Integral ecology

"Joseph House," a home of redemption after prison

Father Dustin Feddon is the founder of "Joseph House", a house in Florida where he welcomes men who have been released from prison and want to rebuild their lives. Inspired by the example of Joseph, son of Jacob, this community wants to be a witness that all people have the potential to be good and to do good.

Paloma López Campos-August 23, 2023-Reading time: 8 minutes

A priest visits a man waiting on death row (CNS photo / Tim Hunt, Northwest Indiana Catholic).

In Florida there is a house in which live men with diverse occupations and pasts who, however, share one characteristic: they have all been in prison. "Joseph House" is a home for ex-convicts who wish to rebuild their lives, having found hope in the Gospel.

The idea was born in the heart of the priest Dustin Feddon when he was still a seminarian. During his pastoral year, he felt that God was calling him "to serve those who are incarcerated or have been in prison". As a result, for years he has lived in the house with men who have been released from prison and spends much of his time accompanying those who are incarcerated, on death row or in solitary confinement.

Joseph House founder Dustin Feddon.

In this interview with Omnes, Feddon talks about his ministry, explains his vision for the U.S. prison system and the great reality of God's mercy in people's lives.

When did you realize you wanted to be a priest working in prisons?

– I was a seminarian and in my diocese we have a “pastoral year”, that is like a year of apprenticeship. During my internship I was assigned to a parish not far from where I am now. At that time I was already thinking that I wanted to do a ministry outside of the walls of the parish and the priest that I met during my internship suggested prisons and put me into contact with a gentleman that was the chaplain of death row and solitary confinement at that time.

I was still a seminarian but in my first couple of visits I felt strongly that within me there was something that was clarifying for my own vocation. Mother Teresa and others call it “the vocation within the vocation”, so I felt as though there was something happening inside of me that was leading me to dedicating my life to serving those that are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.

How did Joseph House come to be and why did you decide to name it after Joseph?

– For me it started by going into Florida’s prisons in 2014. I started going to solitary confinement camps, going onto death row and other parts of the prisons. Getting to know the men that I would visit with, early on I had a few guys that would drop the name Joseph from the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament, the son of Jacob, as being a story that inspired them because Joseph also was a estranged from his family, he was enslaved, incarcerated, he was put into confinement… And yet, he was a relentless dreamer. For the men that I would speak with about Joseph, I think it was in particular that they too felt themselves to be dreamers. And their dream kind of allowed them to be resilient in their present conditions, being imprisoned in Florida.

The capacity to dream meant that they had hope in their future, that one day they would be restored to their families and to society, and that they would be able to contribute something. Between 2013 and 2017, was when I started thinking about a place and community where men could come and live after their period of incarceration.

How do you help these men find hope through your ministry?

– There’s certainly a lot of sadness and despair in these prison cells and dorms that I go to visit. And yet I’m mystified and surprised with the hope that many of these men already have. They believe that, if given the opportunities, they can still live a good life and they can still fulfill their dreams. So, oftentimes, I just kind of wait until I listen to those faint echoes of hope inside of these men that I'm visiting. And then, I respond to that and I encourage it. I try to dream with them about their own hopes and desires. I certainly attribute that to God.

When you firmly believe that God is present in every situation and in every person, you never feel like there’s an utterly hopeless situation or person.

How do you talk about justice and hope to those waiting in the death row or solitary confinement?

– I’ve been with men that were awaiting execution and I’ve accompanied men to their execution, and at that point we talk about how the state of Florida, the warden, the governor, etc, ultimately don’t have power over their soul. Especially if the person is a believer, they know that God is infinitely merciful and is love itself, He’s their only judge, the ultimate judge, so they can discover liberation and hope in Him.

I’ve seen that for some men, this conjures a real sense and reality of hope. Though they are to be executed, they can still have a real hope that their life can be a witness to others and that ultimately God is their sustainer.

Has your ministry given you a different perspective on the sacrament of reconciliation, God's mercy, freedom and forgiveness?

– Yes. I think so much of my own understanding of Theology and my reading of Scripture, and the sacraments, has developed in new ways through my experience in the prisons, the faces of the men that I’ve served and that I’ve accompanied.

The sacrament of reconciliation is something, in a very particular way, that I’ve come to discover talking with men who committed murder, for example, is that in seeing their own transformation and their own ability to come into contact with that indestructible goodness that is inside of each one of us, and living their lives entirely in a state of mercy.

Most people won’t know what’s the worst thing that I’ve ever done, whereas for all of these men, it’s been published by most newspapers, it’s been broadcasted on the news, it's there on the Internet. The worst thing they've done is oftentimes what people actually first identify them with. And yet these men can live in a state of mercy, in a place of freedom.

