By Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB
“I was in the prison, you visited me…” These words would be one of the feedbacks Jesus will be giving to the good souls on arrival at the heaven’s gates, as Bible narrates in a parable (Mt. 25:36).
Jesus not only puts himself in the shoes of a prisoner. As a matter of fact, he was a prisoner himself and received the maximum sentence a criminal can get in his time—execution by crucifixion.
Visiting the prison, showing compassion, strengthening the lonely spirit of the inmates is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy in Christian faith practice. Indeed it is one of the important humane and charitable acts that we can offer to our fellow human being.
During my Pastoral Studies in the US, I came across a fellow student, a father of a family in his late 50s. He was a leader in Prison Ministry Team in the Archdiocese of Boston. He took keen interest in visiting prisons and spent a considerable time with prisoners amidst his busy weekly schedule. Everything was done on voluntary basis. And everyone admired his commendable job. Out of curiosity I asked him, ‘how prison ministry sparked his interest?’ He narrated an interesting story.
“My 19-year-old son was sentenced to a prison for a couple of months for a petty crime. I was devastated. I had never been to a prison, even for a visit. I went to visit my son every week, just to sit with him. During the course of my visits, he introduced to me several other young men who were imprisoned just like my son. I listened to their stories. I built relationship with them.
“I felt close to them. I wanted to do something good for them and to their families. I even began to counsel some of the parents and formed something like a support group. When I was undergoing my own frustration of seeing my son in the prison, I got meaning and consolation in these little acts. Now I continue to do it… visiting prisons and building relationships with young prisoners much after my son’s release from prison.”
There is a proverb, ‘One will know the pain of toothache and stomach-ache only when going through it.’
No one wants to be in the prison, especially prisons in underdeveloped countries. We have all heard the conditions—the over-crowded dwellings, monotonous food, lack of privacy, and having to share accommodation with all kinds of people, including those mentally challenged and those with chronic illnesses.
But the inmates are there for a reason, to repent for their mistakes and misdoings, both small and big. Often times they are inevitable for correction and restoration of personal self. The comical saying, “Prison is University of Understanding” is rightly so.
However, unfortunately due to financial constraints poorer nations are unable to offer the adequate care prisoners rightly deserve. In the hard situations the officials have tried to keep these men and women happy and safe. It is truly commendable.
My brief experience of interacting with prisoners in one of the prisons has given me positive experience. My first reaction was, these men are just unlucky that they are inside. Most of them are petty criminals… when “big fish” with big crimes such as swindling billions of shillings are driving 4X4 Wheel cars and enjoy all forms of protection these men are locked up.
I have heard remarkable and thought-provoking statements from the inmates. A young man in his late 20s said, “Please, when you preach out there, tell people to forgive us, we have forgiven them. Some of my friends have not been visited for six years. We feel bad.”
On sharing one said, “Here I have learnt to share, if I get a piece of cassava, I have four friends to share with me.” One inmate on his new found interest in religion said, “I always found excuse to get baptised. But here, I went through religious lesson and got baptised. Now I receive Holy Communion every day. I thank God for that.” One said with a beaming smile, “I think God has a plan for me in bringing me here. I have learnt something in life. It is OK.”
With much gratefulness one said, “Thank you for thinking of us and coming to visit us every week. You remind me that out there people think of us too.”
A visit to a prison makes us think of crime and criminal justice. When there are crimes in the society there is a need for prisons and correction homes. They are human beings like us and too have feelings, rights and needs. When we fail to give them their dignity and humane touch they can even become worse than they have been. As we make them realize their mistakes and the need for repentance and renewal they need to be taken care of. Perhaps they need more attention that ordinary people who have not “sinned.” Jesus’ own words make more meaning here.
“The healthy do not need a doctor, but only the sick.”
Pope Francis makes a point to visit prisons and even celebrates important feasts such as Easter and Christmas with them rather than in his Cathedrals. His example of humane approach touches not only the hearts of prison inmates but also others in the world. A letter he received from a prison inmate in the USA teaches a big lesson for us.
“Dear Pope Francis, tonight we pray for all the victims of violence. The families of people we hurt need healing. Our families need healing. We are all in pain. Let us feel Jesus’ healing tonight.” Another told the pope: “I read that the harshest sentence that a youth can receive in Italy is twenty years. I wish this was true here. I am glad to be a Catholic because we have a pope like you. We need examples of God like you in this violent world.”
Let the words of from the Letter to the Hebrews (13:3) ring in our ears: “Be mindful of prisoners, as if sharing their imprisonment.”