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Fr. Dustin Feddon — Honoring Dignity Inside Prisons
Episode 129th January 2024 • Encounters With Dignity • Catholic Mobilizing Network
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For Fr. Dustin Feddon, the practice of being present with people who are currently and formerly incarcerated is a restorative act — a witness to the dignity of each person and the hope of redemption.

In this episode, Fr. Dustin takes us inside solitary confinement and death row in Florida, places where so few people are allowed to visit, and gives a glimpse into the interior lives of men living, and dying, there. He also shares about how these experiences inspired him to found Joseph House, a community of formerly incarcerated people.

Throughout our conversation, Fr. Dustin recalls how he first came to learn about restorative justice and how it continues to shape his parish and community-based ministries.


Caitlin Morneau

Hello, hello! And welcome to Encounters with Dignity, a podcast on restorative justice from Catholic Mobilizing Network. My name is Caitlin Morneau and I have the pleasure of serving as CMN's director of restorative justice and your host for this podcast. Whether you've listened before or you're tuning in for the first time, I am so glad you're here and I'm so glad we're back for season 2. If you're not familiar with Catholic Mobilizing Network, allow me to introduce us. CMN is a national organization empowering Catholics and people of goodwill to end the death penalty, advance justice solutions that align with Catholic values, and promote healing through restorative justice.

n, we started this podcast in:

In case, you're new to the concept of restorative justice or just need a refresher, here's a quick definition. Where justice, as defined by the U.S. criminal legal system, focuses on a specific law or rule that was broken and who should be punished for it, restorative justice approaches things differently. Restorative justice looks at the bigger picture, understanding crime and harm first as a violation of people and relationships. So this bigger picture includes the individuals and communities that were harmed, as well as those responsible, and asks, "What do they need? What might repair look like?" Restorative practices offer voluntary and safe processes that allow those impacted to come together to identify the harm, to understand its impact and to discern what can be done to put things more right.

In its broadest sense a restorative justice approach recognizes that every person has inherent dignity and deserves the opportunity to transform hurt and suffering into healing, redemption, and wholeness.

As I'm sure you can imagine this approach can infuse so many aspects of life in society. This season we'll take a close look at restorative justice within the context of the U.S. criminal legal system through the eyes of those most impacted by it. We'll talk with people who have been victimized by crimes, people who have committed crimes, and people who have walked with them and so much more.

I am excited to introduce you to today's guest, Father Dustin Feddon, who holds many roles, one of which is ministering inside of prison specifically in solitary confinement and on death row. Because of this, in a spirit of care, we wanted to share a note about what you'll hear. This episode does contain honest descriptions of conditions in prison cells and common areas.

It also includes a firsthand account of an execution. We recognize this might be a lot to take in, so we invite you to be attentive to your needs as you listen. So holding all of this and you in prayer, let's get started.

Father Dustin Feddon is the executive director at Joseph House in Tallahassee, Florida, which is a community for the formerly incarcerated. He also serves in pastoral ministry to those incarcerated throughout North Florida. Father Dustin also teaches philosophy at St John Vianney College Seminary and serves as pastor of two parishes in the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee.

Caitlin Morneau

Father Dustin, welcome. It is so good to be with you today. And thank you for joining us on Encounters with Dignity.

Father Dustin

Thank you, Caitlin, for inviting me to the podcast.

Caitlin Morneau

Well let's get started. Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you discern your vocational calling to not only the priesthood but also Ministry with people who are incarcerated?

Father Dustin

So I grew up a Methodist and was not all that familiar with Catholicism or with the Church for that matter. It was when I was in graduate school doing work in religion and philosophy and became close friends with a gentleman and he recommended that I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. For me, it was love at first glance or read and something struck a chord, opened some doors for me and my faith and in one fell swoop I was not only discerning whether or not becoming Catholic, but discerning at the time whether or not to become a religious brother. And then eventually discerned into the diocesan priesthood here in Tallahassee.

Caitlin Morneau

And at what point did you encounter ministry with the incarcerated, prison ministry?

Father Dustin

In the summer of:

And Dale, you know, I felt like he was the father of the girl who I was wanting to date in terms of like, he was asking me, like: What are my motivations here? What's my agenda? Am I in this for the long haul? How did I get interested in this? And in ah you know in a very thoughtful way, Dale was wanting to make sure that this was something that I had given a lot of thought to and was aware of the extraordinary space that I was entering into and the men that I would be serving. And that these are men that are isolated and confined and dehumanized and locked away and so my presence means the world, not because I'm special, but because I'm a human being who's wanting to engage in civil conversation and, you know, relationship in that way.

a Tuesday in early October of:

Caitlin Morneau

Do you want to say more about what happened in those encounters that night and what happened for you spiritually?

