Second chance at hope: Prison retreat offers inmates faith, redemption

Kolbe Prison Ministries of SA offers chance for inmates to develop faith

SAN ANTONIO – One by one, their names are announced like the players of a starting lineup at a Spurs game.

And like the NBA players, the men wear uniforms, but theirs is an all-white prison outfit.

Once a name is announced, the inmate comes out to meet two rows of about 60 men who take turns welcoming the prisoner with a huge hug.

The "hugfest" is the beginning of a three-day faith-based retreat inside a gymnasium on the grounds of the Dolph Briscoe Unit near Dilley.

"For most of these men, they have never had a hug, never been told they are loved, have never experienced true unattached friendship and were not in a good family life," said Gerald Gaenslen, head of the Kolbe Prison Ministries Core group in San Antonio, a Catholic nonprofit organization that ministers to incarcerated men and women in five Texas state prisons, and jails near San Antonio and other detention facilities in the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

The retreat, which usually runs from Thursday morning through Saturday evening, aims to educate inmates about the Catholic faith through Mass, prayer, group discussions, biblical re-enactments, videos and testimony. 

I was among the outside team that participated in the retreat and while I was not able to record the inmate's stories and personal experiences as a journalist, they left a lasting impression on me.

The Kolbe Prison Retreat is similar to an ACTS retreat that is offered by Catholic parishes and is named after Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who was martyred in a German concentration camp during World War II. 

About 65 inmates attend the retreat and are chosen by the prison chaplain and the prison warden after demonstrating good conduct and a desire to attend a faith-based event. Inmates don't have to be Catholic to attend the retreat.

The "River Rule" applies during the retreat, which means anything shared between the inmates and the KPM volunteers stays in the gym. The "River Rule" gives everyone the freedom to speak without fear of spreading shared information and is done out of respect for those that are willing to share.

Other rules include not asking inmates what crime landed them in prison. As a result, none of the inmates in this article are named or described in a way that allows them to be identified.

In addition to the KPM volunteers, who are members of the "outside" team, there are about 20-30 men who are members of the "inside" team, as approved by the unit warden and chaplain. The inside team members have previously attended a prison retreat.

"The inside team is a real blessing, in that they begin to take on leadership roles and come out of their shell in giving testimonials, which are critical for them in sharing their past so they can experience healing," said Deacon Robert Leibrecht, director of Criminal Justice Ministry for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

Group discussions

About six inmates are assigned to tables, along with one or two outside team members and one inside team member. The task of the team members is to lead and create discussions about various topics, such as prayer, community, forgiveness and service. 

The group discussions are the heart and soul of the retreat. A significant amount of time are spent at the tables, which is where the inmates have the opportunity to open up about the topics discussed and how it affects them. 

For some inmates, it will take time; others open up right away. 

Most of the discussions arise after a speaker goes before the entire group and shares a story -- often very emotional -- on how a topic like forgiveness has affected their life. 

"The testimonials by the inside team members carry so much weight, as these men have walked in the same shoes as the other brothers in white," Leibrecht said. "They can begin to realize that they are not the only ones suffering from a very dysfunctional life and that if these men can change their lives, then why not me?"

"I believe that the testimony given by the speakers are the reality of the retreat, in that, they are how we begin to relate to each other," Gaenslen said. "I once had a man tell me that he suffered from 'terminal uniqueness.' He thought he was the only person in the world that had his problems, and no one knew what his life was like. Through honest testimonies, we learn that we're not as unique as we might think, we realize that others have dealt with the same demons in their lives or suffered through the same brokenness that we have seen in our own lives."

After the testimony, the group shares thoughts about the topic and then inmates go before the entire group to share the group's thoughts. This often is moment when the inmates begin to open up, which can lead to the release of bottled-up emotions.

"No matter if we are in prison or in the free world, we can't begin to heal and move on unless we are willing to open up and share our past," Leibrecht said. 

One inmate cried repeatedly when he described how it felt to be away from his loved ones. He blamed himself for the sudden and extended time away from his relatives. 


Another way the inmates had the opportunity to talk about their past -- especially a dark event they might not want to share with their table group -- was through reconciliation. 

The retreat provided the chance for the inmates to confess to a priest, if they're Catholic, or just talk with one if they're not. 

"Having priests that will just listen as Jesus would was a big blessing," Leibrecht said. 

A large amount of inmates jumped at the chance to sit down face-to-face with a priest. Prior to that, the inmates were shown two compelling videos about forgiveness, including the story of the Prodigal Son that Gaenslen said "hits every man at some point in their life."

One of the men at my table balked at first about the idea of talking with a priest because he told me that he blamed God, in part, for his troubles in his life. He asked why would God make him suffer during some very trying days prior to his imprisonment. He also shared with me that the only peace he felt in his life was when he lived with his grandmother when he was young. I told him that perhaps in talking with a priest, he could somehow find a way to feel that peace again. I told him that if it would help, I could be there with him during his visit. He agreed and the priest gave him some ideas on how to find that peace.

Gaenslen said that trust is a big issue for inmates and having the priests in the gym was key to having them open up.

"I think they would all like to have someone they could talk to with trust, but most of them don't have trust with anyone," he said.

After the retreat

The retreat concludes with the inmates receiving a certificate for attending the retreat and another "hugfest" to say goodbye. 

But just because the retreat is over doesn't mean the inmates are done with continuing their knowledge and faith. It also doesn't mean they never see the KPM volunteers again.

Once a month, KPM volunteers meet with the inmates for reunions. Other services and activities include communion services and bible study. The inmates can increase their education of the Catholic faith by signing up for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes, which gradually introduces the aspects of beliefs and practices. For inmates who can't attend classes, they can learn more about the faith through courses sent via mail.

Other retreat facts:

Meals for the retreat are donated. Mama Margie's, Mr. Paul Vance, Knights of Columbus 7613, St. Mark's Women's Guild, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Knights of Columbus 9967 and Knights of Columbus 319.

KPM volunteers don't get paid or reimbursed for costs associated with the retreat, including hotel rooms.

Many of the KPM volunteers have attended multiple retreats.

You can learn more about Kolbe Prison Ministries San Antonio by clicking here.

About the Author:

David Ibañez has been managing editor of since the website's launch in October 2000.