I don’t mean to sound cheeky about this but there’s nothing that anyone in my parish, for the most part, is going to tell me, that is going to in any way probably outdo what I’ve heard in the prisons. And yet these men in prison have come to a place of freedom, of mercy, and I have a real sense of going into the sacrament of reconciliation that God’s mercy does triumph.

How do the activities of "Joseph House" allow these aspects of freedom and mercy to be fulfilled in the lives of prisoners?

– Well, the “house” part is important. It’s “Joseph House”, not “Joseph Community”, “Joseph programme” or “Joseph Institution”... It’s a home. “Joseph House” is like any typical middle class home where there are kids in high school or college. And I say that not to be condescending to the men that are here, that are adult men, but I mean it in terms of everyone’s going about doing their own thing. Here each guy is working, or going to school, or working on things here at the house, and we live our life together.

That’s why the word accompaniment is so important to me, because Joseph House is not about putting on them programmes and rigorous rules or whatever, it’s more about how do we live life together so that we can walk side by side with each other on this shared journey.

It must be hard for some of these men to leave prison behind, with all its loneliness, and enter a new chapter living with more people, right?

– That’s true. Different men respond in different ways. Some immediately acclimate and from the moment they get here they feel the confort, the warmth and the solidarity in the house. Other men, because of pretty serious traumas, take considerably more time and often we put a lot of high premium on therapy. Our guys have the opportunity to see therapists who will help them. We try to work in such a way that we are a therapeutic environment. We try not to force our men into socializing if they don’t want to.

Do you believe that there are aspects that should be treated mainly through psychological rather than spiritual channels?

– I believe that grace builds on nature. As someone who is a believer, a disciple of Christ committed to the Church, my ultimate hope is that each of the men that I accompany, visit or live with, that they come to discover God and His love in their lives. And I know also, because so many are wounded and have their own histories of trauma and tragedies, that it takes time for their minds, psychology and emotions to heal in a way that prepares them for the possibility of believing in a God that is all good, not a God that is a tyrant that just wants to punish. That takes time and sometimes requires the healing of the mind.

Volunteers and people working at "Joseph House" need to be prepared, how do you help them to deal with the different situations they may encounter?

– Knowing that our residents come to us from trauma-induced environments that foster exclusion, a sense of not belonging, violence, impoverishment, abuse, we at Joseph House seek to mitigate these effects by creating a therapeutic community that reinforces their dignity. Volunteers play a significant role in this community. Initially we relied heavily on volunteers because we had no staff. But now that we have staff, including a wonderful social worker, we are now able to train our volunteers to contribute to our community in ways that benefit our residents. As you might imagine it can be overwhelming for men who have been isolated from society to meet new people of all walks of life.

A therapeutic community prioritizes the dignity of each person and functions in a way to make it easier for each resident to become more fully themselves in relation to the greater community. We as a community fulfill this aim by modeling communication styles in daily life together that cultivates a desire to make our needs known and to understand each other more. Over time and with increased encounters, we model conflict resolution and our volunteers help us with this. As a house, we emphasize the value of daily living that opens new pathways for change. It is our mission to create a culture of hospitality and mutual living in community to model a safe and healing environment and trained volunteers are essential in this process.

What are your hopes and dreams for "Joseph House"?

– With Joseph House, my personal dream is that the men that we have served, that some of them, go on now to be the next generation of Joseph House. That they themselves become leaders in our community and that they are the ones that are really going to carry the legacy of Joseph House as a place where dignity is restored, where we come to find that we are all sisters and brothers, and for them to lead us forward. They are the ones that know most about the realities of where they come from, but also of what they’ve been able to do on the outside. My dream is that they’ll be our shepherds and prophets in the future.

And, of course, I would love more houses. Because I know there are many men and women who need this.

What do you think is missing right now in the U.S. prison system to treat people more humanely?

– There’s a lot missing. There’s the absence of anything that we could consider humane healthcare or education. But I think that the thing that is missing is the belief and the hope in restoration, the conviction that all people can be restored and redeemed. We need to know that the sum of us is not the worst part or our worst actions. I’d say that what’s missing is the conviction that justice can, and perhaps even ought, to be restorative.

In Florida, the criminal justice system equates justice with punishment or retribution. And so there’s a failure of vision beyond retribution and thinking about justice as something that can also contribute to restoration.

What do you expect from the U.S. prison system so that God can also be present in prison?

– The system is a sort of monster, an unruly institution. It’s hard to know where to begin. But I guess my hope would be that communities like Joseph House and other organizations that do the work of restorative justice, can be models of what it means when we see the potential in each person to become good and to do good.

And what I think that that means is that the justice system needs to start seeing the people that are oftentimes caught up in the system when they were kids, because they didn’t want to grow up to be criminals, something happened along the way. We have a mental health crisis also, and each person needs healing in a way. No person should be told that they are less than human or incapable of being redeemed.

La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.