Father Dustin

Yeah, sure. It’s so vivid for me, walking down the main corridor of Florida state prison and I'm passing by these doors that are entering into large confinement dorms that literally sounded like I was passing by gymnasiums full of human activity. You know, you could hear the laughing and the shouting and the banging. And all of this noise as I'm making my way towards the very end of that corridor with Brother Dale walking beside me to where the G wing is, where death row is, not far from the death house, which is very ominously the last door.

But as I was walking down that corridor, Caitlin, and hearing the noises, there was just something that kind of welled up inside of me. It was this overwhelming sense of peace that we were in the presence of God and that God was with us. And I remember distinctly just kind of interpreting it as though we were walking and following in the footsteps of Christ, who was there and in this space.

And it coincided with, like, an awareness of the fact that we were in these human warehouses, and all of the noises, which normally would probably have frightened me, I immediately interpreted it as what a gift to be able to minister to the needs of the men that are in this space. And what followed from that was, “What am I going to….? How am I going to converse with men that I know likely had taken another life. Committed murder.

The gravity of that reality and not knowing what to say and how to minister and… But all of that anxiety and concern and nervousness had dissipated, largely because I felt like I had just passed through some kind of period of prayer. And then…. And then we had the most normal ordinary conversations about NCAA football and state politics and the weather. It was very easy having conversation with most of the men cell-front.

Caitlin Morneau

Wow, oh thank you so much for just taking us into that time and place and moment with you. And so continuing along that thread I mean you've been present with individuals in some of the harshest and darkest conditions that we know in this country and…. Will you share a bit more about what it's like ministering with those who are in solitary confinement and living on death row.

Father Dustin

acola – about a thousand to:

You walk up to the doors and there's these small little plexiglass windows oftentimes with holes ah through them. And also I think it's important to describe when you look into one of these cells – I'll never forget the first time I looked into it. We've seen these on television, probably you've seen pictures of it. But seeing it and then seeing a human person in front of you, standing in what is essentially a mop closet ah and seeing the toilet there right next to the head of a bed and then a bunk you know a set of bunk beds. And thinking how do two people not let alone one. How do two people spend, oftentimes 23 to 24 hours a day in that little space where there's no AC and in the summer it can be 110° inside these dorms. I've seen men laying on the floor just to stay cold.

You walk in and you're having these conversations with guys in these cells and it's so easy to be distracted by what you're seeing. It's so distracting because of what you're hearing, the banging, the shouting. And yet you know that this is such a privileged conversation to be able to have with a human soul in a place where even attorneys can't go. No one else from the public can walk into these dorms and have these conversations, but staff and religious volunteers and nurses.

And so you're wanting to hold on to each word because you know how privileged of a conversation it is. But yet, you're also overwhelmed. Every time I go I have to kind of process just how surprised I am that this thing is still happening.

Caitlin Morneau

Can you describe a little bit about how you see your role as a spiritual companion with folks inside and what insights have you gained about the role of faith in spirituality in the lives of people in prison?

Father Dustin

First, you know, I am not going in there as a guru. I am not going in as a person who is in any way, um, proselytizing or evangelizing. It’s, in a way, trying to allow for the most ordinary of conversations to happen because I realized that that is extraordinary in those spaces, to ask them about their family, to ask them how long they've been here at Santa Rosa, you know, how are they doing. Identifying who I am, why I'm there and allowing for as much as possible for an ordinary, conversation of Goodwill to take place. Ah, and if they ask me to pray for them I will pray for them.

But typically, really, most of those conversations are ordinary everyday conversations and then certainly, if they want it, to go to places that might be with a little bit more depth to speak about their experiences then they're free to do so. I've heard many guys give me their dreams that they've had that night or the morning before or whatever. And you know, just where they lead you can be some pretty fascinating spaces or places and in terms of their experiences there in confinement and in such living conditions, I am shocked by the hope and the resilience of these men.

It is mind blowing that these men, who are living hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, some year after year in these spaces, have and will convey to me the hope they have for when they get out or the hope they have of some of the things that they're involved in currently. And for many of them who may have life sentences, the hope that they have that somehow their words, their actions will have some type of benefit or power for their family members or their friends. It is without a doubt, for me, an inspiration when I hear these men relay to me a palpable sense of hope. And I think that comes from a real sense that their God is a God full of compassion and mercy and possibility.

