Deacon Fred Thornton, 60, is the Catholic chaplain at Centinela State Prison in Imperial.
A former San Diego police officer, who retired in 2017 after 32 years, he was ordained to the permanent diaconate on June 6, 2014.
In addition to his work at the prison, Deacon Thornton also ministers at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Julian and at both Santa Ysabel Indian Mission/St. John the Baptist Church in Santa Ysabel and its mission church, St. Francis of Assisi Chapel in Warner Springs.
What is it like, as a former cop, to minister at a prison?
About a year ago, when the bishop’s office asked if I’d take the job, I hesitated. My fear was that guys I had put in prison would recognize me and I’d get killed. After praying about it, I realized that my whole life had been preparing me for prison ministry.
When I first got here, I was warned that, if I told the inmates about my background, it might cause problems for me. After praying about that, I decided to be open and honest. I told them my story during the homily at my first Communion service.
What have you found most rewarding about your work?
Most rewarding is the true fellowship that the inmates and I share. I joyfully call them my brothers in Christ, because they are. We live the faith together; we walk it together.
I’d say 50 to 70 percent of the guys who attend my services are in prison for gang-related homicides; a good portion have committed more than one homicide. At one time, I didn’t think they were going to accept this former cop as their chaplain, but they have.
There’s one inmate who was high up in the Mexican mafia — I knew of him by reputation when I was a cop — and he has become a real friend. He helps set up the chapel for each service, and he stays behind afterwards to pray with me. We pray for each other and for our families. He’s in my daily rosary; he’s got a prominent spot in one of my decades. He knows the hardcore cop that I was, and I know about him, and we both recognize that it’s through the love of God that we’ve become who we are now.
What message do you have for others about possibly getting involved with prison ministry?
There are a lot of preconceived ideas about what prison’s like – that it’s scary, that it’s dangerous. That element exists, however, the inmates that I work with are hungry for the Word and they appreciate when people take the time to be with them.
If you’re fearful about what might potentially happen, pray about it. There’s a lot of work to be done in prisons. I’m looking for volunteers. There’s a clearance process that has to take place before you can start volunteering, but if you’re willing, if your heart is in it, please come and help. And share in the joy.
The above comes from a May 10 story in the Southern Cross.