Catholics can put faith into action by prison visiting
A prison visitor from County Durham shares her enthusiasm and passion for supporting prisoners with Andy Drozdziak from The Catholic Universe.
Prison visiting is a way in which Catholics can put their faith into action, according to a former teacher from the National Association of Prison Visitors (NAOPV). She is the regional secretary for official prison visiting in the north of England. The Association was formed in 1924, but traces its origins back to 1901, when prison visiting was first officially recognised. In a wide-ranging interview, she expressed an enthusiasm for supporting prisoners. “My heart was in in it from the word go,” she says. What does she hope to achieve through visiting? “That they become better people; that they will have a trust that there are people on the outside who will listen to them.”
“I’m not there to judge”
Her inspiration comes from Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel: “I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:36) She underlines the importance of not judging prisoners. “I’m not there to judge,” she says. “Most people in prison-they have been very bad. When I look at their background, I can perhaps understand why they became so angry. I would like to help the person.” S.R. Lochhead’s 1993 book A Study of Prison Visiting also provides inspiration. A key quote states: “Prison visiting is to do with friendship. It creates an informal friendly relationship which is concerned primarily with neither prisoners nor problems but with persons. Prison visitors want to extend to those imprisoned something of the emotional and intellectual enrichment experienced through friends. The contact between the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’ enables both to understand each other better.” The primacy of the person is a reminder of the approach taken by Jesus when he encounters those who have made mistakes, such as tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) or the woman at the well (John 4:4-42). In these passages, Jesus ‘rehabilitates’ these individuals by listening to them and showing their value.
Building a relationship of trust
This prison visitor reveals a similar approach. She explains how she has visited one man for 14 years in Frankland, a high security men’s prison in County Durham, and built a relationship of trust. “I have definitely seen a change in his whole attitude,” she says. “I have visited him for so long that we do, indeed, have a relationship. I’m there to listen to him. The other prisoners say to him: ‘It’s like your auntie coming to visit.’ When I see him, he is well turned out and very polite. When I first visited him, he said: ‘Well, I’ll die in here,’ but he has changed. You have got to give these people some sort of hope, if they are serving a long sentence.” The underlines the importance of rehabilitation: “Punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.” (2266) She outlines the ways in which she has helped support this prisoner. “The prisoner whom I visit once spoke of a poetry course which the prison was running,” she says. “He was not keen on attending, but I encouraged him to go along. Four weeks later, he had attended the course and had written a poem- he had done something. Then he got into writing songs and now he has the best job in the prison-a library orderly. That gave me a real spur and encouragement to continue.”
Helping prisoners fulfil their potential
She is keen to underline the importance of helping prisoners recognise their own worth and gifts. “As a former teacher, it’s about helping them fulfil their potential,” she says. She is aware that prisons can be hostile environments, but does not feel afraid when entering prison. “I’m not nervous at all. In the prisons room, there are officers everywhere. I would prefer not to know what people have done, but sometimes prisoners do want to tell you, perhaps to shock you or to test you, to see if this person does really want to visit me. If you come back the next month, they gradually learn to trust you.” A large part of rehabilitation, of course, is working out what prisoners will do once they are released. She speaks glowingly of shoe shop Timpsons, the biggest employers of ex-offenders. Chief Executive James Timpson says a third of prisoners are ‘right for work’ and some have become managers in Timpson shops. They also run workshops in prison to train prisoners to work in their shops.
Being the face of Christ
Who else inspires her in her prison ministry? “Pope Francis is a very good example,” she says. “Robert Byrne, bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, was a prison chaplain for many years. I told him it’s troubling that there are so few Catholics involved in prison visiting and he’s hoping to set up a group in our area. (She is based in the North East.) I have also met Sister Helen Prejean a couple of times.” American nun Sister Helen Prejean is known around the world for her work against the death penalty and for accompanying prisoners on Death Row to their execution. One of these accompaniments was recounted in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. She emphasises the importance of setting a good example and being a role model- in the words of Sister Helen Prejean, “being the face of Christ” for prisoners. “I would rather people get to know God through my behaviour,” she says. “Once prisoners know that God loves them, they are open.” Ingelise is keen for more Catholics to get involved in prison ministry to reveal Christ’s mercy and to fulfil His commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) To find out more about the National Association of Prison Visitors, visit their website: http://www.naopv.com/
Picture: Pope Francis embraces a female prisoner as he visits Cereso prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, 17 February 2016 (CNS photo/Paul Haring)Tags: Catechism of the Catholic Church, catholic, Catholic Church, Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, Hexham and Newcastle, imprisoned, imprisonment, Pope, Pope Francis, prison, prison chaplains, prisoners