Caitlin Morneau

I do want to keep um, following this thread that you named of hope and resilience and I'm curious. How did you first come to learn about restorative justice and with that how would you describe it in a pastoral way to maybe one of your parishioners or someone who’s curious.

Father Dustin

Yeah. So my first encounter with the concept and the practice of restorative justice was when I was a Seminarian and I want to say this was before I was going into the prisons. In fact, I'm certain that it was. I was at a meeting that was happening again at Good Shepherd. And myself and a number of other Seminarians were going to this meeting. And we’re walking over and this lady came up to me, I think, and maybe it was a group of us and she went on to talk about that what was happening was really extraordinary there at Good Shepherd, because there were these two families that were involved in this thing called restorative justice. That one of the family's sons, Conor McBride, had tragically taken the life of the daughter of this other family, the Grosmaires. And what was happening was a restorative justice approach regarding the sentencing of Connor McBride. So that was the first time I had ever heard that term.

And then fast forward, I think it was probably about a year later, I read the New York Times article about Conor McBride and the restorative justice process that took place between the state of Florida, Connor McBride and the Grosmaires.

So that was my first exposure to this concept of the idea of restorative justice. And then eventually I was ministering at Wakulla about a year later and got to know Conor there and was able to learn a lot more about restorative justice.

And so, in trying to convey this to parishioners, I can't think of a better story than the story of Joseph. The narrative of how, you know, the tragedy that happened in this human family, these brothers that had attempted to kill their younger brother and then leave him for dead and then sell him off to slavery and to eventually to him being imprisoned far away from his home. And then how years and years pass and then eventually the seeds are sown, and I would say quite providentially, right in the story, the way that Joseph is reunited with his brothers and this process of a kind of acknowledging the harm that was done and responsibilities that need to be owned and what happened to Joseph.

And the consequences – not saving them from the consequences of those actions, but ultimately, seeking full restoration to the point of actually having a shared meal together, which is full inclusion as we know from the Gospels – full inclusion to share a meal together, to break bread together is a sign of the Kingdom of God. So the Joseph story I mean to me is kind of the go to.

Caitlin Morneau

Amen. Thank you so much for walking us through the story of Joseph with a restorative lens. I know I really appreciate that because there are so many stories in the New Testament that we return to again and again in this work, rightly so: the prodigal son, the Good Samaritan, the woman caught in adultery. And it's really maddening how often Old Testament scriptures -- thinking especially of an “eye for an eye” -- gets inaccurately used to validate, I mean, not just punishment but inhumane punishment. I mean we could do a whole episode on the misinterpretation of that text alone and you know that was really intended to limit retaliation and call for repair. But I digress. All of this is to say it's really refreshing and welcome to lift up the Hebrew scriptures as they should be examples of restoration and healing.

I want to thank you too for sharing about the Grosmaire and McBride families and how they impacted you and your journey. They have also deeply impacted my own and we were so grateful to have them on last season, I believe it was episode 8, where they and their facilitator, sujatha baliga, shared about their process in Conor's sentencing. So, for folks listening I really encourage you to check out that episode. It's called finding justice in the light of forgiveness.

Of course, Father Dustin, you know how Catholic Mobilizing Network works to both promote restorative justice and end the death penalty. And I know for you, Father Dustin, so much of your conviction to find better ways of achieving justice is because of how you've personally borne witness to the inhumanity of capital punishment. In May of last year, you served a spiritual director to Darryl Barwick on Florida's death row and I know this included being with Mr. Barwick during his execution. What was that experience like?

Father Dustin

Yeah, first, the fact that another person, any person, is inviting you to be with them, to walk with them in the last days, weeks, months of their life, whether it's due to a terminal illness, whether it's due to a pending execution, still is overwhelming to think about that they are choosing to let you into their life and into their interior life. Of course, you know, I wish that I never needed to occupy such a space for someone like Darryl.

It was six weeks. We would meet twice a week. And we would spend about an hour, maybe sometimes an hour and a half together.

And I got to witness a man who had deep faith. But it's the type of faith that you know just being in the presence of somebody, that this is somebody who walks closely with Jesus and who believes in the things of the Gospel and who lives it out.

He was an avid pen pal, corresponded with people all over the world, many of whom were nuns. And I got to, in that period, seeing this is someone who chose writing letters as a discipline. That was his work. That's what he did.

