Jesuit Zach Presutti’s Thrive for Life Prison Project Finds Light in Dark Places

By Mike Benigno

April 10, 2018 — Walter’s seven months in prison began and ended with a prayer. He had moved to New York from his home country in Europe a year after graduating college. After losing his job and apartment to addiction, he was homeless and high on a January night. With nowhere left to go, he wandered into a church. “When you’re in addict mode,” Walter would later say, “your spiritual life is non-existent.” Yet he prayed that night, for the first time in so long. Several hours later, he was arrested for drug charges and had handcuffs around his wrists.

Thrive for Life, founded by Zach Presutti, SJ, offers the Spiritual Exercises at the Manhattan Detention Center and other New York area jails.

Walter was brought to the Manhattan Detention Center, a facility commonly known as the Tombs, which houses some 670 male detainees. Almost none of the men at the MDC have been sentenced yet for the crimes they’ve been charged with. Most exist, instead, in a holding pattern, waiting for weeks — and often months — between court dates, struggling through life in jail.

Though this was his first arrest, a judge set Walter’s bail impossibly high, citing Walter’s status as a foreign citizen and the chance he might flee overseas.

He spent much of the first two weeks sleeping. When he slowly began to venture out of his cell, fear set in. “I’m sure they could tell I was scared to death, because I was,” Walter said.

A few detainees began to show Walter the ropes: how the food line worked, who’s in charge of what and which prisoners to avoid. The experience of being locked in a cell was painful; there were men so mentally ill that they wasted their allotted phone time standing with a dead receiver, to delay and upset their rivals, and, by extension, everyone in line.

Walter had grown up Catholic, and three weeks into his stay he spotted a young man, Zach Presutti, SJ, wearing a Roman collar. It was the man who ran the Catholic retreat on Friday nights, he learned. And he was a Jesuit, which astounded Walter.

Zach Presutti, SJ, founder of Thrive for Life, in front of the Manhattan Detention Center.

One of Walter’s family members overseas had graduated from a Jesuit high school and college. “I remember the first time I saw him,” Walter said. “I said, ‘I’m going to be safe now.’ I was convinced that it did not happen by coincidence.”

As a Jesuit novice, Presutti was sent to work in a jail in 2011. “I fell in love with it,” he said. “I found the conversations and encounters I was having to be so profound and so deep.”

Soon after, the Jesuit provincial asked Presutti to get a master’s degree in social work. He did clinical work in a prison near Saint Louis University, and when he returned to the Northeast, his superiors supported his desire to focus on ministering to the incarcerated.

“I was transformed by the people that I met — their names, their faces and their stories. These were relationships I was building, and that’s why I felt myself coming toward this work, to empower others to thrive,” Presutti said.

That’s how the Thrive for Life Prison Project, a nonprofit that brings opportunities for spiritual development and educational resources to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in New York, was born.

The sights and sounds of jail are as traumatic as one might expect. “It’s an assault on your senses,” said Tracey Tynan, head of the social justice committee at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan, recalling her first jail volunteer experience.

Tracey Tynan is a Thrive for Life volunteer and head of the social justice committee at St. Francis Xavier Church.

Once a Thrive for Life retreat begins, however, the experience of the prisoners, the guards, the volunteers and even Presutti as chaplain, exceeds every expectation.

Presutti begins by explaining the Spiritual Exercises, then asks those gathered to close their eyes. For several minutes, crimes don’t matter. Court dates don’t matter. After a guided meditation, there’s a palpable peace and eventually eyes open.

The men are asked to review their week using the lens of the Examen, to discover the places where they saw God at work in their lives and to explore their challenges. They’re invited, and are often eager, to share their stories. After a Scripture reading and a short reflection, Presutti reminds them that God loves them more than they will ever know.

Walter joined Presutti and the volunteers about four weeks into his stay in jail. “With my story and the last few years of my life, that first message that Zach shared, that you are still loved, was something that I forgot,” he said.

Walter attended Presutti's weekly retreats through the entire progression of his court case. By the time of his plea deal, he had been doing the Examen alone each night in his cell for four months.

A full two years after it began, the prison ministry program is now housed in an office at Xavier High School in New York City. Presutti and volunteers continue weekly retreats for detainees at the Manhattan Detention Center and have expanded to serve five other jails and prisons.

Thrive has partnered not only with parishioners and other volunteers, but also with students at New York City’s Regis High School, who have made several trips to Riker’s Island, New York City’s main jail complex known for its violence and human rights abuses.

The retreats are balanced by action: Thrive offers life skills programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as for family members of those imprisoned.

Thrive’s expansion plans include Ignacio House, a residence for formerly incarcerated individuals, offering supportive living, scholarships to local universities and job training with local employers.

A sketch made by Robert, an inmate in the California State Prison, depicts when St. Ignatius was incarcerated.

Today, Walter lives in New York City. He attends mandatory narcotics counseling and is still connected with Thrive. He recently accepted a scholarship to begin studies at a local college and is excited about the prospect of beginning a career in graphic design.

“When I see Zach doing something that has meaning for him, I’ve never had that in my life, but I know that I can get there,” Walter said. “Thrive could be the platform that helps me find what’s meaningful for me. Right now, it makes sense in my life. I have a long way to go, but Thrive brought me a sense of higher power, of community and hope.”

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Manresa Jesuit Retreat House, located north of Detroit in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., offers retreatants a respite from the city on its 37–acre campus with almost 50,000 trees.