Catholic Chaplains: Providing Spiritual Support Behind Prison Walls

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation manages more than thirty prisons in the state with a combined inmate population of over 130,000. The California Department of State Hospitals also runs five state hospitals, housing mental health patients who have some involvement in the criminal justice system.

As part of restorative justice, it is important that people living in these facilities have their religious needs met. Catholic Chaplains do just that.           

Chaplain Teddy Harder has worked at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco for ten years. One of California’s oldest institutions, it houses about 3,000 inmates. Chaplain Harder provides spiritual support to inmates through counseling, small workshops, retreats and more. He said one of the most rewarding parts of his job is the ability to see life from a different vantage point.

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“Everyone you talk with here is on a whole different level. The average conversation is much deeper,” he explained. Chaplain Harder was recently recognized by the warden for receiving “Exceeding Standards” in his performance evaluation. This is no surprise since he has dedicated his life to helping those who are incarcerated. A chef in his native Denmark, Chaplain Harder was visiting California on vacation and met the Missionaries of Charity Brothers. This meeting resonated with him and led him to move to Southern California and live with them. “It was supposed to be a couple of months and it ended up being seven years,” Chaplain Harder said. He volunteered at juvenile hall during this time and found his calling. He also worked as Chaplain at a county jail facility and at a youth authority prior to his current position. Chaplain Harder believes it’s important that inmates’ stories be heard by the community. “For us not to know their stories, we are missing out on something beautiful. The chaplain can bring these stories to the outside world,” he said.

Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla is the largest female correctional facility in the state and also houses the women of death row.

Chaplain Rosa Guembe has worked there for just under a year but has been involved with prison ministry for many years, both as a volunteer and as chaplain at California State Prison, Corcoran.

“As a volunteer and as a chaplain, it has taught me to appreciate so many more things in life,” Chaplain Guembe said. She provides inmates with spiritual support such as counseling, weekly services, bible studies and other services.

Chaplain Guembe is also starting a 15-week long Prayer and Life Workshop, consisting of daily meditation, journal keeping and more. Chaplain Guembe said many inmates are yearning to do well, and it’s her job to help them.

“All men and women who are incarcerated want to rebuild their lives,” she said.

For almost four years, Chaplain Steve Gomez has worked at Patton State Hospital, a facility with about 1500 patients in San Bernardino County. He also began his career as a volunteer and has always felt a strong presence of God through prison ministry.

“It’s a good time to be in the ministry because we get a lot of support from Pope Francis,” Chaplain Gomez said, referring to the many visits the Pope makes to institutions worldwide.

At Patton, Chaplain Gomez helps patients with the process of healing through God’s love. He provides spiritual counseling and facilitates prayer groups where patients can share and learn from each other, hopefully improving their mental health. Chaplain Gomez finds it important to make sure he’s connecting with patients and helping them on their journey of healing. “We all mostly search for God in tough situations. Their situation doesn’t make that less,” he said. 


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