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Fr. Susai Raj, SJ shares on his experiences with the prisoners of Beur Jail, Patna

While serving as Socius of the Provincial(s) of Patna Province, after a year into my main ministry, I undertook Prison Ministry as my second ministry and continued with it for seven years (2009-2016) making weekly visits to the central prison of Patna, capital of the state of Bihar in India. I was part of a small group of religious women and men working in about 8 prisons of Bihar, under the aegis of 'Prison Ministry India', an organization which was formed in 1981, registered as a national body in 1995 and received the approval of the national Bishops' Conference in 2000.

There are about 2,500 prisoners in the central prison of Patna, including about 100 inmates in the women's section. There are 37,500 prisoners in the 57 jails of Bihar and 385,000 in the 1,400 prisons of India. Of these, roughly one-third (33%) are convicts and the rest two-thirds (67%) are under-trials; 96% are men and 4% are women.

Since the poor in general and the weaker sections such as the Dalits ('untouchables' as they were known earlier) and Tribals do not have the knowledge of the legal system and are not able to engage lawyers for want of money, they get punished easily. Many of the under-trials have spent more time in the jail than the maximum punishment they would have received if they had been convicted, but are languishing inside because there is no one to plead their cause or just to draw the attention of the concerned court about the status of such prisoners.

The ministry for the under-trial prisoners consists of three aspects: i) being present to/with them, ii) contact with and wherever possible a visit to their families and iii) working in the courts to get their cases expedited. In not a few of these cases, the under-trials are juveniles; hence, part of the work in the court involves providing proof of age and getting the case transferred to the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) and getting the inmate transferred from the prison for adults to the Remand / Rehabilitation Homes for juveniles.

i) Ministry of presence: Loneliness and a feeling of being abandoned by near and dear ones is the most painful part of life for the prisoner in a prison; the social interaction of the jail inmates among themselves is in no way a substitute for the sense of belonging which was theirs in their families and familiar social circles. In such a situation of loneliness and abandonment, the compassionate presence of a disciple of Jesus makes a world of difference to such prisoners which cannot be described in words - they long to meet a person who cares for them, chats with them with respect and relates with them with love and dignity. The loneliness and sense of abandonment experienced by those who are booked for heinous crimes has its own nuance6.

ii) Contact with and visits to the families of prison: inmates is most often a touching / moving evangelizing experience. "Those who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who dwell in the land of gloom a light has shone" (Is 9:1) becomes so true when families are visited or contacted through phone and the family members are provided with information about their dear one in the jail and also the knowledge of the legal procedures; they see a way to move forward. Since arrest by police and being put in jail is looked upon as a matter of shame by the society at large, in many instances, when a member of a family is in prison, the rest of the family feels humiliated and so disowns the prisoner; but, with some counseling and accompaniment when the family is helped to 're-own' the member, the joy is boundless.

Similarly, due to temporary or prolonged mental derangement, some persons wander away from homes and in that condition get into situations of conflict with law; they are arrested and sent to jails. Family members remain in the dark with regard to their whereabouts. There have been many cases of such persons from within the state of Bihar as well as from neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and West Bengal whose families we were able to contact, inform them about their family member, get the case expedited and re-unite families7.

iii) Working in the courts to get justice for the poor is no doubt an excruciating task, but the consolations are no less. The help of priest/religious-lawyers is of immense help in this regard; the presence of sister-lawyers in court rooms and their role not only in handling the cases of women prisoners but of youth and men too is a very inspiring and edifying prophetic service. We have received the help of some lawyers of different faiths and ideological affiliations, who on coming to know of our ministry have offered to argue the cases free of cost, as their mite in serving the suffering humanity.

In Bihar (I presume it is the case all over India) when a prisoner is being taken for being presented before the magistrate or the judge, on the date of hearing of the case, the men prisoners are handcuffed (women prisoners are spared of this humiliation); of course political and 'high profile' prisoners are exempted. Since visiting a prisoner in the prison is a formal process and most often includes paying bribes to security guards, many family members and friends come to the courts on the dates of hearing of the cases to meet their family member or friend. They walk with the prisoner to and from the court rooms. But, once again, the Dalit, Tribal and other prisoners of the weaker sections suffer from want of knowledge and money to know the dates of hearing of the case and the exact court room in which a particular prisoner will be produced. Walking with the prisoners to and from court rooms, sometimes along with their family members and many at times without them, is indeed an experience of walking with the Lord, along with Him, by His side, on His way of the cross.

There are many programmes and activities within prisons which are prescribed or provided for in jail manuals for the welfare, reform and reconstruction of life of the inmates - education of prisoners (illiteracy to literacy, primary or secondary levels to graduation, up to doctorate level and beyond too, computer classes), training in income-generating trades, recreational activities such as music and dance, painting and writing poems or essays, games (cricket is a craze among young prisoners!), yoga and karate,... Since prison is a place of gloom and negativity, these programmes and activities play a vital role in creating a positive and constructive atmosphere, engaging the mind of the prisoners in a positive and productive direction; these programmes and activities equip and pave the way for the smooth re- integration of the inmates as and when they are acquitted or come out of prisons on completing their period of punishment or on bail.

