To enter a prison and look forward to leaving it forms a single whole. Behind those grey walls, behind the clanging of those gates, even the air that you breathe seems heavier. But the words of Jesus ‘I was in prison and you came to visit me’ are able to illuminate with a new light even the saddest and darkest places. Whatever the case, one is dealing with a work of mercy which is one of the most difficult to engage in since a prison is not an environment that is open and accessible to everyone. One can, for example, belong to a group or an association that is authorised to enter a prison with its own members in order to ‘promote the development of contacts between the prison community and free society’ (art. 17 law 353/75). One must, first of all, remember that a man in prison is a man who suffers because he is deprived of his freedom, because he feels that he is the cause of other sufferings, and because he feels marginalised and condemned before the final sentence is passed. As long as he is in prison, it is always possible to maintain a correspondence with him: this a way of impeding the violence of the prison context from making him lose hope. Perhaps the greatest help can be offered at the end of the sentence: help made of nearness, of support in re-entering the work context, in retrieving relationships that have been compromised in great or small ways. In some cases the situation of the family is more serious.
The spouse has to bear the burden of loneliness and humiliation and often has to face up to serious financial problems. The children, who are innocent victims, at times read on the faces of their contemporaries derision and contempt – they run the risk of seeing their childhood and their adolescence seared by a brand: they are the children of a man in prison! Christian pity and therefore parishes that have members who are in prison can do a great deal. They can educate believers to avoid absurd condemnations and instead adopt an approach of acceptance and solidarity. In this field, the Church is rich in prophetic attitudes that oblige every believer to engage in a serious examination of his or her conscience. First of all, it is Jesus who is our teacher: from the teaching chair of the cross, with a sublime gesture of mercy towards the penitent thief on the cross next to him, he spoke the very sweet and consoling words: ‘today you will be with me in heaven!’ Let us reflect on this: the first to enter heaven, following Jesus, was a thief! Down the centuries this sublime act has inspired many believers to take care of people in prison or people who have been sentenced to death: St. Vincent de Paul as a volunteer on galleys; St. Joseph Cafasso, the apostle of people sentenced to death; the moving gesture of Pope St. John XXIII at the prison of Regina Coeli; the meeting of St. John Paul II with the man who had attempted to assassinate him; and the two visits of Benedict XVI to Rebibia and his unprecedented conversation made up of questions and answers with the inmates. They were happy to demonstrate to him their gratitude for his wonderful visit and they said to him: ‘Holy Father we love you’. He immediately replied: ‘I love you as well!’ And continuing to talk to them he declared: ‘we have fallen but we want to get up’; ‘we’ and not ‘you’, he emphasised. ‘I would like to listen to the personal histories of each one of you, but this is not possible for me. However, I have come to tell you simply that God loves you with an infinite love!’ Pope Francis observed when speaking about people in prison: ‘How often I call them, especially on a Sunday; I have a chat with them. Then when I have finished I think: why him and not me? I have so many reasons to be there. You can say this: the Lord is inside them; indeed, he is in prison, still today, put in prison by our selfishness, by our systems, by so many injustices, because it is easy to punish the weakest, but the big fish swim free in the water. No cell is so isolated that it excludes the Lord, none; he is there, he weeps with them, he works with them, he hopes with them’.
At this point as believers we can ask ourselves: even though there is no prison in our parish or town, are there perhaps families or relatives of people in prison that should be helped and supported, not so much at an economic level but at a human and emotional one? One should certainly make clear that a man who commits a crime should certainly pay for it, but if while he is in prison he demonstrates a wish to be rehabilitated, then he must be helped to do so by fostering a steady integration into our society/community. Those who live side by side with people in prison, because they provide a service or engage in religious assistance, confide to us that these brothers and sisters of ours who have been put in prison because they have committed a crime feel a desperate need to recreate a little of that affection that gives meaning to life, in a family, amongst friends, in the community, and that a man in prison becomes completely lost if nobody from the world shows a little benevolence towards him. To visit people in prison means, first and foremost, expressing these feelings – to which everyone has a right, including those who have been unjustly put in prison, including those who are serving a life sentence – to them. Without this affection of the Christian community, how could they believe in the other message that it sends them: ‘the Lord loves you and soon you will be with him in heaven’? In addition, in providing assistance to people in prison one must follow the evangelical logic of starting afresh from the ‘last’. Indeed, amongst people in prison there are also the ‘last’. These are the poor people who cannot pay a lawyer and are given a lawyer who is paid for by the state, which in general means no defence.
So we ask: why amongst Christian lawyers could there not be volunteers who make themselves available to poor prisoners in order to defend them? Foreigners in prison are also the last and amongst them there are many immigrants, who are isolated, without relatives and without money. Could not people who speak foreign languages and above all men and women missionaries who also know their countries and their customs draw near to these brothers and sisters of ours? Another way of visiting people in prison comes from a project that has been put into practice in the diocese of Pavia. Its name is ‘Young People and Prison’. ‘A girl aged twenty-four, who had just graduated in the humanities, visited the prison: she narrated what had struck her. I was struck by how dialoguing with these prisoners made me completely forget that we were in a prison and that they were there because they had committed some grave act. Chatting with these people, indeed, they seemed like me. I spoke to Antonio, a poet, who writes poems and is sixty. Some of these were very beautiful poems about freedom, about his love for his wife and his grandchildren, and about his nights in his cell. Many of those people in prison have an incredible nostalgia for their families and also a great desire for forgiveness…I saw how much a visit is fundamental for people in prison, a change in routine, our smiles. The fringes of existence are not another part of the world. They are in our cities, near to us. Above all where there is a prison!’ Another original way of visiting people in prison has been promoted by the diocese of Lyons in France. Through their diocesan radio channel, once a week, they have a programme that interacts directly with the prison and its inmates. This transmission, in addition to being very much listened to and followed, is an opportunity to create encounters, to reconnect the members of a family, to know, live, about the lives and the health of their loved ones in prison. All of this makes the Church feel near to the reality of suffering, loneliness and tribulation of those who are in prison. Could something similar not be created in our dioceses as well?
Father Rosario Messina