By Sister Moira Keane
[Sr. Moira has just received the ‘Irish in Britain Volunteer award’ and has sent in this reflection on her work with prisoners]
Twenty years ago I enjoyed a sabbatical year. While at All Hallows College in Dublin doing a Diploma course in Humanities I had a placement at Mountjoy prison. Discovering that I loved my experience there, and trusted to escort some of the women on home visits, I applied for full time Prison Chaplaincy when I returned to my Mercy Congregation in England. Catholic chaplains go to where they are appointed to, and I was posted to Northumberland. After twelve wonderful years I retired from that ministry and was missioned to Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. I live there in a beautiful dormer opposite the sea, and in time, it has became a house of hospitality for friends and relatives of the Sisters in care.
With so much experience of prison, the Irish Council for prisoners (I.C.P.O) overseas invited me to volunteer some time to support them in their very busy London office. I was delighted that with the support of my Mercy Leadership team, I was back in contact with the prison population.
What does the work involve? Occasionally accompanying caseworkers on sometimes difficult prisons visits. Engaging in conversation with groups of inmates while the caseworker is seeing prisoners individually - and when appropriate listening, supporting, advising, encouraging and sharing tea and biscuits!
In the office there is a phone system for prisoners and their family members. Many times offenders are moved to other prisons and lose touch with their families. Prisoners serving a life sentence need a lot of support and can easily get lost in the system. They often say “thank God someone knows I’m alive.”
I sort the mail when it arrives, reading letters and highlighting an ssue if it needs to be dealt with urgently. It is not unusual to read that a client is planning suicide, coping with the death of a family member or has no money to phone home, which causes much stress especially if the prisoner is a parent. Or a client might have a court day and need the support of the caseworker who often attends court or visits the prisoner before he/she attends court or when sentenced. Receiving an unexpected sentence creates other problems. I support the staff in many ways from making cups of tea to occasionally attending a funeral.
I.C.P.O. is an amazing service and a lifeline to our people who for one reason or another find themselves incarcerated, and sometimes wrongly convicted. More volunteers are required as well as funding to ensure this project continues…..
We give the last word to Jesus who said “I was in prison and you visited me.”