And he was known in the facility and on death row as being such a conscientious person that he was made more or less the accompanier of a man visually impaired on death row. And he took care of him and I got to know and hear him talk about how it was the custom of he and his brothers that if another brother receives bad news or hears of the death of a family member that they all kind of gather their canteen and give it to this person. And I got to really sense, moreso than even on visiting on death row all those years, I really got a sense of this vibrant community of men living on death row through Darryl's love for his brothers. And in that period of time, again six weeks or so, it was like you know, really having this privileged opportunity to read the story of this soul of this man, Darryl Barwick.

Caitlin Morneau

Wow. Thank you. For folks listening if you didn't have the opportunity to witness Darrel's last words they were incredibly moving. He apologized to the victim's family and to his own family. He urged the state of Florida to show more compassion in the legal system. What was it like for you to hear Darryl give this statement and what does that say about the capacity of people condemned to death to atone for the harm that they've caused and find redemption?

Father Dustin

I'm so glad you asked this question Caitlin. It was… that day was such, you know, such an awful, dark, foreboding frankly evil, I mean, you could so witness some of the honestly some of the human and societal evil at play. But in the midst of that space you know…. And Darryl asked me to be in the gallery – the viewing room and I knew how important it was for people to be able to make eye contact with people that they know love them and care about them and are praying for them.

When I was sitting there by this viewing window looking into the place where Darryl was to be executed, just feeling again the kind of, the evil the darkness almost you know was palpable and the anger that I was having, too, the all of it, the spectacle, how macabre it was.

And yet the moment that Darryl spoke, let me tell you, at that point he would have already have ah been sedated um and his mind would have been – likely should have been – foggy, but he said, because we talked about what he wanted to say at the end, and he said exactly almost word for word what he wanted to say, making it clear that it was not his right to expect or to ask the family to forgive him, but only that he apologized to them for the death of Rebecca and made that clear and unequivocal.

And then he went into, speaking as someone who himself was incarcerated at a young age and at 19 and entered into… on death row at a very very young age,was able to intercede and speak for all of his brothers and sisters that have been sentenced as children and I thought you know that to me isn't this, isn't this in a way, this is Christ on the cross interceding? You know, for others, at that moment. The fact that these are his last seconds and he's of such a present ah such a state of presence about him in that moment to know what to say and how to say it that I can… I can tell you like for me, that all of a sudden brought light into this very dark space, that he was witnessing the mercy of the Father in this cruel and unusual wicked moment. He was witnessing and testifying to the light.

And I'll tell you finally just to say, this what it has taught me, what I saw clear through Darryl, and I've seen it before and in so many other men, but what I saw through Darryl, and I know this is this sounds kind of controversial in saying this because yes, Darryl, owned and was guilty of murdering Rebecca. And took her life. Period. Though as a people of faith, we believe that those sins can be and are forgiven.

Darryl in my experience, my limited experience, but significant experience with him in that journey, this was an innocent man. Not innocent of the crime of Rebecca Wendt. He was guilty of that. But through his own process of acknowledging what he had done, owning that responsibility and now trusting in God's mercy for his soul, he exhibited this state of innocence that to me, that moment, I thought, this is, you know, everyone thinks that they're putting to death a monster. And yet here he is the one who is testifying to the light in that moment if that doesn't tell us about the capacity of redemption and transformation, ah, I don't know what else we should be looking for.

Caitlin Morneau

Right? Amen wow! Thank you and this is why the Catholic catechism says that the death penalty it's in admissible. It's inadmissible because even in responses to violent crime, we cannot deprive even those who are guilty of the possibility of redemption. And I mean Darryl's story proves that that transformation is possible.

visit in gosh it was probably:

Father Dustin

Joseph House started in large part after me leaving these confinement dorms and thinking how do we create spaces that are the antithesis of what we're seeing? Like the antidote you know to what we're witnessing and myself and others started dreaming of a place like Joseph House that could reaffirm the dignity of each of these men, to give them a space for their own restoration in which, to me, I see Joseph House in many ways as a restorative justice kind of approach. Maybe not as explicit in some respects.

Because oftentimes in the state of Florida these men are not able to connect with the victims of their crimes so we see ourselves as that extended human family that is welcoming our brothers back. Holding them accountable to be to being good brothers in this community and the rest of their relationships and this life to me and realizing that so much of this is like the response to those confinement dorms, wanting to think of a way that we as a community, we as the church can provide a space that is restorative.

