A pilot program in the Restorative Justice Ministry of the Diocese aims to help parolees re-enter society
By Natalie Romano
After 30 years behind bars, Doris Frey stood at the threshold of freedom and hesitated. Life on the outside was now a life unknown.
“They opened the gate and I just stood there…What’s waiting for me out there?” recalls Frey.
That’s a question the Diocese of San Bernardino is helping her answer with the new Bridges Mentoring Program. It’s aim; support Catholic parolees as they rebuild their lives. Bridges will assist them in finding work, a parish and even contribute money for rent, food and clothing. Frey is the first, the test case, on which Bridges will be based. Though she briefly waivered during her release, something clicked...literally.
“As soon as I heard the gate click, I ran!” she laughs. “I heard all the girls go ‘Doris, Doris!’ They were on the fence chanting my name.”
Less than a month later, Frey was working with her mentor Marciano Avilla, Director of the Diocesan Office of Restorative Justice. His Office developed the Bridges program after seeing a void.
“The Catholic Church is good at detention ministry. Now we need to focus on re-entry,” he says. “We’re generally behind our Protestant brothers and sisters when it comes to that. A lot of our Catholic people who come out turn to these other entities for help, which is great, but we want to help them.”
Avilla and other mentors will work with parolees before and after release for a total of 18 months. Initially they’ll meet once a week, less as parolees get acclimated to life on the outside. Frey has already found a warehouse job and may continue her education in the culinary arts.
“She’s doing well,” Avilla says. “It was a little rocky at first but I gently reminded her that because of her history not everyone is going to want to help her. She had to come to grips with that. When you come out after 30 years everything is different.”
Like how to use a debit card, how to drive again, how to make a smoothie...Frey ticks off these daily dilemmas with a laugh. Humorous, polite and now 73, she could easily be taken for any other grandmother...but she has a dark past. Frey was convicted of first-degree murder after the stabbing death of her husband, Charles Frey, in 1987. She says the murder followed decades of his verbal abuse and controlling behavior. Another man was convicted for the actual killing and was also sent to prison. Frey says she did not witness the murder but was home when it happened.
During her trial, the prosecution alleged she was a party to the murder and was romantically involved with the other defendant. Frey denies both claims, but the jury did not believe her. So began her three decades at the California Institute for Women in Corona.
During her time there she earned an AA degree, married her Christian pen pal and became a Catholic, thanks in part to a kind chaplain that invited her to Mass.
“I felt so welcomed. The Mass, it reached me, it touched me even though I was raised a Protestant.”
Frey eventually converted to Catholicism and assisted visiting clergy including Bishop Gerald Barnes. She says her new faith gave her determination and affirmation.
“The Church accepted me and it didn’t matter what I was before,” she says. “[It was like] ‘You’re a new child of ours.’ They built me up and taught me a lot.”
While Frey was keeping busy on the inside, the lives of her loved ones continued on the outside.
Her boys, now grown men, were working and starting families of their own. While they visited Frey when she was in prison, parole is a different story. Frey breaks down as she explains that she cannot see them as a condition of her parole. They’re considered victims of her crime and she may have to wait seven years just to talk to them on the phone.
Setbacks like this are when the Bridges mentors step in and provide encouragement, explains Avilla.
“I don’t want disillusionment,” he says. “That would allow her to lose the desire to succeed. Maybe there will be a time she finds disappointment and then starts to fall back a little bit. We want [parolees in Bridges] to stay out.”
The statistics point to an uphill battle. In May of this year, the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a nationwide study showing that on average five out six state prisoners were arrested again within nine years of release. In California, statistics show a little under half of inmates released were convicted of a crime again within three years.
That’s why the California Catholic Conference advocates for re-entry programs that deal with the whole person. It’s an idea that may be catching on.
“After care is a huge need.” says Debbie McDermott, Associate Director for Restorative Justice for the California Catholic Conference. “If you support someone, it gives them a fighting chance and that’s what we all want, good community health.”
In her state-level ministry McDermott supports the efforts of California dioceses as they develop programs aimed at re-entry. The Bridges program and others around the state are a sign of the Church’s growing responsiveness, she says.
“It’s a seed that is starting to sprout.”
Avilla hopes his program and the pull of a higher power is stronger than the streets. He personally took Frey to her local parish, Our Lady of the Assumption in San Bernardino, and introduced her to the Pastor, Father Rogelio Gonzalez, who traces the roots of restorative justice ministry to the New Testament.
“We see lots of examples of forgiveness from Jesus,” Fr. Gonzalez says. “I try to think about what I would want if I were in [the parolee’s] shoes.”
Fr. Gonzalez believes that while discretion is needed when integrating parolees into some parish ministries, they should be welcomed into the faith community. Best to work toward reconciliation now because you will face them later, he says.
“It may seem hard to do but I think I will run into this person in heaven,” he says. “I will run into prostitutes, thieves, murderers… but it won’t be difficult then because I’m prepared. l can enjoy heaven with them.”
Frey trusts that heaven does await because she believes God has forgiven her. Still, she prays for continued strength.
“I always have that little voice saying ‘you’re going to fail,’ but I’m not. I pray every day to St. Jude to please help me be a better person and whatever fears are within me, release them.”
Does Avilla have any fears working with parolees and prisoners? The former jail chaplain resolutely says, “never.”
“I know why I’m there, the inmates know why I’m there. I never felt in harm’s way. When I’ve been inside and there were fights inmates looked out for me.”
Once they’re on the outside, Avilla will look out for them, and Frey is thankful.
“Mr. Avilla has been fantastic,” she says. “I can talk to him about anything.”
When Frey completes Bridges, she hopes to be out of her transition home and living with her husband. Avilla has also invited her to help the next parolee going through the program. Since her release, Frey says the question of what’s waiting out there is not so scary anymore.
“The world is out there for me.”
Anyone interested in becoming a mentor in the Bridges Mentoring Program is encouraged to contact Marciano Avilla at (909) 475-5479
Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.