What kind of work do Mercy Sisters do in prisons? 

A number of Mercy Sisters work, or have worked, in prisons in various capacities. Some are paid full-time or part-time Chaplains or work voluntarily as part of the Chaplaincy team of a prison. Others have worked in prison Visitors’ Centres, welcoming and supporting the families of prisoners, or as official Prison Visitors to prisoners who would not otherwise have anyone to visit them. Some are faithful pen-pals. Sisters sometimes facilitate worship and prayer groups in prisons. 

Indirectly, too, the Mercy family have supported prisoners and their families by raising funds, giving donations and praying for prisoners. Recently a scheme tried in a women’s prison to provide activity packs for self-harmers prompted the resourceful Alnwick Sisters to make up their own Activity Boxes with puzzles and hobby kits. Working in collaboration with HMP Littlehey’s Safer Prisons Committee, each Wing housing vulnerable prisoners now has its own resources for those who need a little help to pass the time during long ‘bang-ups’.  A number of individual offenders have been Mercy-funded for educational courses during their sentence or for rehabilitation and other schemes on their release.

Why do they bother? 

Jesus’ experience of prisons wasn’t that of a prison visitor nor of a prison chaplain, nor of a prison reformer: his was the experience of the prisoner.  Jesus does not look in through the bars… He is inside looking out. In the face of the convict we see the face of Christ. 

As  Jesus told us of the Last Judgement:

‘The King will say to those on his right hand, “Come you whom my
Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for
you… For I was… in prison and you came to see me. Then the
upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, … when did we find you in
prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “In truth I
tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers 
of mine, you did it to me...” (St. Matthew 25) 
We might feel prompted to pray, 
Lord, forgive us for the times when we have failed simply to recognise you.
Lord Jesus, set us free. 

For prison work requires an understanding that it is Jesus we are ministering to behind bars. It also requires an acknowledgement that we, too, are all prisoners in some sense... prisoners of our own behaviours, addictions, fears and prejudices. A chaplain cannot enter the prison environment with the attitude of the Pharisee who prayed, “I thank you, God, that I am not like this person here” (Luke 18: 11).

Prison Chaplains and Visitors are not there to condemn anyone. When the Jews brought before Jesus the woman taken in adultery on her way to be stoned, Jesus said, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more”. We do the same, accepting every prisoner, no matter what he has done, believing that God’s love is unconditional, that God’s mercy is unfathomable. In this we run the risk of being condemned ourselves. Like Jesus, in touching ‘untouchables’ we too may become unclean in the eyes of the world.

What role does Chaplaincy play in the life of a prison?

This is what one Mercy Sister writes about her work as a Prison Chaplain:

“The Prison Chapel has to replicate ‘home’ as far as is possible. It is somewhere safe for the men to go to. I used to be shy about getting the prisoners to sing in case they thought it was ‘soppy’. But they love it. On Tuesday evenings we meet together for informal prayers. These days I try to create an attractive prayer focus with flowers and coloured cloths and candles. They head straight for it and sit in the glow. It contrasts with the bare bricks and barbed wire and dull prison uniforms and metal bars. They come to pray and to drink tea and munch biscuits, to laugh, to grumble, to relax and sing. They tease me and love me in the way that men do with a mother figure.”
The work of a Chaplain is, like Simon of Cyrene, to carry people’s cross with them, but not for them. She is not there to rescue people from the consequence of their crimes nor to make them helpless and dependent; the job is to encourage personal responsibility and autonomy. That may mean saying ‘no’ when a prisoner asks for help so that he can learn to do things for himself, but discussing with him ways in which he might go about it. It is important to model ‘how to be’ in relationship.
Treating prisoners with respect is the least Chaplains can do in attempting to restore a sense of dignity and self-worth. It means the world to a prisoner to be offered a cup of tea or asked to sit down when he’s talking to you. Little things count in prison. They are noticed and commented on. They can make a difference to the way prisoners view themselves and others. Restoring self-respect is the first step towards a sense of hope and new purpose, a desire to change and make a fresh start in life.
The Chaplain has always to remember that each prisoner is a unique and precious individual. Like Jesus the Good Shepherd it is the Chaplain’s job to know a prisoner by his or her name, to remember their personal circumstances, to notice how they are looking… to remind them who they are. Sr. Carmel Fennessy, who still works in prison, has written a book about her years in Wakefield Maximum Security Prison from 1989-99. Recognising the importance of really getting to know the prisoners as individuals, she talks about the need for chaplains to ‘loiter with intent’:
At lunchtime I go to the wings as the men are coming in from the workshops and queuing up for their lunch. One of the best bits of advice I was ever given was to practise “loitering with intent”- that is, just standing about... There have been many, many occasions when casual chat about the weather has led to much deeper conversations at a later stage. I remember one such occasion when an opening comment on the weather led to a man telling me that his girlfriend who was visiting him that afternoon had just been diagnosed as having cancer. He feared he might never see her again after that visit. We had a good chat and I was able to see them both in the Visits Area that afternoon.
(from ‘A Time to Serve’, published by St Paul’s Publishing, 2002)

