Spending three decades as a married couple in the same difficult apostolate—prison reform—represents no small achievement. Charlie and Pauline Sullivan are co-founders of CURE, a grassroots organization that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year (www.curenational.org). My first encounter with them came while I was still on the staff of St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C. Recently arrived from Texas, where CURE began, they called asking whether we had any spare office space in which they could continue their advocacy work on the national level.
St. Aloysius, through its Father McKenna Center, has a long tradition of assisting poor people, including prisoners who—having served their sentences—struggle to move on with their lives. Curiously, the one space available for the Sullivans was a room that had once been Horace McKenna’s bedroom under the eaves of the enormous 19th-century church on North Capitol Street. A Jesuit who devoted his life in service to the poor, Horace would be delighted to know that his work continues not only in the McKenna Center’s outreach and winter shelter program in the basement of the church, but also high above in the space he had occupied when he himself was on the parish staff.
CURE has remained in that bare-bones room ever since, ideally located for the Sullivans’ endeavors because it is within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol, in whose halls much of their advocacy efforts take place. I saw Charlie and Pauline in the early fall, and as usual we spoke about criminal justice, one of the areas I follow for America. Now in their 60’s, they have lost none of the enthusiasm that originally led them to this kind of work when they left religious life and married. The Attica prison riots in the 1960’s had brought prison conditions into the national consciousness, and one local San Antonio issue that caught their attention at the time concerned the travel difficulties of prisoners’ family members who were trying to visit loved ones in distant facilities. The Sullivans responded by organizing a low-cost bus service, leasing vehicles and recruiting volunteers to drive them. To support themselves, Pauline did substitute teaching and Charlie drove a cab.
Without realizing it, they were laying the groundwork for the grassroots advocacy work that would become their life’s undertaking. From San Antonio they moved to the state capital precisely in order to lobby there on behalf of issues affecting the prisoners’ lives. One of their first efforts involved pressing successfully for an end to the use of inmates as “tenders” to maintain order among other prisoners—a system filled with abuse and exploitation.
By 1975, CURE had become a membership organization. The acronym stands for Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants. A Texas post office employee observed on being told the acronym’s meaning: “Well, the whole world could join that group.” Ten years later, CURE moved to Washington.
One of Pauline’s first efforts involved helping to make it possible for pregnant prisoners to receive supplemental food through the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program—persistent efforts that earned her the not-necessarily complimentary nickname of “the prison baby lady.” An ongoing issue that both work on is advocating for the privatization of industries that operate behind prison walls in both state and federal facilities. Such a move would not only provide inmates with a minimum-wage salary, it would also prepare them for eventual re-entry into the community—a transition that, without preparation, can quickly lead to recidivism.
Charlie and Pauline continue living simply and cheerfully in a small apartment without a phone (workaholics, they know the dangers a phone would pose) in a drug-infested neighborhood. Bikes are their mode of transportation, and thrift shops supply their clothing. As people guided by their faith, they have never stopped leading religious lives of service to the outcast and vulnerable.