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The highlight of the three-day training was a visit to the Mira Loma Detention Facility in Lancaster, Calif. While touring the L.A. County facility, the chaplains were able to speak with detainees and observe a Catholic Mass celebrated by Fr. Hieu Tran of Sacred heart Church in Lancaster. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
by Christian Fuchs
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

(Los Angeles) September 20, 2011 — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA offered training to six chaplains from detention centers across the United States during a three-day meeting in Los Angeles last month. JRS/USA based the training on knowledge gained via our long years of service to detainees in our Detention Chaplaincy Program

The JRS/USA chaplaincy programs provide pastoral and religious assistance to meet the needs of non-citizens detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) both in four U.S. federal detention centers located in California, Texas, Arizona and New York, and in a Los Angeles County detention center. These programs enable people of all faiths to have access to pastoral care within their faith tradition.  

The main purpose of the training was to familiarize the chaplains with the religious standards devised by the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch. ICE standards are used throughout the federal detention system.

"I think this training is important so that we all know what the ground rules are as far as ICE is concerned. I will take a lot back," said Hasan Hakeem, Chaplain at Kenosha County Detention Center in Wisconsin.

In addition to becoming familiar with ICE standards, the participants also metand had lunch with Rabbi Howard Winkler, who explained requirements for Kosher meals. The chaplains also visited a mosque in Palmdale, Calif., for a discussion about Islam.

Chaplains in detention centers are similar to chaplains in the military, in that they are chaplains for everyone in the facility — inmates and guards alike — regardless of their religion. It is necessary for chaplains to learn about the spiritual needs of all those whom they serve so they can see that those needs are met.

Despite being from various locations across the country, the chaplains had much in common. "We're a collection of people who care about the basic needs and rights of people inside of detention (centers). A lot of the people (in detention) are in the midst of significant transition or crises in their life and a lot of people in the U.S. simply do not know that there are more than 250 different detention facilities across the country. These are America's forgotten people, who need people from the outside know that they are cared for, that they are valued despite being in detention," said Rev. David Fraccaro, who coordinates the National Detention Visitation Network, a group of 18 to 21 different visitation programs around the country.

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA believes that ensuring detainee access to a Religious Service Program (RSP) is crucially important because detainees have a fundamental right to freedom and exercise of religion.

"We chaplains are together here to insure that inside of detention — which can be a very cold and lonely existence — people still have the freedom to hang on to what is oftentimes the most meaningful part of their life, beyond family, and that is their faith. Faith oftentimes brings hope. Faith brings resilience. Faith brings the strength to survive through the often isolating and difficult experience of detention," said  Rev. Fraccaro.

An RSP addresses a broad range of detainee needs. Examples include conducting worship services, providing counseling, accommodating requests for new religious practices, facilitating observance of holy days, maintaining religious property in a respectful manner, allowing detainees to fast as needed, and ensuring detainees the opportunity to comply with dietary requirements.

The highlight of the three-day training was a visit to the Mira Loma Detention Facility in Lancaster, Calif. While touring the L.A. County facility, the chaplains were able to speak with detainees and observe a Catholic Mass celebrated by Fr. Hieu Tran of Sacred heart Church in Lancaster. 

"Mira Loma was an exceptional experience for me, I've never seen anything like it, my compliments to the chaplain there. The Mass almost brought me to tears, it was a very moving experience," said Hasan Hakeem.

"I was right at home because that's what I do most of the time, talk with inmates behind bars," said Rev. Michael Dale Whitaker of visiting Mira Loma. Rev. Whitaker works for Good News Jail & Prison Ministry at Pinal County Adult Detention Facility in Arizona.

"I have been involved with incarcerated people since high school. Throughout high school I'd go in and sing and teach Bible lessons. Churches I've been involved with, some members or member's family have been incarcerated and I would be spending time ministering to them. After my wife was murdered and I felt led to go back into the ministry the Lord opened the door to go into jails and prisons," said Rev. Whitaker.

Bonnie Conklin, a chaplain at the North Georgia Detention Center in Gainesville, Ga., noted that many detainees simply need someone to share with. 

"There are so many hurting people that we miss, and talking to some of the men and sitting down with them playing dominoes and just being able to chat with them to let them know people do care. People from the outside do care about them on the inside," said Mrs. Conklin. 

"I felt was really a great deal of pride in being able to see human beings in the midst of this struggle, to see them still thrive and to laugh and play soccer and sing; all the things that we take for granted outside," said Rev. Fraccaro of the visit to Mira Loma.

"To see people rely upon their faith to do that was a privilege for me to see and I wish a lot more people in the world knew that story, because it's a beautiful one," he said.

"I also learned about the complex diversity within these detention facilities religiously and about how some of the different chaplains in the midst of our new religious diversity are finding creative and innovative ways to ensure that religious rights and religious freedoms are respected even in the midst of a detention scenario," said Rev. Fraccaro.

"The thing about the training is the sharing. The coming together helps us to know we are not alone because we are able share our problems and with others who can understand them," said Imelda Bermejo, Chaplain at the Mira Loma Detention Center.

Bonnie Conklin echoed those sentiments: "A lot of times as chaplains we feel like we're just kind of out there by ourselves at each institution, there's not a lot of gathering together. So this has been a good time of knowing that other chaplains go through the same frustrations that I do. Being able to  be with them and share different things in that light, and see how somebody else works and does what they do gives you an encouragement, a new strength to go back home and get back into what you do."

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA chaplaincy programs provide pastoral and religious assistance to meet the needs of non-citizens detained by the Department of Homeland Security in U.S. federal detention centers and the Los Angeles County detention center in Mira Loma.


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