New Delhi (AsiaNews) - "Prayers can transform prisoners. Praying with and for them goes a long way to create refreshed, changed and renewed people in society," said Sister Inigo Joachim SSA, former Superior General of the Sisters of St Ann in Madhavaram, near Chennai (Tamil Nadu).
Speaking to AsiaNews, Sister Inigo noted that whilst "inmates need our presence, emotional support and a shoulder to cry", they "are our benefactors” since they “give meaning to our lives, vocation and mission."
According to the nun, "sharing their pain and struggles and our compassionate listening is the raw material and content of our prayers. The poor have the capacity to teach us many things that we cannot learn from books. We learn from them the value of hope, endurance, patience, resilience, and gratitude." In fact, volunteers’ visits not only give joy and consolation to those behind bars, but "allows us to learn human and spiritual values, and strengthen our spiritual life."
When she is not doing pastoral work, Sister Inigo always goes to Tihar Prison in New Delhi, a detention facility that holds 14,000 people in ten buildings.
About 63 per cent of the prisoners are first-time offenders waiting to go on trial. Many are held without trial for long periods of time. About 40 per cent are innocent and should not be led in jail for any considerable period. Only 5 to 10 per cent are habitual offenders and hard core criminals held in high security wards. With its 6,000 volunteers, Prison Ministry India can reach 900 prisons out of a total of 1,387.
For prisoners, "the greatest suffering is solitude,” the nun explained. “They are abandoned by everyone, including their families and friends. Some have not been visited for years. The refusal of their loved ones makes them choose bad friends among inside the prison."
"The real purpose of sending criminals to prison should be turn them into honest and respectful citizens, teaching them to stay away from crime and criminal activity. This is why, more and more, it tends to privilege rehabilitation."
"Prison has effects on prisoners’ image,” she noted. They are “labelled as criminal even before the court issues the verdict. This affects their jobs, social status, and even future. It disrupts relationships. When a family member is imprisoned, the whole family has to suffer and adjust to the loss of income.”
In addition to harming human relations, imprisonment destabilises the psycho-physical balance of prisoners. "The way jails are built, the high walls and few windows contribute to this. Even a normal person would become mentally unstable in overcrowded cells."
In turn, overcrowding causes “health and nutritional problems. Diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and dengue spread quickly because of the proximity of prisoners,” which spawns "criminal gangs.” What is more, “Legal aid is not available to the poor, who cannot hire lawyers.”
A first step would be to "change the definition of prisoner as someone who breaks the law, a mischievous element society who has to be punished. When a person commits a crime, something is triggered in his mind that leads him to criminal behaviour. This behavior can be changed. Gradual change can be achieved through personal visits, listening and counselling. A person in prison is not a non-person. "
According to the Supreme Court, "a prisoner is sent to jail to be reformed, not to be punished." Prison Ministry is a ministry of presence. Prisoners perceive our moral proximity various ways: visits, a spontaneous smile, a kind word, affectionate greetings, a graceful nod, a willingness to listen. . ."
"Through the 'quality time' we spend with them, they experience peace and conversion of the heart. Our presence changes their attitude of helplessness because it makes them feel that there is someone who cares for them and hasn’t abandoned them."
Often prisoners "ask us Catholics to pray for them. They believe that God can change their destiny. They have lost everything, but always say one thing: they ca not afford to lose God too. Our prayers give hope in an otherwise desperate life."
Volunteers are also involved in rehabilitation through vocational training. They teach trades, which allows prisoners to earn some money and have greater chances of finding a place for themselves outside of prison.
Ultimately, Sister Inigo is convinced that members of her organisation can act as "bridge builders between prisoners and their families. We help the latter to welcome relatives upon their release."