I'll just say, I mean, much of this for me with Joseph House comes from reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and him inviting me to come up to EJI and meeting some of their staff and so that kind of vision kind of created for me and created I would say for us, a kind of ah an ethos here at Joseph House, that I I think we're taking what our friends at EJI live out as legal advocates for the incarcerated and we're putting it into kind of a communal dimension. That, to me, is Joseph House, which is to take the values of restorative justice, the values of truth and reconciliation, and to put it into everyday, ordinary life form, living in community here at Joseph House.

And I'll just end by saying this, that quite providentially, and this was not the plan from the beginning. But the way it worked out, our first resident here at Joseph House is a client of Bryan Stevenson featured in the book Just Mercy, the wonderful, magical, ever full of life Joe Sullivan. He really was the one that made this a home.

Caitlin Morneau

I love that. Love that. Yeah, I'm so grateful for how you name the way that this deeply embedded communal work is… It's not separate from this systemic national work of truth and reconciliation, truth and healing, that the folks at Equal Justice Initiative have been really instrumental in putting forth that legacy in this country from lynching to the modern day death penalty and from slavery to modern day mass incarceration. And so thank you for sharing how Joseph House is an extension, an iteration of that work that really all of us are called to in our respective communities.

There's just one more question that I would love to hear your reflections on. I know as I've had the opportunity to get to know lots of folks across the country who are ministering inside of prisons and with folks who are formerly incarcerated. I hear about three, what may be distinct but often connected kind of approaches to ministry. Um, the first one being spiritual accompaniment including pastoral counseling, Bible studies, administering the sacraments. The second being rehabilitative supports, thinking here about life skills training and education and housing access. All things that are so, so important. And then the third being restorative practices that attend to both trauma healing, but also repairing relationships that have been damaged or violated. My sense is that when many people hear or think of Prison or Reentry Ministry, those first two come to mind. How would you encourage us to discern those relational restorative pieces alongside the spiritual and rehabilitative?

Father Dustin

I would say first, you know, that the spiritual is the restorative. That there's no separation because it leads me to thinking about Acts chapter 2. You know and this is the very beginnings of the church. And we have the beginnings of this community. And then we have Peter get up and speak about this horrific act of violence that had taken place in Jerusalem. And he preaches this powerful sermon about what happened to this Jesus of Nazareth.

And then eventually we know it leads to their repentance, recognizing what happened and what took place in Jerusalem – the scapegoating, the violence, the execution. And I realize I'm not saying that you know that that's the story of every man that I visit with in prison. But there's this reality that the salvation of those people in Jerusalem is contingent upon their participation in this restorative act of acknowledging the wrong, the harm that had happened, and now to be a part of the healing that is to take place in Jerusalem.

And so the very origins of the church is this working out of restorative justice. At the very point of Peter's first sermon as the chief apostle is preaching restorative justice and that their salvation is contingent upon participating in this act of restorative justice. That's salvation.

Not a metaphor for a salvation. Not an analogy for salvation. Not a kind of sort of like that is the act of salvation – that full inclusion back into the human family. And so I think that the truthiness of restorative justice and the stories of restorative justice should be thought of on the front end of this type of ministry and outreach to those in prisons because otherwise we start separating spirit from body or spirit from community. That beatific vision is wrapped up all in the communal dimensions, the political dimensions and the social dimensions. That's what we do at Joseph House – making sure that our brothers know that they're included, that they're taken care of, that we're working with them on so many different levels so that the piece of restorative justice, the piece that I would describe as salvation, can be fully manifest.

Caitlin Morneau

Um, amen. Well I can't think of a better note to end on. Father Dustin, thank you so much for this conversation for being with us today for all that you're doing in the community. We continue to hold you and Joseph House and all the folks that you're ministering with in Florida in prayer. This has been a sacred time and a blessing. Thank you.

Father Dustin

Thank you for inviting me, Caitlin, and thank you for all that you all do.

Caitlin Morneau

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Encounters With Dignity. Be sure to subscribe to our show from your favorite podcast platform or by visiting Join us next month when we'll talk with Andrea Hug, a Catholic mother who journeyed with her children through a restorative justice process after her husband was killed by an intoxicated driver.

To stay connected with Catholic Mobilizing Network and our mission to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice, follow us on social media or sign up for our emails at

Let us close in prayer. Good and gracious God, thank you for this opportunity to come together to be in relationship across time and distance. May this conversation remind us that every person has dignity because we are made in your image and likeness, cherished and beloved. May we participate with one another in the redemption that you made possible by your suffering, death and resurrection. And may we bear witness to your healing, restorative, transformative work in the world. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, your son. Amen.



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