by Suzanne Buzek
Gene Carmichael, S.J., was the catalyst for something very rare last summer: Inside the walls of the Lebanon Correctional Institution, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk baptized and confirmed 10 prisoners into the Catholic Church. It was the institution's first such ceremony in many years.
"For the last three years I've been contracted with the State of Ohio to be the Catholic priest for the Lebanon Correctional Institution, where I provide Catholic services and one-on-one spiritual direction," says Carmichael, interim vice president for Mission and Identity at Xavier.
The Lebanon Correctional Institution, just 25 miles north of Xavier's campus, is a level three (close-security) state penitentiary with 2,669 inmates. Carmichael affectionately refers to the inmates with whom he works as 'my guys.' He gives them spiritual guidance; a brief escape from what can be a harsh reality for prisoners, and, above all, friendship.
"Level three is a pretty high security," Carmichael says. "The only place in the area with more security would be Lucasville, in Southern Ohio, but they do capital punishment while Lebanon does not. So my guys are not waiting to be killed, but many of them will never get out of prison."
In such an environment, even a Jesuit priest needs to be protected. "After a few years of probation, the authorities gave me a silent alarm that I wear on my belt for emergency situations," he says. "This also allows me access to any part of the prison, including the 'hole'—solitary confinement."
Carmichael's volunteer work at Lebanon started when he led confessions for the Kairos movement that visited the correctional facility. While Carmichael was there, an inmate mentioned that there had not been a Catholic Mass at the prison in five years.
"I checked with the deputy warden, and he told me it was true," Carmichael recalls. "One thing led to another, and now I'm the one that says Mass."
Carmichael doesn't work alone at the prison; he operates in concert with the institution's home parish, Our Mother of Sorrows. Volunteers from Our Mother of Sorrows lead religious classes on Wednesday nights for those inmates who have been lifelong Catholics and want to learn more about their faith, or those who are interested in becoming Catholic. Carmichael's work offers a complementary soul-searching aspect to Our Mother of Sorrows' educational efforts. It was this collaboration that led to the 10 prisoners' baptism and confirmation.
"I have a picture of the confirmation," he says. "If you look at the faces of these guys, there's no doubt that a number of them are in prison for some mean and nasty things they did, but once you get to know them, you realize that they are, really, good people and each one has a history.
"It's not surprising that, because of their history, they wound up in prison. Most of the time it is a result of one of three things: drugs, alcohol, or Vietnam. I'm not saying that we should free all the prisoners, but I think we should be dealing with the guys who are in prison in humane ways to the extent of spending time with them. Time with them brings a dose of reality to their lives. It's a whole new society. They have their own justice system within the prison walls. Because of who I am, I would want forgiveness and rehabilitation."