Chai Brady discovers that Pope Francis has inspired Faith among inmates
There is a ‘corridor of hope’ in Midlands Prison, lined with the artwork of the whole community, both those confined, and those working in the facility.
The long hallway in Ireland’s largest prison was built to connect two new sections, Division E and G, which are used for sex offenders.
Recognising the need for a metamorphosis and the potential for beauty in the bleak hallway, a 28-year-old inmate serving a life sentence proposed that it be filled with art.
Now 35 paintings and mosaics of all shapes and sizes and levels of skill, line the walls and come from inmates, wardens, chaplains, medical staff and more. There are still about 40 more art pieces ready to be hung.
This process of transformation is not just confined to one corridor, but throughout the facility, as it reflects the transformational process some inmates are experiencing.
Despite being segregated from society and confined behind bars, some of these Irish prisoners now feel closer to Church and family than ever before.
In an historic visit, the bishop of the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin accompanied the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) icon into Midlands Prison in Portlaoise on May 3.
Bishop Denis Nulty is convinced of the need to “reach out to families that are vulnerable, broken and wounded”. Inmates are high on his agenda.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic just before entering Midlands Prison – which holds over 800 prisoners – Bishop Nulty said: “The reason I chose the Midlands Prison is because one of the images on the icon is the raising of Jairus, which is an image of compassion, of mercy and of healing.” He said that a prison community is based on all those qualities.
“A prison community in some respects is centred on family, we don’t always see it as a family but they are families.
“Families who have been hurt, families who are sometimes divided because obviously some of their family members are in prison for a time. I wanted to make sure that the icon for the World Meeting of Families would be associated very much with prisoners at this time and could in some ways link in to the need for the wider society to have some understanding, some compassion and some feeling for those who spend their time in prison,” he added.
In a unique highlight on the journey of the Icon of the Holy Family around Ireland to promote the WMOF, three ceremonies were held for prisoners to venerate and pray in front of the icon.
Upon arrival the bishop and his small entourage, which included the youngest priest in Ireland Fr David Vard (25), were greeted warmly by the Governor of the prison Ethel Gavin and the prison chaplains. They attended each of the short services in which there were prayer, hymns and poignant readings from inmates.
There was uncertainty about how many prisoners would attend, but slowly they began to stream into the room. Including wardens, there were about 40-50 people in attendance. Brenda Drumm, one of the World Meeting of Families organisers, spoke about the icon itself and how it was created. The icon was written by iconographer Mihai Cucu, who was assisted by the Redemptoristine Sisters of the Monastery of St Alphonsus on Dublin’s Iona Road, as part of their ongoing prayer for families.
The icon was unveiled and anointed on August 21, 2017, during the launch of the one-year programme of preparation at the National Novena in Knock.
At the end, prisoners were invited to place their prayer petitions into the petition box of the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin, while Ubi Caritas was sung.
After the service some inmates were very enthusiastic to see the icon up close, while Bishop Nulty took the time to shake hands, bless and speak to individual prisoners who approached him.
It’s believed that 16 inmates in Midlands Prison are the only prisoners to have taken part in the parish conversations in Ireland, which is a six-part programme based on Pope Francis’ The Joy of Love. It gives people a chance to reflect and discuss their hopes for families and marriage – the discussions are taking place in preparation for the WMOF across the country. The prisoners completed the programme with Bishop Denis Nulty three weeks ago.
Seven of those inmates attended the second service and were congratulated for their efforts by both the prison and the bishop.
“I had felt disconnected from family and Church, but through the programme I believe that by praying for family they will feel a flow of strength coming from you,” said Mick, who is serving a life sentence in Midlands Prison and attended the six-part programme. He has been in jail for 12 years so far.
“It helped me accept why I was in jail, and it inspired me to help and connect with other prisoners and to become more involved. I had been quite selfish before.”
Mick said he now appreciates the humanity of prison wardens – whereas previously, he saw them as just the people who locked the door.
Pope Francis has consistently expressed the importance of connecting with prisoners, and regularly visits prisons in Rome, as well as during his papal trips. Referencing this, Mick said this example set by the Pontiff has helped him re-connect with the Church while incarcerated. “The big thing for us was that the Church hadn’t forgotten us,” he said, “we would have felt left out.”