Facilitating the worship environment is an important regular part of a Chaplain’s job. The Chaplains do not simply put on services for the prisoners. It’s often the prisoners themselves who set the altar and serve Mass, launder the altar linen, act as eucharistic ministers, organise the hymn books, bring flowers in from the gardens and arrange them, prepare the music, play the organ, do the readings and the refreshments, write the newsletter and welcome newcomers. Chaplains are not representatives of the Church which comes in to them. The prisoners are the Church.

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The work is also pastoral, keeping prisoners’ families in touch; liaising with voluntary agencies and other prison departments; arranging for outside ministers to visit their parishioners in custody; helping prisoners to make difficult transitions such as coming into prison for the first time or preparing for release or coping with loss; writing parole reports; making referrals; helping to search for accommodation or hostels; acting as advocate, mentor and connection with the outside world.

The Chaplaincy is often the first port of call for men in despair. It’s a heavy responsibility. There are no magic wands. It’s long-term work, building the trust of prisoners. The Chaplain cannot change anything. Sometimes all she can do is be there like Mary at the foot of the Cross. However horrible an environment it might be to work in, she stays there in solidarity with those who have no choice but to endure it. She continues the work of Catherine McAuley in patiently hearing people’s sorrows, listening, encouraging, understanding, challenging... but not running away from pain.

In some cases where the prisoner has made little discernible progress during his or her sentence, the Chaplain may be the only person among the inter-disciplinary team of Prison Officers, Probation Officers, Psychologists etc. who really believes in the prisoner and who recognises their potential to become the person they were created to be... who recognises in their face the face of Christ.

For further reading and information:

  • A Time to Serve, Loitering with Intent, Carmel Fenessy, St Pauls Publishing 2002
  • A Place of Redemption, A Christian Approach to Punishment and Prison, The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Burns and Oates 2004
  • What Can I Do? How you can get involved in the criminal justice system, Mark Haffenden, The Prison Advice and Care Trust 2002
  • Prayers for People in Prison, William Noblett, Oxford University Press 1998
  • Women in Prison, Catholic Agency for Social Concern, 1999
  • Churches’ Criminal Justice Forum, 39 Eccleston Square, London, SW1V 1BX
  • PACT, Lincoln House, 1-3 Brixton Road, London SW9 6DE
  • CARITAS (formerly Catholic Agency for Social Concern) 39 Eccleston Square, London, SW1V 1BX
  • The third Sunday in November each year is Prisoners Sunday. To order a ‘Prisoners Sunday Pack’ contact PACT at the above address
  • You can also visit the Prisons Week website 2 or contact The Secretary, Prisons Week, PO Box 2733, Lichfield WS13 6GZ for donations/ prayer leaflets