Writing to prisoners, Part II: From fear to commitment
Finding a comfort zoneIn Unit Z of the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, where he works with inmates ages 18 and 19, Paul McMahon facilitates Ignatian meditation, in which the person is invited to imagine or place himself/herself in a Scripture scene, using all his/her senses.
McMahon also conducts book studies for the youths, or has them write letters for Father’s Day — and he feels very comfortable doing so.
But this soft-spoken 51-year-old Australian, who once wanted to become a Jesuit priest, admits “it took time” to reach that comfort zone.
Educated in Jesuit schools (including Xavier College in his native Melbourne), he joined the Society of Jesus at age 17, and spent 13 years in formation that helped shape his spirituality. He earned bachelor degrees in theology, fine arts and Middle Eastern studies, along with a degree in education.
During those years McMahon became acquainted with social justice outreach, specifically prison ministry. But he had doubts.
“I just sort of thought I wasn’t the right person to work with prisoners because I didn’t think we had anything in common,” he says. “I just wasn’t comfortable in that environment.”
He had contact with ex-convicts, but felt “it was hard to know them” — and, he says, he really did not want to get to know them either. “I had fear,” he admits.
Wanting to “explore” parts of his life, he left the Jesuits at age 30. The move was not easy, although the Jesuit community “was very supportive,” and his mother told him he could always help others outside the Jesuit community as well.
He became an English and history teacher and religious education coordinator at a diocesan all-girls school where he started getting a grasp of the “real world.”
Years later he switched to publishing and, starting at the bottom, became a sales person for the religious section of the Australian branch of (New York-based) HarperCollins Publishers.
When the company’s managing director retired to start his own company, John Garratt Publishing (one of the largest Australian publishers and distributors of American titles), he took McMahon along, offering him an editor’s position.
That was his first link to the United States. He represented the company in the Religious Book Trade Exhibit in Chicago, visited publishing houses in New York, and in 1995 attended his first Religious Education Congress in Anaheim.
Then he was offered a position as editor of New York-based Crossroad Publishing Company. In 2000 he moved to New York and three weeks later he was part of a team that traveled to L.A. for the Religious Education Congress.
Arriving early, the team was invited to a day retreat facilitated by Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy, chaplain at Nidorf Juvenile Hall and founder and director of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative (JRJI), whose mission is to heal relationships between the incarcerated and their families as well as victims and their families through prayer, education and advocacy.
“I did not know who Father Mike was,” McMahon says, “This was my first [prison ministry] experience and at this point I was very open to anything.”
During the retreat, the group visited L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall. After hearing six juveniles share their reflections after a meditation led by the priest, McMahon was hooked.
“At the end of it I was so moved and told Father Mike I really wanted to do something,” he said, even though he resided in New York.
Father Mike had a quick solution: “You can write to Hugo (one of the six juveniles),” he told McMahon. “He’s going to get [a] life [sentence] and he’ll need a friend.”
A couple of months later he wrote his first letter.
‘A wonderful experience’“I don’t know if you remember me,” he wrote to Hugo. “I was in that group and I’ve been interested in writing to you and getting to know you.”
Hugo wrote back a nice letter saying he would enjoy the exchange as well. For the next five years the men corresponded every month or two, “sharing a little bit more” each time.
“It was a wonderful experience,” McMahon said. “All the fears that I had in Australia going through the Jesuits at that prison ministry started to break down.”
But when Hugo turned 23 things started changing.
“Ok, we’ve been writing these letters for the last five years,” Hugo wrote. “I don’t have any letters from other family members and I realize you are the only person in my life that I really trust and value.”
From that point on the letters took a new level of sharing. McMahon realized that he was not the only one supporting Hugo, but Hugo was a support for him as well.
“You write to these people in prison feeling that you are going to help them,” he observed. “But actually, they turn the tables on you and start being your support, and they start living their lives through you.”
A year after he had started exchanging letters with Hugo, McMahon decided to get more deeply involved. Through a pen-pal program he found on the Internet, he started writing to two prisoners serving life sentences in Florida, one of them on death row.
Correspondence with one prisoner stopped in 2010 after he was transferred to another prison, which made it difficult to exchange letters.
But after eight years, McMahon continues writing to Ronnie, the death row inmate, who has asked him to be his spiritual director at the time of his execution. McMahon considers this an honor, yet does not think he will ever be emotionally prepared for that moment.
“Mentally, I have moral issues with the death penalty, that I don’t think I will ever resolve,” McMahon declares, “simply because it was never a part of my upbringing and education. I try not to think about the end/the future, but rather enjoy the present and the bond that we share. This is when Ronnie is at his best and his life is full of meaning and hope.”
He tries to visit him at least once a year. Ronnie recently has shown interest in becoming Catholic, encouraged by McMahon’s commitment and support.
‘My spirit was lifted’About ten years ago, McMahon joined Paulist Press as a managing editor, a role that included sending books to inmates requesting them.
Along with the books, McMahon included letters, an exchange that increased from three to about 50 letters. That led him to volunteer work at New York’s Sing Sing Prison, where for two years he facilitated Ignatian prayer groups.
His job demanded dealing with hundreds of daily emails, but whenever he received a letter from any prison he responded the same day.
“Whenever a letter from an inmate arrived, my spirit was lifted,” McMahon said.
That, he noted, confirmed his calling to prison ministry, as did an offer from Father Kennedy, with whom he had kept contact, to become the JRJI’s director of outreach and development. Although the job “meant a lot of upheaval,” McMahon accepted and arrived in L.A. in July 2010, stopping in Denver to visit a prisoner for his birthday.
He keeps a well-organized file with incoming and outgoing mail, tracking the exchange of letters on an Excel sheet. Co-workers and volunteers have joined him in the endeavor.
Today, 11 years since McMahon’s doubts about prisoners started dissipating, he believes that the experience has made him much “more at ease with who a prisoner is and recognize they are very human people.” It’s also made him a “lot more human and less aloof.”
The exchange with prisoners has freed him from struggles he once had with self-image, he confided. Pressures of “how to succeed” and “how to achieve more” do not figure in his to-do list anymore, bringing him “back home” to the Jesuit training.
“Being a man for others is the Ignatian principle,” he asserted. “Ignatius was not about riches and glory and pride, but really about identifying with the people who are poor and marginalized.
“The important thing that I find about writing to the prisoners is not to be preaching to them, but to show my own humanity, my own mistakes. And that allows them to recognize their mistakes as well.”
For more on the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, call (310) 559-0777 or visit www.jrji.org.