ministry in nz prisons
By joining the Sisters of the Presentation Veronica Casey found a new way of life and an inspiring job
My first contact with prisons was in Auckland when I was doing a psychiatric nursing course many years ago. One of our visits was to Mount Eden prison, and that made a huge impact on me – seeing the conditions the prisoners lived under. I still have an image of a man curled up in a foetal position at a table at 4 o’clock in the afternoon with a plate of food by him untouched. I thought to myself: they come in with very low self-esteem and are locked up for up to 18 hours a day in a cell with three others, which reinforces their status in life. They will go from this back into the outside world, reoffend and be straightaway back in here.
I also visited the Maximum Security facility at Paremoremo and met a nurse who was running a new unit focusing on basic life skills. When she got started she realised just how basic it had to be – teaching the inmates how to say ‘good morning’, how to hold a conversation, how to sit down at a table. They were very basic skills indeed. And many of them had been in prison for years.
Later on, I worked as a restorative justice facilitator in the Court-Referred Pilot. While it didn’t take me into prisons it kept alive my interest in the plight of offenders and of victims, and highlighted how dealing with relationships is so vital to healing and reconciliation.
When I was doing my training in the Presentation Order I came across the Get on the Bus programme in California, which once a year takes children to visit their mothers in prison on Mothers’ Day. It was often the only time in the year when the children saw their mothers or even that families came together. There were reports of some families who met for the very first time at the prison. It taught me how disruptive a prison sentence is to normal human relations.
In Dublin a little later, I became a prison visitor at the Wheatfield Men’s Prison and I ran a meditation group there. There was not very much going on for the inmates. One of the things I became very aware of was the lack of sensory stimulation for them. They would simply lie on their beds all day with the constant background noise of jangling keys and prison doors clanging shut. I remember one man in the group spent the whole meditation hour simply handling and smelling an autumn leaf I had given him. The men never saw the natural world outside; they never saw a flower or a sunrise. The music I used had birds singing, water running and waves crashing. I could never change it as those were the sounds they never got to hear. Some of the men put on Othello while I was there. I saw those inmates acting out their own lives: it was very poignant.
becoming a prison chaplain
Shortly after I returned to New Zealand, Bishop Colin Campbell approached the Presentation Sisters and invited applications for the Catholic chaplaincy at the newly opened Otago Correct-ions Facility at Milton, 55 km south of Dunedin. After discernment with the Congregation we accepted that this ministry is in line with our charism. When I arrived, the first thing I had to do was to get myself known around the place. Chaplaincy is all about being present for, and available to, the men. It is about being real, human and compassionate – and about listening.
In the course of time I have started a weekly meditation group, I’m involved in taking classes, and inviting church volunteers to run classes. We have had the Myers Briggs and a Dreams Workshop, both of which have been very popular and help the men get to know themselves. I also look for opportunities for the men to develop confidence, team building and self-belief and have helped them to prepare pageants.
The first of these was at Christmas; we were able to invite outsiders and some 120 or more visitors came. There is a whare/spiritual centre on the complex, a beautiful building, more comfortable and less institutional than other parts of the prison, which we use. It has a much more relaxed atmosphere and feels less like a prison. It was wonderful to see the men grow in confidence, learn to work as a team and really show their talents. We had another show at Easter, and now we are working on a third.
There’s plenty of talent and creativity. There are also carving groups. Some paint and others write poetry; there are other activities such as craft work (see below). Some of our artists have participated in a recent International art competition run by the International Catholic Prison Chaplaincy Association. The top five entries from New Zealand prisons went on to Geneva to be judged. Last time it was run, it was won by a New Zealander. By participating in these activities, the men acquire self-belief and realise that others also have some belief in them.
earning the right to freedom
When the prisoners first arrive at OCF after they are sentenced, they go into the high security area for assessment and after a couple of weeks are given a security rating. The plan is for them to move from high security to low security, but they have to earn it.
When they get work it may be in the Unit to start with doing serving, laundry or cleaning. Then there is work in the kitchen, site laundry, engineering, internal grounds. From there they may get to the dairy farm, external grounds or forestry.
There are five self-care cottages, where some go when they are preparing for release. Some of them may go on work-to-release, which means they are in paid employment outside the prison. In these cottages they do their own cooking and budgeting and cleaning, and learn to look after themselves. But if they offend, they could lose it all and go back to square one.
The huge danger within any prison is institutionalisation. After the men have been inside for a time they seem to move into a state of passivity. They become emotionally numb. For instance, if a family member were to die, they will tell you they keep their emotions on hold until they get out. They daren’t show their real feelings among their fellows.
When they come into prison they are put into prison uniform. However, in the self-care stage they can wear their own clothes again, and that is one of the hardest transitions. Life in prison is hard. There is intimidation and stand-over tactics – we often know little of what really goes on in the cells. ‘Narking’ – informing on their mates – is the worst possible crime in prison.
Indeed, if they have been inside for a long time they come to a point of being really scared of getting out. They have been behind walls too long. It may be the only life they have ever known. Those on life sentences who have been inside for 18 or 19 years really don’t know anything different. We take all life’s changes as we go and don’t think about them, but when you haven’t experienced those and have to face them all together after 10, 15 or 20 years it’s overwhelming. Just think for example of all the changes in communication, the money changes etc.
The self-care men go down to Balclutha once a week to shop for groceries. The first thing they notice is how fast everything is moving. They’ve forgotten what traffic is like. One 24-year-old told me he had never in his life been inside a supermarket!
Opportunites for reintegration are extremely limited, and there is no halfway house for prisoners down in the south to help the transition to life outside. They leave prison and are thrown into a bewilderingly strange world. They may be used to lying down on their beds at four o’clock in the afternoon, and they know no other way. Yet they have to learn to survive outside; it’s very difficult for them.
