By: Richard Stone
Matthew 25:26 says, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” My colleague, Maria Telesco, understands the passage as a pronouncement by Jesus that the redemptive work his life represents is epitomized in the care given to society’s “poor in spirit.” It is a quotation she often uses when people question her for devoting so much of her time to what she calls a “prison ministry.” She says, “It is my deeply held conviction that every one of us has a piece of God in them that is to be acknowledged and respected. It is a blessing for me to have been led into this work.”
She frequently cites a line found in Dead Man Walking, written by Sister Helen Prejean, Maria’s friend and her guide into the wilderness of the criminal justice system. Sister Helen writes, “No one can be judged on the basis of the worst thing they have done.” An important part of Maria’s work has been in connecting with the better parts of people who have done terrible things and thereby finding the part of herself that can go beyond easy judgment.
Maria has come to this work by indirection, not by specific choice or vocation. She is the first to make clear she is no Mother Teresa following a holy mission. In fact, her path probably began as a child who underwent a difficult upbringing, receiving little emotional sustenance to help her find her way in the hurly-burly of New York City. “My great solace was Grandma Jenny. She stood up for me, offering kindness and acceptance.”
Maria recalls how her grandma could not abide religious hypocrites who identified themselves as Christians but whose actions lacked charity. “Bible-thumpers and bead-clackers is what she called them. And she taught me well.” It is not hard to see how Grandma Jenny’s protection of the vulnerable and often-rebuked youngster has resurfaced as a model for Maria’s prison work.
Maria says that she also gained an early awareness of political and economic injustice through association with her Irish immigrant forebears, along with knowledge of their extreme impoverishment and ill treatment. The feelings connected with this history have been at play throughout her life.
When I asked for a book or song that she considered expressive of her credo, she chose, “Field of Atheny,” a song about a prison ship removing Irish inmates to Australia, away from all they knew. She says, “The punitive and extreme measures inflicted on prisoners still enrages me. To see life sentences for minor third strikes, disrupting the lives of whole families, not just the offenders…it is intolerable.”
Maria’s youth was also injected with compassion by her family’s move to a place not far from Sing Sing, home of New York’s death row, and specifically by the impact on her of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. “I grew up disturbed at hearing people speaking callously of those to be executed…you know, the ‘fry the s.o.b.’s’ kind of stuff. And when I read about the Rosenberg children being taken to see their parents for the last time, I was overwhelmed by the inhumanity of it. I remember thinking that I would dedicate my life to changing this. Of course, I didn’t, at least not then.” She was 20—marriage and a nursing career came first.
The marriage was not a success (though it did result in a much-loved daughter), but the career was. “I was a little precious about nursing; my colleagues jokingly called me Florence. Looking back, I’d say my altruism was a little overblown and premature. I was looking primarily for decent-paying work, and as a care provider I was no more than competent. I became an excellent administrator, though, and when I was offered a plum supervisory position I jumped for it, even though I didn’t trust the organization I’d be working for.”
The company eventually went down in legal flames, amid accusations of fraud, but the job provided a crucial transition for Maria. She was terminated for refusing to sign off on false claims, and the sudden loss brought the realization that status and income did not provide happiness. “I returned to my high school ideology—a rejection of greed and materialism. I also discovered that being in the corporate world had compromised my health: ulcers, anxiety, insomnia. These all disappeared when I left the job. In fact I took my retirement pay, gave up the fancy house and lived for a year recovering my humanity by loafing on Venice Beach.”
Her return to work was in a job that brought her into contact with lawyers and the legal system, eventuating in visits to jails and awareness of the conditions that later became the basis of a class action medical malpractice suit on behalf of women prisoners. At a work-related conference, she met the as-yet-unknown Sister Helen, who Maria sought advice from. Before going their separate ways, Sister Helen asked Maria if she would correspond with “one of my guys on death row.” Maria demurred, saying she could not possibly take on such a relationship. To which Sister Helen said, “Famous last words, honey.”
It was shortly thereafter that Maria found herself involved with Death Penalty Focus (DPF) in Los Angeles and with an old friend who had been (Maria believes falsely) convicted of a capital offense. When Maria moved to Fresno to be near her daughter, she took on the task of organizing a local DPF chapter, and her career as one of Fresno’s most public voices for reform of the criminal justice system was launched.
Over the years, Maria’s involvement has deepened, and the nature of her work changed. As she began meeting death row prisoners and became familiar with their personal and spiritual struggles, she could only smile while remembering Sister Helen’s parting words.
She began to realize that punitive treatment of offenders is counterproductive: “85% of inmates will one day be back on the streets. Who do you want as your neighbor—someone who’s been treated respectfully or someone treated as a savage animal?”
She also saw that the families of prisoners were being cruelly punished in tandem with the inmates. She befriended families of prisoners she knew and began reaching out to other families. The book she co-authored with Toni Weymouth, Outsiders Looking in: How to Keep from Going Crazy when Someone You Love Goes to Jail, is intended to give guidance and practical support to anyone with incarcerated people in their lives.
Maria has seen the seamy side of our criminal justice system—where convictions are sought with little or no evidence but to get the case solved for the photo ops; where judges collude with DA’s and trials are mockeries; where sentencing is way out of line with the offense; where inmates are stripped of all dignity and hope. This aspect of her work—the search for justice—led her into affiliation with the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, where she is a longstanding Board member and which sponsors her current Prison Ministry.
One piece of her recent work has been as a key organizer/procurer for the Goody Bag project, which distributes thousands of bags of toilet items and treats to the women at Chowchilla’s prisons. She has also been accepted as a lay Unitarian minister serving the population of Avenal State Prison. This is the work she feels she has been preparing for these many years, touching directly the hearts, minds and souls of her confidantes, and being touched by them in return.
“Yes, I’ve met some inmates unrepentant and trying to beat the system. But most of the men and women I meet are grief-stricken by what they’ve done to others and themselves. They teach me what it means to attempt atonement with true humility. What breaks my heart is that so often they will forgive others for all the crap that helped turn them to crime, and even those who abuse them in the system. But they do not forgive themselves.”
As an advocate for the decent treatment of prisoners, Maria says she is constantly attacked for seeking to coddle perpetrators and ignore victims. But, she says, she learned early on in the work, from Sister Helen, to make every effort to include victims and their families in the justice-making process, though few take the offer seriously. When they do (as have those in the Friends and Families of Murder Victims for Reconciliation, a group that Maria brought to Fresno a few years ago), their stories are immensely powerful and moving.
Maria has also been touched by the Community Alliance’s “in-House” correspondent, Boston Woodard. “I admire his courage and fortitude, knowing each piece he writes can land him in trouble, if not ‘the hole.’ He dares speak the truth and suffer the consequences.”
Maria says her recent reading in the texts of many religions all concur in the essential commandment to “love thy enemy,” to acknowledge the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Perhaps it took being a ridiculed child for her to become a respect-giving woman. If so, she has used her travails well.
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance and is a member of Citizens for Civility and Accountability in Media (CCAM). Contact him at email@example.com.