LOS ANGELES: PBS segment features 'Prism' restorative justice ministry

'A powerful connection': jail a holy place for chaplain
June 24, 2010

The Rev. Dennis Gibbs received an urgent phone call from a New York City stranger right after a PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly segment featured Gibbs' chaplaincy at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, one of the country's largest jails.

"He saw the part of the segment where I talked rather transparently about my own past at the jail. He said 'I'm an alcoholic and I need help. I feel that you can help me.' That's a powerful connection," recalled Gibbs, director of Prism, the restorative justice ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

Daily, powerful connections are what Gibbs hopes for.

Once jailed at Twin Towers for petty crimes relating to drug and alcohol addiction, he now oversees five other staff and 50 volunteers in seven correctional and other facilities in the Los Angeles diocese.

"I just really want everyone to know, there is no 'us or them,' no throwaway people. Nobody is beyond the grasp of God's grace. And that we are simply there to love people," said Gibbs during a June 24 telephone interview.

"As chaplains we absorb people's sadness, their brokenness, their depth of spiritual despair," Gibbs told PBS correspondent Saul Gonzalez during a segment which is still being aired in local markets throughout the country.

He and other chaplains of varying faiths "hold for these inmates what they cannot hold for themselves," he added.

Gibbs said he considers the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, which houses more than 3,000 men accused of murder and other violent crimes, as his parish. He and other Episcopal chaplains assisted by volunteers lead worship and prayer, Bible study and offer spiritual counseling there and at other men's, women's and juvenile correctional facilities, hospitals and medical clinics and at a residential center for abused children.

The segment features inmates like Carlos Ortiz, who was convicted of drug possession and has been at Twin Towers for six months, describing what the chaplains' ministry means to them.

"If you don't have faith, they provide faith ... I am a man of faith, so just the fact there is someone that you can talk to, someone that can acknowledge ... God, that's something good for inmates," said Ortiz. "The situation you are at might not be good, but he makes you realize that you are good spiritually and physically, you are in a good spot."

Being jailed at Twin Towers was a wake-up call for Gibbs, who entered recovery 13 years ago. It also fuels his passion for jail ministry today.

"Before that my life was much different than it is today. I had lived that life. But through prayer and discernment, and listening to the Holy Spirit, this is what came," he said.

Six years ago he began volunteering one day a week at the jail although "there was no Episcopal program then. Almost immediately I realized that that was where God was calling me."

Four years ago, Gibbs became a full-time chaplain for the diocese and is expanding the ministry to inmate families, crime victims and juvenile justice.

On May 23, he was ordained a vocational deacon in a ministry that has grown exponentially.

"People have some preconceived notions about criminals, about the people who end up in these situations," he said, referring to jail.

"They aren't a bunch of animals, or monsters. They are people who, in many cases, have been pushed into a corner and because of that have done things -- and I don't discount the things they've done. But I also don't discount the ability for God to redeem their lives.

"I hear it, from so many people in so many ways, that they never had somebody sit and listen to them and value what they had to say. It is true, that most of these men, women and children that we incarcerate have never felt heard. They've felt talked at a lot, but never felt like somebody was interested in what they had to say."

Through the recovery network, he was able to connect his New York City caller with a local program. "We've been emailing," he said. "He's going to A.A. meetings and if nothing else comes from this segment, that's great."

But the PBS segment has already had a direct impact on the lives of people. The film crew "just followed us around, we didn't do anything special for them. But for many, it was a first glimpse inside that jail, a chance to see what it's like," he said.
For one mother, it was a way to connect with her son, a Twin Towers inmate.

"She's had a hard time seeing him," Gibbs said. "Communication is difficult, standing in line four to six hours to visit and only able to visit one day a week.

"It was a great relief to her to see the PBS special. She called me and since then I've been visiting her son."

The PBS segment can be viewed here.