At first, they feel as if they have criminal tattooed across their foreheads and that everyone is looking at them. Society doesn’t easily accept them. If they have succeeded in turning their lives around in prison, they go out a different person from when they came in – but they don’t know where they fit and they desperately need support.
If they don’t get the support, when the going gets tough they go back to where they are accepted and end up back in prison.
The value system of the men in prison is like that of adolescents, or even little boys. Mostly, the concepts of love and trust are unknown to them, having had lives of constantly being let down, abandoned, abused. They may have been kicked out of home when they were very young, so when have they ever learnt to trust another human being?
As chaplains, we get a lot of referrals and often the men just want someone to talk to. The advantage we have is that they can talk to us in confidence, and we have the time to sit and talk. We are not part of the Corrections ‘system’. We can be their advocates or we can be a go-between with their family. When they first arrive we may need to help them establish family contacts.
the good news in prison
In this sort of work we look for small miracles. When I first started at Milton a man called out to me one day: “Who are you, Miss?” I told him, and he asked to come and see me. He was a man about 45. He said to me: “I’ve had enough. I am morally, spiritually and emotionally bankrupt. I am despicable.”
The man’s basic problem was alcohol. In my mind I always try to help the men separate themselves as persons from what they have done. I told him that whatever he had done, he was still a child of God. He started an amazing spiritual journey from that point.
The Elim Church send food parcels in at Christmas. We distribute them. I arranged that if anyone wanted to write a note of thanks I would pass it on. We received many notes of thanks. At Easter, Knox Church Social Justice Group provided Easter eggs and gifts. This time I didn’t ask, but the Knox people received a number of thank you letters. These gestures are really appreciated, and the men experience in some way that they are remembered. One man said, almost in tears: “I’ve been in prison for ten years, and no one has ever thought of me before at Christmas. We didn’t think we mattered”.
Recently, Fr Chris Skinner came in for a sing-a-long with the men and they loved it. It happened to be the birthday of one of the men, so Chris led the others in singing Happy Birthday to him. The man told me that had never had ‘happy birthday’ sung to him before in his life: 37 years. They are all very simple things really.
There is a church service for each of the units each week. About eight different church groups come in – there are about 180 volunteers altogether. The service and commitment they provide is invaluable. The church services are good opportunities for socialisation. The men meet and chat together with the visitors, and that teaches them social skills. They also feel accepted for who they are and do not feel like they are being judged.
As Catholic chaplain I take communion to those who request it, but for various reasons we have not had a Mass in the prison – yet.
Illiteracy is a huge problem among the offenders. There are courses in foundational learning. Some men also have one-to-one help with literacy. Some won’t admit their illiteracy. They’ve been ridiculed at school and have dropped out. They don’t want to repeat that experience in a group.
One programme which has been very successful in prisons including Milton has been the Sycamore Tree, based on the Zacchaeus story. Six men meet over eight two-hour sessions with six people who have been victims of crimes (not theirs). The men have to admit guilt and show remorse. The sessions are intense and challenging, but they have proved very popular.
Some who have completed this course would like to go on to a full restorative justice process, but there is no funding for that – so it is not happening. There is a public perception, brought about by the reporting of high profile cases, that all those in prison are dangerous and must be locked up. If restorative justice were more freely available I’m sure that this public attitude would change.
drugs and alcohol
A high proportion of crimes ending up with imprisonment are the result of drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately drugs still get into prisons, and there is no drugs treatment unit in Otago, although I understand there is to be a drug treatment unit early next year when we go to double bunking.
Nevertheless there is a shortage of treatment, and we know that drugs are an underlying factor in much offending. And when you have a drug habit you need money so you have to commit crimes to get it. We notice the difference when the men are drug free in the prison. Often they think they can wean themselves on their own, but in fact they need help. It may take multiple convictions before they learn that. There are weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Those who attend seem to respect the confidentiality aspect, and that’s good.
some general thoughts
Constantly I hear of offenders who have had abusive childhoods: parents on drugs, violence – I could almost write the script before they tell their story. One man was taught to steal when he was just two years old; he never learnt any feeling of self-worth, never received either love or stability from his home, so he knows no other life. The focus of prevention needs to be at the very beginning. It’s very difficult for a young person to move away voluntarily from the only environment he has ever known.
I ask myself why are we having such an increase in the prison population when the crime rate has been going down, not up. New Zealand is now number two in the world in the rate of imprisonment, second only to the United States. Yet in some European countries the rate of imprisonment has come down – and with it, the crime rate!
Our philosophy here is to make good neighbours of the men, because they are all going to be released eventually and may come and live next-door to you or me. The men are given the opportunity to learn to use their liberty responsibly. OCF is a clean, decent environment, and they can see the hills and there are open spaces around them. It’s not Mount Eden – but it’s not the garden of Eden either!
the value of religious faith
Planting seeds is what we do, and those who find God find hope – something that is missing in their lives. This helps them to make a change. Once they discover there is a God and that they are loved and cared for, they will change. We try to provide support for those who desire to do so because following a Christian path in the prison can be very difficult.
In the meditation group I run there are usually between six and ten, which is big enough for one group. They say that coming regularly to it makes a difference. Some drift in and out, but most keep on coming. As long as they aren’t disruptive, I am happy to keep them even if their motives for coming are a bit mixed.
For me, this work is a part of my religious vocation. Our foundress, Nano Nagle, would pass the local prison in Cork every morning and see the heads of prisoners stuck on the spikes. She visited prisons, sometimes paid for the release of prisoners and left money for prisoners in her will. Prisoners are the ultimate outcasts in our society, and our charism calls us to be with the marginalised. I often think that if Jesus were on earth today, he would be alongside me in the prison. Indeed he is already there.