SACRAMENTO, Calif.—A delegation of Catholic leaders, including two bishops, took another step toward its goal of assessing inmates’ pastoral care by visiting its fourth California state prison since December.

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala led a 13-member delegation of clergy, women religious, and other lay administrators, who toured two maximum security facilities at the California State Prison in Sacramento June 1.

Bishop Zavala, liaison to the California Catholic Conference of Bishops and Prison Chaplains, told the Register that the delegation hopes to work with local parishes to create a greater Catholic presence inside prison walls. More priests are needed to celebrate Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation, he said.

“We want to meet men and women who are incarcerated. They deserve respect and dignity and adequate education and medical programs,” the bishop said.

Auxiliary Bishop Richard Garcia of Sacramento, who joined the delegation, said that prisoners explained their greatest needs: more frequent family visits, conjugal visits with spouses, a child-friendly area for children, and opportunities to share their talents.

As for their spiritual needs, the prisoners praised the ministry of Deacon Dennis Merino, state prison chaplain. “They would clone him if they could,” Bishop Garcia says, adding, “they need a Dennis in each (of the three) facilities.”

The prisoners can attend weekly Mass celebrated by priests in the Sacramento area, as well as memorial services for family members, Bible studies, devotions, and support groups, if their work schedule permits. Sacramento Bishop William Weigand and Bishop Garcia celebrate Mass at the prison on holidays and special feast days.

However, Bishop Garcia notes the lack of Spanish- and Vietnamese-language Bible studies at the state prison. And Deacon Merino, chaplain, wishes his corps of eight volunteers would expand to 30.

Prisoners also lack adequate medical care at times. The chaplain told of an inmate who broke his ankle, which later became infected by a surgically inserted plate. The infection was not treated, and gangrene set in. Fortunately, the plate was removed before amputation was needed, and the ankle is now healing, he says.

Despite such problems, Deacon Merino believes the visiting delegation gave the inmates “hope that people care about them, and that their oppressive environment,” where gang- and race-related fights are common, will become less violent.

The Diocese of Sacramento has hired Deacon Thomas McGill as a full-time program coordinator to develop prison ministry, recruit and train volunteers, and serve as liaison between parishes, the diocese, and more than 63 detention facilities in the diocese.

Deacon McGill currently volunteers at California State Prison as a facilitator for two support groups, and conducts Communion services, Stations of the Cross, and other services there. He is a retired police officer and former supervisor in the Sacramento County jail system.

Deacon Merino notes the need for more full-time chaplains in state prisons — a problem due to staff reductions made by the California Department of Corrections.

The chaplain also wants the state legislature to amend California's three-strikes law, which has put some felons behind bars for life — sometimes for nonviolent crimes.

The deacon tells of prisoners whose third offenses were stealing a shirt, a pizza, and a bicycle. Another was drug-free for 23 years, then given a life sentence for possessing two ounces of cocaine. For another, the third strike was refusing to pull over his car for a police officer.

Although the long-term effectiveness of the Catholic delegation's efforts to advance inmates’ general welfare is uncertain, the group can already point to improvements in prisoners’ pastoral care.

After the delegation visited the women's prisons in Chowchilla, the staff has allowed priests to distribute the Eucharist there weekly, says Sister of St. Joseph, Suzanne Jabro, who was part of the delegation. The inmates had not seen a Catholic chaplain in a year, she adds. Since their Dec. 1 visit there, members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious have organized monthly visits to the prison. “The women asked us to return,” says Sister Jabro, who directs the Los Angeles archdiocesan Office for Detention Ministry.

The delegation also visited San Quentin State Prison in March and Lancaster State Prison in December. Future visits are planned for Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City and state prisons in Corcoran and Soledad.

Bishop Garcia anticipates an increased Catholic presence in California's detention facilities and believes more Catholics can be recruited to volunteer for prison ministry. “Prisoners are members of God's family,” he says. “They need more compassion than others.”