For the fourth time in the Pope’s five-year pontificate he celebrated the Holy Thursday liturgy in a prison. This year on March 29, he went to Regina Coeli, Rome’s best-known prison, and washed the feet of 12 prisoners in commemoration of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
He told them Jesus never gives up on anyone, saying: “Jesus takes a risk on each of us. Know this: Jesus is called Jesus, not Pontius Pilate. Jesus does not know how to wash his hands of us; he only knows how to take a risk on us.”
Mick said that not only has Francis helped prisoners feel as if they are part of the Church, the Pontiff has also helped him as a homosexual feel welcome, which has given him a feeling of “hope and inclusion”.
“This is a very special man. I haven’t had that feeling about Church since St John Paul II’s visit in 1979.”
The first two ceremonies took place in a small chapel, which is not part of the main prison. The final service was held in an area called the circle, in between Division E and G. While standing in the circle, a warden can look down the length of both divisions, which have large corridors with cells on either side. There is another version of the circle in a larger area of Midlands Prison, at the centre of Divisions A, B, C and D, where the floor is decorated with an ocean scene hosting many fish, starfish and what looks like a sperm whale: this is the focal point of the prison, where a warden can easily look down all four of the divisions.
There are three stories in each of these divisions, which are open plan. Each floor is separated with metal mesh to stop people throwing things, or people, down.
While there are few windows, the majority of the light enters through a large domed roof. For added security, three times a day the prisoners and keys are counted.
About 100 people attended the final service; every seat was filled. There was an eclectic mix of young and old prisoners, some hobbled with walking sticks, others walked spritely to their seats.
At the end of the final ceremony, prisoners stood up, line by line, and respectively placed their prayer petitions in the petition box.
Some of Ireland’s most infamous criminals are among those incarcerated in division E and G, many for serious sex crimes.
These prisoners are different from those in the main body of the prison, who generally form cliques and where more violence tends to occur. They tend to speak to everyone, and there would be more of a sense of community, according to the prison wardens.
Although violence is a worry for prison staff, suicide is another danger they are fighting against. There has been one suicide in the prison in the last year, a low figure that Midlands Prison is proud of, and strives to maintain. Governor Gavin said that when a suicide occurs, “it impacts on everybody” in the prison.
Chief Officer Stephen Nolan facilitated the expansion of a programme that trains inmates as ‘Listeners’. The Listener Scheme has been run by the Samaritans for 27 years as part of their commitment to reduce suicide. The aim is to train prisoners to provide emotional support to other prisoners.
Mr Nolan said that the benefit of the programme is that “in the event of a prisoner feeling suicidal, he doesn’t have to feel alone”. A ‘listener suite’ was created in the new Division E and G section of the prison where one of about 20 trained listeners can bring a fellow inmate in and discuss concerns they may have.
There is also a phone with a direct line to the Samaritans in the suite (which is set-up in a way that only allows calls to the charity).
Governor Gavin said fostering a sense of community and family in the prison is an important element of what they try to do in Midlands Prison, and that the icon was a positive force in furthering that goal.
Governor Gavin added that after it was strongly hinted by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin that Pope Francis would visit a prison, she would strongly be in favour of him visiting Midlands Prison.
Bishop Nulty said it was “so encouraging” and a “tremendous highlight” to have accompanied the icon into the prison and that it was important to “reach out to families who are vulnerable, who are broken and wounded”.
“We need to move on this. I spent the day here because that’s where I want to be as a bishop. It’s where Pope Francis wants us to be,” he said.
“I myself have visited both the Midlands and Portlaoise Prison a number of times, there’s always a great welcome.
“I find that prisoners respond very much to a visitor coming from the outside, who is coming with no agenda but with a sense of understanding and compassion for where they are.
Bishop Nulty added: “Pope Francis would want us to be here today, Pope Francis would want the World Meeting of Families icon to visit a prison, because I have no doubt that for Pope Francis, prisons and prisoners are very close to his heart.”