Pat Jones’ trips to the Schenectady County Jail don’t always get the kind of tangible results she’s looking for, but that doesn’t stop her from putting forth the effort.
“I don’t see any way to measure my accomplishments, and sometimes the best things we do that get results we never see,” said Jones, who for the past 30 years has been a regular visitor to the lockup at 320 Veeder Ave., where she spends time ministering to the facility’s female inmates.
“But in some sense, the reason I’m there is for me. That’s where I find God. In the jail, there are no walls high enough or thick enough to keep him out.”
Jones lives along the Schenectady-Niskayuna border on the eastern side of the city and attends St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Baker Avenue, where she is an ordained deacon.
A Rochester native and a former clerk at the Schenectady County Library, she graduated from seminary school in Rochester in 1982 and began visiting jails soon after moving to Schenectady.
“I had a friend who had two and three jails she was visiting, and one day she kind of just handed me the Schenectady County Jail,” said Jones. “I took a little time off for seminary, but I’ve always maintained my interest and I’ve been at it for 30 years. I still go, every week.”
She visits the jail as a member of the Schenectady Human Rights Commission and as part of the jail oversight committee. But her work with inmates isn’t a part of any special program, and she is there on her own, as a representative of St. Stephen’s.
“I simply sit and visit with the women,” she said. “I talk with them, I pray with them. We laugh. I don’t really get frustrated. I hope for the best and I’m glad when things work out.
“But I realize that sometimes they just don’t work out. I realize what a terrible master addiction is, of any kind. It can destroy you and sometimes you can’t overcome it. I’m extremely admiring of the people who do manage to live beyond their addiction.”
In her visits, Jones doesn’t push her religion on anyone.
“It’s not always about theology, and that’s fine with me,” she said. “People have many different ideas about what spirituality is and their relationship with God. To me, spirituality has everything to do with how you live your life and your relationship with other people. Sometimes we pray, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we just cry together. We talk about all kinds of things.”
Seeking her out
Jones’ counsel is often sought by inmates after they’re back on the outside.
“I try to help them when they get out, and I get calls for various reasons, sometimes for transportation,” she said. “They need rides to the Department of Social Services or they might have a doctor’s appointment, and sometimes I get a call to take some little girl to nursery school because they missed their bus.
“I’ve learned a few things,” continued Jones, breaking into a smile. “I learned to give them the church number and tell them to leave a message and I’ll get back to them. Well, eventually, they get my number.”
For St. Stephen’s pastor James McDonald, Jones’ work is a godsend.
“When Pat was in her last year of seminary I would go to the jail and it really opened my eyes as to just how important her ministry is,” he said.
“She is amazing, and I’m just so incredibly impressed with her perseverance. I’d go to church on Sunday and then head to the jail. When I got home, I’d be exhausted because it can be emotionally draining, and I’d think, ‘I’ll be happy when Pat gets back.’ Well, she came back and she started going again and she keeps on going. She’s a gem.”
McDonald said Jones is perfectly suited for her work.
“It’s not like she hasn’t had her own share of difficulties in her own life,” said McDonald. “But even with that she has this inner peace that’s a gift, and that peace is certainly something that helps her tremendously in that jail. There’s a lot of anxiety in that place.”
During the Christmas season, Jones collects cards for the inmates and asks for donations from her fellow parishioners at St. Stephen’s to help pay for her holiday project.
“On a Sunday after the main service, she’ll ask our church for donations to buy stamps, and then she’ll ask people to help her put the stamps on envelopes,” said McDonald.
“Then, she goes to the jail and hands out the cards to the inmates so that they can send the cards to their family and loved ones. That can be a pretty lonely place that time of year. She’s a wonderful lady.”
Jones’ father was a military man and the family spent a lot of time traveling. During that time, she began going to the Episcopal church with her parents, and she’s never strayed from that denomination.
“That’s where I’ve always been and I never had a reason to change,” said Jones, who raised two children with her husband, Christopher, and now has three grandchildren.
“I really appreciate the Episcopal form of worship. I appreciate the open-mindedness, which I find very helpful in jail. At seminary we worshipped in various ways and discussed different traditions, but nothing suited me better than the Episcopal liturgy.”
In 2004, she spent a lot of time and energy demonstrating against the death penalty. While she still feels the same way about capital punishment, she has different priorities right now; along with her work with female inmates, she spends time at Patty’s Place in Schenectady, a drop-in center for sex workers in need of hot meals, shower facilities and access to resources to help with drug addiction, domestic abuse and other social issues.
“I’m not as active with that as I was,” Jones said of her anti-death-penalty activism. “I’m focusing much more on my ministry in the jail, and the sheriff [Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino] and Superintendent [Jim] Barrett have been very generous in allowing us to work with the inmates.”
Barrett, who has been at the jail for 21 years, says Jones’ work is appreciated by the hierarchy and staff at the jail.
“She does a wonderful job, and our community is very lucky to have her around,” Barrett said. “She’s just so approachable, and there’s this certain calmness about her in the way she handles things. She’s very thorough. She takes in information, she evaluates it and she finds ways to resolve issues. She’s a wonderful woman.”
Jones sometimes answers the phone as “Deacon Jones,” which for people over 50 conjures up the image of David “Deacon” Jones, a 14-year NFL all-star defensive lineman who enjoyed a reputation as one of the “biggest and baddest” players of his era.
“I know who he is, and if I get a little wound up I’ll answer the phone that way without thinking,” said Jones. “One of my kids called me the other day and when I realized how I answered the phone, we both started laughing.”
Barrett always calls her “Deacon Jones” but says she’s not much like the football player. “I remember him, but they are about as extreme opposites as you could find,” he said. “Although, I will say this: She can be firm; she can be a tiger if she needs to be.”