2/6/2014 10:55:00 AM PRIEST'S NEW BOOK 'Naked as a Jailbird' offers
raw narrative of ministry
FATHER SHAW'S book, “Naked as a Jailbird” is available on www.amazon.com and at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, Market Block Books in Troy and O’Connor's Church Goods in Latham. Proceeds benefit Catholic Charities’ emergency relief fund. See http://nakedasajailbird.com.
'A C.O. reported after this Palm Sunday Mass that a rumor was wafting through the jail that one could get high smoking palm. Immediately inmates pulled from their walls the crosses they had made from palm branches, rolled them and smoked them. Some swore they did get a high.' from "Naked as a Jailbird"
"What an eye-opener this place was for me, this hideous, overcrowded, 19th-century jail that has been condemned by three major inspection groups since the time of the Civil War," Rev. Richard Shaw wrote of a Boston correctional facility.
"Two hundred inmates locked in constantly but for meal runs and an hour of recreation," he continued. "Filthy at its best, the cement ground floor was still strewn with half-burned, water-soaked mattresses filling the closed-in area with the combined stench of mildew and incineration.
"Worse than the physical nightmare is the social injustice....Poverty is a crime in the United States. That's what it comes to."
"Naked as a Jailbird," Father Shaw's new book chronicling the first decade of his life in jail ministry in the 1970s and '80s, is filled with descriptions of prison riots and fights, inmate suicide attempts and escapes, interaction with inmates' families, conflicts with corrections officers and follow-ups with inmates after their release.
The book, which was self-published and released in November, is the sixth for the retired priest of the Albany Diocese. Writing has been a hobby for much of Father Shaw's more than four decades of priesthood.
He said "Naked as a Jailbird" offers a glimpse into life in Albany County Jail and Rensselaer County Jail, using mostly unedited excerpts from the journals he kept at the time.
"I wanted it to [depict] incidents that spoke for themselves," Father Shaw told The Evangelist. "I pretty much ended the book while the shock factor [at the disparity in the criminal justice system] was still there. I am a walking camera, just trying to give you as realistic pictures as possible."
Father Shaw's descriptions leave little to the imagination. He recalls having urine thrown in his face, injuring his hand trying to intervene in a fistfight during Mass, catching inmates having sex and acting as a confidant and advocate when inmates were treated unfairly.
His stories illuminate the humanity behind incarcerated individuals.
In prison ministry, "you've got to separate any expectation of who is a good person or bad person by societal standards," Father Shaw said. "We tend to judge people by their appearances. People are people and they have the same needs. The vast majority [of inmates] are just ordinary folk.
"Grace is always a surprise," he added, "and you can feel God's grace and the movement of the Spirit in ways you may not expect."
This was especially true whenever Father Shaw had positive experiences at Mass or in Bible studies at jails and prisons - which, he said, often made the atmosphere at the parishes he served seem lackluster.
Incarcerated people "don't have to come [to Mass], and they come," he said. "It's beautiful - the most powerful liturgies I've been at."
Teenaged inmates who attend Bible studies, he said, "ask good questions. They've been taken away from their toys. They're on a quest that you wish all young people were."
Father Shaw said his role as a chaplain and minister has been about presence and visits to cells - "it means that the Church is there" - in addition to celebrating liturgies and sacraments and doing faith formation. But he said his book does not focus on "saving souls," as some similar books do.
In fact, "Naked as a Jailbird" started as Father Shaw's master's thesis in criminal justice at The University at Albany in the 1980s. His doctoral dissertation about the challenges of jail and prison chaplaincy was also published as a book.
Despite reservations over revealing details of controversial situations, he decided this story needed to be told. He hopes it benefits not just the general public, but undergraduate students of criminal justice - many of whom, he said, complete their studies without ever actually stepping foot inside a correctional facility.
Father Shaw, who's 72, was born in Brooklyn and attended the former Vincentian Institute in Albany for high school. He studied English at Siena College in Loudonville and entered the seminary for the Albany Diocese in the '60s. He so admired monastic life that he briefly studied to become a Franciscan priest after his ordination.
The Franciscans placed him in jail ministry, which would become a hallmark of his priestly life, in addition to teaching and parish work. He taught sociology and theology and coached track at Catholic Central High School in Troy for 18 years and put in a decade each at Maria College in Albany and at Siena. Father Shaw has served at several parishes and spent almost two decades on and off in Speigletown.
He was at one point employed by the state prison system, but most of his work has been at county jails. Though an illness recently forced him to pare down his ministry, it still means a lot to him.
"It's simply become my life," Father Shaw said. "I can't imagine not being in it now. [The inmates] become family [and] you end up having long-term relationships."
That was evident when an inmate recently told him, "You and me done 30 years together."
Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2014
Article comment by:
HIS DEDICATION TO THE INCARCERATED HAS BEEN OUTSTANDING AND ADMIRED BY MANY THAT I'VE MET IN PRISON WORK. HE HAS TALENT AND AMAZING ABILITY TO EXPRESS THE PROBLEMS THAT GO WITH THEIR ROUTINE AND DOES WONDERS IN ASSISTING THEM. FR. PETER YOUNG
Posted: Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Article comment by:
I can not put this book down. What a depiction of the sadness and injustice in this human world we live in. I am only into the book a few chapters and find that I am heartbroken for these people. I have prayed about many things in my life but will now pray daily for our incarcerated brothers and sisters. Will comment again when I am further on into this wonderful book. Learned a lot today.