Buffalo, NY - Many of us might be hard-pressed to find inspiration in a maximum security prison if ever we were to visit one. But it is behind the walls of such places as Rikers Island and Sing Sing Correctional Facility that Zachariah F. Presutti ’07 says he “finds a grace that gives light to his own religious life.”
Presutti is a Jesuit scholar who was ordained a transitional deacon in October this year and is currently preparing for his priestly ordination in June 2021. At age 33, he is also the founder of a progressive and promising restorative justice initiative known as the Thrive for Life Prison Project. Through spiritual and educational accompaniment, the not-for-profit empowers the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated to “rediscover the loving and generous people they were created to be by God,” Presutti explains.
His inspiration for Thrive for Life originated at the onset of Presutti’s Jesuit formation, when his novice master assigned him to prison ministry in Syracuse, NY. Presutti recalls his conversations with the incarcerated as “profound and deep” and describes being “transformed by their names, faces and stories.” Around the same time, a much more personal circumstance confirmed, for Presutti, his purpose: the arrest of his cousin.
“Watching the tears fall down his face opposite the Plexiglas window and not being able to touch him or hug him … my own blood …” Presutti trails off. “I realized then that the Holy Spirit was calling me to provide companionship, accompaniment and love to those who need it most.”
These three virtues are the pillars of the Thrive for Life Prison Project, which operates within seven federal, state and municipal facilities throughout New York and New Jersey. It is behind these walls that Presutti and his team bring the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola to more than 1,000 incarcerated men and women.
“Everyone in the room bears witness to each other’s burdens and humanity, and they begin to discover what’s most meaningful to them,” Presutti says. Though exploring feelings is initially foreign to many of those Presutti counsels, he notes that “A mutual hope eventually arises among participants that life can be better; that we can be better.”
Bolstering that hope is the knowledge that once participants are released from prison, they have a place to call home.
Ignacio House is a physical extension of Thrive for Life’s mission. Located in the Bronx, it offers a safe and stable living environment for formerly incarcerated individuals who wish to further their holistic growth and develop life skills. This community of residents is eligible to receive assistance in studying for their GEDs and learning English as a second language, as well as scholarships to local colleges and universities. They also receive workforce training and access to job opportunities.
“It’s not enough to just go behind the walls and tell people how much God loves them,” Presutti says. “We have to be there when they take their next steps to reenter society sometimes 10, 20 or 30 years after incarceration.”
Such continuity of care can be effective in ensuring a sustainable transition from prison. For Presutti, however, and the incarcerated for whom he cares, it’s simply the next step in helping them to rediscover their dignity that he believes was there from the beginning.
“People talk about giving the formerly incarcerated second chances,” says Presutti. “I would argue that most of those I’ve met behind bars were robbed of a first chance. The socioeconomic and unjust social structures of our society trapped them into failure from the very beginning, robbing them of those components integral to human flourishment and an individual’s ability to thrive in life.”