word as anyone else,” he said. 

For now, Leininger is trying to get more priests and volunteers involved. While there currently isn’t a lot of connection between the Catholic volunteers at the different correctional facilities, he’s looking to change that. 

He has a volunteer convention planned in November to help with efforts, and hopes to eliminate any fear potential volunteers have.

Hill said the J. Reuben Long Detention Center is examining expanding to more opportunities by using technology, which might include web-based church services.

It has existing relationships with local churches, like The Rock in Conway, and volunteers are waiting for the green light to return.

“They are champing at the bit to get back in here,” he said.

Leininger is also eager to return to the facilities he works with. 

At one, he said there was a day when only a single man was able to get out of his cell block to attend a service. The inmate had come early to help out, and everyone else had been locked down. Leininger and the man talked for 45 minutes when the man, who had a 30-year sentence, told Leininger that the two hours he spends at church each week is the most he felt at home.

“That one conversation keeps me going, even when there’s only one person who shows up, or I get locked out and drove an hour,” he said.

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