Wheels of mercy roll into Angola

by Mike Stagg

Twice a year Acadiana residents travel to the Louisiana State Penitentiary to visit incarcerated family members, thanks to the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette.

Diocese of Lafayette's Office of Justice and Peace Director Stephanie Bernard

On Sunday, Dec. 11, a bus carrying about 40 Acadiana residents traveled from St. Paul’s Church in Lafayette to Angola State Penitentiary. It’s one of two annual trips organized by the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette that enables families of Angola inmates to visit their incarcerated relatives.

The program has been underway for at least six years, according to Deacon Barney LeJeune of Carencro, who works with the diocesan Office of Justice and Peace Director Stephanie Bernard to plan and coordinate the rides.

The Chicago-based group Catholic Extension included a segment on the bus rides in its Works of Mercy series (view the video here). In it, Bernard and LeJeune talk about the role of mercy and compassion that are at the heart of the bus rides.

“Each year, a week or two before Easter and Christmas, we organize the bus ride to allow family members to connect with their sons, brothers, fathers or uncles who are imprisoned at Angola,” LeJeune says.

The bus rides are part of a broader Catholic effort that also includes helping crime victims and their families deal with the impact of crime on them.

“The bus ride to Angola is an expression of our mercy,” Bernard says in the video. “Because being on the bus with the people puts a face on a situation.”

One aspect of the situation is that Louisiana has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the U.S., which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, according to various statistical resources. Another is that for decades, Acadiana had the largest concentration of black Catholics in the country.

“Angola is a very old prison,” LeJeune says in the video. “There are more than 6,000 men incarcerated here. It is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River. It is a maximum security prison. Many of the men who are here will never leave.”

The Office of Justice and Peace works to bring the families to the prison near the time of the church’s most important celebrations.

To get more information on the program, contact Stephanie Bernard at (337) 261-5694, or by email at [email protected]

Contributions to the program can be sent to the Office of Peace and Justice c/o the Diocese of Lafayette, P.O. Box 3387, Lafayette, LA 70502-3387.