Most of the prisons are under-staffed. Hence, the state authorities and prison officials are looking forward to the help of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) or charitable organizations in organizing and supervising these programmes and activities. The Salesian Fathers are running a vibrant industrial training institute in one of the central prisons of Kolkata; some of the congregations of women religious are conducting tailoring and beauticians' courses in many jails; some NGOs organize painting, music, writing, sports and games competitions in prisons. Prisoners look forward to cultural and entertainment programmes on major national / international festival days such as Independence Day, Women's Day, and religious feasts such as Christmas.

Overcrowding in jails, torture and abuse of inmates by prison and police officials, health care of the inmates, hygienic conditions within prison premises, information on the status of the cases of prisoners, visits by family members and a host of issues related to prison reforms are attempted to be addressed by many secular and religious organizations. For example, in a “National Consultation on Prison Reforms” organized by the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) with other organizations and some researchers, held in Delhi on 3-4 April 2010, had a sizeable Christian presence (of priests, religious and laity). Such a presence showed that the Church in India, even in a miniscule form, is engaged in evangelizing every aspect Indian society and all its realities; but it also showed how much more the Society of Jesus in India can and needs to do. It can be safely presumed that similar interactions of all the stakeholders - the civil society or NGOs and the (prison departments of the) governments - are taking place in most countries of the world today under the banner of Human Rights of Prisoners or any other perspective; and, the presence / participation and contribution of the Society of Jesus by a more intense and coordinated efforts in prison ministry, could be viewed on similar lines as that of the wonderful ministry of JRS. Many of us can do prison ministry as our second ministry, without seriously impacting our primary ministry.

Spiritual foundations: According to prophet Isaiah, in proclaiming the Year of the Lord, the anointed one of Yahweh says, “He sent me ... to proclaim ... release to prisoners” (Is 61:1). And, while inaugurating His public ministry at Nazareth, Jesus invoked (Lk 4:18) this passage of Isaiah. In fact, Jesus went further when He identified Himself with all the least ones and said in the description of the Last Judgment “... I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:36). We cannot and should not shy away from the fact that in the last 18 hours or so of His life on this earth, Jesus was a prisoner and He died the death of a condemned ‘criminal’. Jesus is the prisoner, par excellence - By His imprisonment we have been freed from the ‘prisons’ of sin and darkness. Due to His death as a ‘criminal’ we have been ‘pardoned’ and ‘acquitted’. And, through His resurrection, He has released us from our personal, collective and social prisons / graves of selfishness and bad-habits, corruption and fundamentalism, and, gender discrimination and ecological destruction. He has released, renewed and rehabilitated us. From this is born the vision and mission of Prison Ministry: release, renewal and rehabilitation of prisoners.

The example of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan prior, is indeed inspiring. In 1941 he was arrested for hiding Jews in his friary to protect them from the Nazi persecution. One prisoner escaped from Kolbe’s barrack and the cruel camp commander was picking up 10 prisoners daily to be tortured and starved to death. One day one of the picked up prisoners, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place. On 14 August 1941 Kolbe was killed by a lethal injection. Pope John Paul II canonized Kolbe on 10 Oct 1982 in the presence of Franciszek, for whom Kolbe had offered his life, and declared Kolbe the patron saint of the prison ministry. 14 August is celebrated as the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe and in India the Sunday before that date is celebrated as Prison Ministry Sunday.

After being elected as the Pope in 2013, Pope Francis celebrated his first Maundy Thursday as Pope, by washing the feet of 12 prisoners, including two young women, at a Detention Centre for juveniles on the outskirt of Rome. Now it has become a pattern for him to wash the feet of prisoners on Maundy Thursdays every year and he visits prisons of many countries during his apostolic journeys.

Prison ministry, like all other ministries, offers its own specific form of privilege and challenge: It offers the privilege of immersion into the world of crime and sin, false allegations and a labyrinth of court proceedings - "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mk 2:17). Prisons are indeed the 'garbage-bins' into which the 'healthy' society throws away those it judges or suspects them to embody its moral dirt; jails are the 'graveyards' where the 'normal' section of humanity buries away its skeletons. From within the four walls of prisons, the world outside does look very different: it offers a different perspective to the moral, ethical and spiritual status of the society. Many who are there should not be there and many who are outside should be inside; the dividing wall is only those who got caught and those who didn't or couldn't escape. This ministry challenges the volunteer towards a constant purification of one's inner self as well as doing the ministry in a sustained, mature and prudent manner, because even a single act of imprudence can get you into serious trouble - instead of doing prison ministry, you may end up as a prisoner! Who knows, that may be another way of doing this ministry!

Visiting websites of the prison ministry (if not the prisons!), subscribing to journals of this ministry and praying for the volunteers, prisoners and their families, and the prison officials and security staff (who quite often work under conditions of threat to their own lives) could as well be the starting point.

The author, Susai Raj SJ, has submitted two narratives. Names of persons have been changed to respect their privacy; all other details are from court and prison records

( By Fr. Susai Raj, SJ published in ‘Promotio Iustitiae- N-123,2017/1)

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