An Interview with Zachariah Presutti, S.J.

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: When and why did you choose to become a Jesuit?


Zach: I believe Jesus introduced me to the Jesuits. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the official name for this religious order of priest and brother is “Companions of Jesus.” I met these “companions” during undergraduate studies at Canisius College. This warm, inclusive, intelligent, and inspiring group of priests and brothers encouraged me to discern and ultimately apply. It is through my relationship with these companions of Jesus that I have fallen more deeply in love with the man whose name we bear.


Gordon: When and why did you found the Thrive For Life Prison Project?


Zach: The heart of Thrive for Life Prison Project is Ignatian. Our mission is always in collaboration with the Jesuit universities, high schools, and parishes in the USA Northeast Province of the Society of Jesus. Many alumni of our schools and parishioners of our parishes serve as spiritual, academic, or wellness mentors within our Thrive for Life community.


Thrive for Life Prison Project was founded on the strength of deep relationships with men and woman behind the walls of jails and prison. Through listening and accompanying incarcerated men and women in spiritual direction and clinical therapy, we became aware of their sincere desire to thrive. Many of those who are incarcerated have never been afforded a first chance at life. The socio-economic and racist unjust social structures of our society trapped them into failure from the very beginning. In and through these relationships we began to form community. Many of the inmates we accompanied through spiritual exercises desired to reconnect after they were released. We become aware that a continuity of care was necessary for a sustainable transition from prison. Ignacio House responds to this deep desire. We are a community that lives and grows together through supportive services, access to educational formation, and job workforce training with local employers. At the root of our community is a desire to be together, grow with one another, and thrive for life as the loving and generous persons God created us to be.

Gordon: Why did you become a psychotherapist?


Zach: I obtained a master’s degree in clinical social work at St. Louis University. During my internship I worked in administrative segregation at the state prison. Upon request of the Warden, I helped out part-time offering spiritual accompaniment through the chaplain’s office.


Gordon: Based on your experience, what are the most common misperceptions by the public on the spiritual needs of people in prison?


Zach: I’ve heard people disdainfully say that “everyone gets religion in prison.” I always respond, “Indeed, I hope so!” No prison wall or barbed wire can exclude people from God’s loving presence. God is on the loose. We can find God anywhere and everywhere. Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” Good religious experiences heal people and restore them to their loving and generous self. When this reality finally sets in on our lives, we no longer need to crave power, control, riches, honors, or cause pain and violence. We desire only to heal, restore, and reconcile ourselves and all creation. I think this is at the root of what it means to thrive for life.


Gordon: What is your definition of mercy and how should mercy be applied to people in prison?


Zach: I think mercy is a verb; it’s in motion; it’s on the move. Mercy is something to be put into practice and lived out daily. To know mercy is to understand me as sinful, finite, and dependent on God and other people. I can only be merciful if I have been opened up and transformed by mercy. It is not something to be hoarded away but shared out of sincere gratitude for the abundance of this efficacious gift.


Gordon: Please explain to our readers the concept of restorative justice.


Zach: According to Howard Zehr, restorative justice asks the following questions; Who has been hurt? What are the needs of the one who is hurting? Who is obliged to respond to these needs? What are the causes of the hurt? Who are the stakeholders in the situation? Finally, how are the stakeholders to be involved in an appropriate way to address the s causes of this pain to put things right? These types of restorative justice cycles are becoming more prevalent within various correctional facilities throughout the country. Restorative Justice cycles bring both victims and offenders in an effort to address the harm caused; the offender will take responsibility for the hurt, the victim is then given the opportunity to express the extent to which this harm has caused pain in his/her life, and the offender offers concrete ways to make amends that are acceptable to the victim. A lacuna in this process lies its methodological approach, as so clearly articulated by Dr. Andrew Skotnicki in his latest book, Conversion and the Rehabilitation of the Penal System; the perceived “offender” (inmate), not the current alignment of power, wealth, and privilege, bears direct responsibility for the failure to submit to the sometimes brutal realities of his or her existence. The Thrive for Life community is committed to addressing the unjust socio-economic and racist structures that rob persons of their human dignity through the manner of our life together in community and active advocacy against the policies that perpetuate these social injustices.


Gordon: What impact does racism have on the United States justice system?


Zach:. A visit to any prison or jail in this country will not deceive you of the cruel racist reality behind our criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow articulates this strikingly through anecdotes and statistics. Behind all the statistics that draw attention to this social sin are persons with names, families, and lives who continue to be victimized by this injustice.


Gordon: What is your response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to close Rikers Island?


Zach: Closing Rikers Island is a good step; however, we need to reimage how we respond to our brothers and sisters who inflict harm upon other members of our community. The whole methodology needs to change. Punishment, rehabilitation, solitary confinement, and excessive programming is not the answer.


Gordon: What changes would your recommend in new prisons being created in New York?


Zach: We don’t need any more prisons. We are asking the wrong questions about our criminal justice system. We need to think of how we can create the conditions and environment for people who have caused pain and hurt on their brothers and sisters to rediscover the loving and generous person they were created to be. We can only do this through relationship and committed accompaniment.


Gordon: Please provide an overview of Catholic Social Teaching and Criminal Justice


Zach: For a contemporary understanding of Criminal Justice and Catholic Social Teaching, I would direct your attention to the new book by Dr. Andrew Skotnicki from Manhattan College in New York City. Dr. Skotnicki is a man of faith and a man of the Church. He is no plumber, eager to fix a leak in the system. Instead, a complete dismantling of the blueprint before us. In Conversion and the Rehabilitation of the Penal System, he calls for terms like rehabilitation, desistance, and reform to be stuck entirely from the penal lexicon. He argues that these and their synonyms are entirely hostile to the humane goals necessary to achieve. Conversion is the only anchor for a humane penal system. We need to look nowhere else than the unprecedented correctional methodology developed in the practice of penance and the first Christian monasteries to “employ time and spiritual counsel in a restricted setting as a means of shedding light upon and healing the alienation that is at the root of harm deliberately done to others.” This book offers a blueprint forward that will construct the safe and nurturing environment necessary to restore anyone to their loving and generous self.


Gordon: If you were appointed as an advisor to the President of the United States, what recommendations would you make on prison reform?


Zach: Listen to the millions of women and men who have been victimized by the horrendous conditions of our criminal justice system. They are the wisdom figures; they are our teachers.


Gordon: How can our readers help support Thrive For Life Prison Project?


Zach: Please, come along for the journey in our community! You are most welcomed to join in our mission, vision and ambitions. For more details about our community and how you can help to make Ignacio House a home, please check out our website at www.thriveforlife.org

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