overcrowded prison fire_chile2010Following a few weeks  ‘on parole’, so to speak, from her mission in Chile, Columban Sister Angela McKeever is now back in Santiago continuing what she has been doing for the past 30 years – PRISON MINISTRY. In her article Repression and Punishment, Angela documents something of the harsh reality of the prison system in Chile where a few may have a change of heart but many don’t…

Today I was talking to a woman who goes twice a week to visit her son who is serving 10 years in prison. Listening to her I began to understand how the family suffers. Pedro, her son, is in a jail built 100 years ago for a maximum of 1,800 men. Today it holds 7,000 inmates.

Pedro’s mother, like many other of the men’s relatives, began queuing at 2:00 a.m to get in at 9:00 a.m. In the rain, in the cold, they have no shelter. They bring clothes and food as there is never enough food provided in the jail. In spite of visitors being partly stripped-searched – a degrading experience – drugs, cell phones and drink find their way inside.

A Repressive System

The system is one of repression and punishment. Up to 30 men at a time sleep in cells that were built for 8. They pool the food and take turns to cook. When they wash their clothes and hang them up over the passage way, they have to keep watch that they are not stolen to be sold for drugs.

Close living conditions with nothing to do, abysmal toilet facilities, various mental and physical complaints creates a climate of unrest, fighting and consuming drugs. Some of the men spend their time taking irons out of the beds, walls and stairs to make weapons like spears to fight each other, which leads to many injuries. In one week 203 were murdered.

In spite of these conditions one is surprised by the depth of faith, hope and solidarity that is to be found there among those who have a change of mind, heart and spirit. Those who recognize they have done wrong, and they are few, want to change their way of thinking and acting; they want a new life. But sadly, for the great majority life in this prison is a brutal affair where many give up all hope of new beginnings.

New Beginnings for Juan

chileprisonministry2In another jail outside Santiago where there are 5,000 men, we said good-bye to Juan as he left for Bolivia after serving an eight years sentence. Over the last two years he trained in ‘St Columban’s Workshop’ where he learned a lot about copper work at the Arts and Crafts course. He also took a course in Solar Panelling. He made one for me and what a treat it is to have boiling water from the sun.

Throughout the last year Juan took four men each month and taught them all he had learned. With patience he even taught some of them to read and write. Juan felt very happy to be going; he was one of the lucky ones who had availed of the opportunity to learn something he could work at when he got back to his own people.

The fact that he was able to share his experience with others helped him in some small way to repair some of the damage he had done by working for 18 years in drug factories in different parts of the world. In Bolivia he will begin a new and better life.

Realizing what damage has been done

One can never understand the mystery of life where there are some people who do a lot of damage and only fully realize it when they come to jail. As many say to me, “I had to come here to stop doing what I was doing when I was young; the dangers I was in and put others in.” Many see the hand of God in this. It’s an opportunity for some to seek help to change, but others continue as they are and refuse any help that is offered.

What would Jesus do?

I ask myself, ‘What would Jesus do?’ How would He relate to the Pedros and the Juan’s in these prisons? To the innumerable men spaced out by drugs, brutalized by violence, alienated from warm human contact, sunk in despair? And every day I hear Him say, I was in prison and you came…’ Maybe, in the end, that is all He asks of us – to simply be there for others.

mckeeverangela Sr Angela McKeever,  from Ardee, Co Louth, Ireland, has missioned in Chile since 1971 with one break for Mission Vocation & Promotion Work in Ireland.