Sr Deirdre Mullan reflects on her experience of humanity when visiting a maximum security prison
I first met Tim, in a high-security US prison in 1999. He was 29 years old and was one of 2.3 million men and women housed in prisons throughout the United States – the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Being from the North of Ireland, I was familiar with prisons, visiting prisons and hearing about the treatment of prisoners and their families, during the 30 years of the Irish conflict.
While working as a visiting professor at a Western Pennsylvania University, I decided to become a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society and, after training, I was allocated to Tim who was at that time in solidarity confinement for some misconduct or other. Tim was serving a maximum sentence of 30 years and, when I first met him, he had served nine years of his sentence.
Over the next 12 years, I visited Tim as often as possible and found myself looking forward to the visits just as much as Tim looked forward to having this Irish nun who had found him, come to visit him! He used to joke with me – ”You were meant to find me sister – You are the first person who ever really listened to me.”
I remember reflecting on this and found myself recalling the wise words of a Sister Marie, a Jamaican nun who once told me: ”Those whom we think we are liberating are in fact our liberators – we cannot be liberated without them!”
Tim was liberating something within me. Liberating me from the fear of having about six steel gates clang and locked behind me every time I visited him. Liberating me from the anxiety that perhaps he might try to ‘do’ something to me, even though there was always an armed guard watching and probably listening to our conversations.
Liberating me, to try to meet him without labelling, and to find him as just another struggling human being.
I also learned from Tim the importance to recognise my gift of connecting with people and also my ability to speak truth to power.
One of the most poignant moments of my time with Tim, was the weeks before Christmas of 2000. He asked if I might contact his mother and invite her to send him a Christmas card.
His family had all rejected him after he and his brother were convicted of murdering a young man in a robbery that went wrong. They had not had contact since his sentencing.
He also asked if I could get some of my friends to send him Christmas cards so that, he could decorate his prison cell. The latter request was no problem, but how to approach his mother was a little more complex.
Tim’s mother was hurting, and ashamed at what her boys had done.
After some time talking and visiting with Tim’s mother, I convinced her that it would do both of them good to at least greet each other for Christmas and so after a couple of phone conversations, the long anticipated Christmas card arrived at the maximum security prison. Tim was elated and so was I!
Over the years, Tim began to trust me. He shared with me what he described was one of the darkest moments of his life, the night the murder took place. Tim was in and out of solidarity confinement many times, but gradually I noticed a change in him.
He realised that if we wanted to improve his lot, he had to stop blaming others and take responsibility for his behaviour.
I encourage him to begin to read and to take his General Certificate in Education (GED). Tim moved from being a high-risk prisoner, to a category two prisoner. The governor asked to see me and told me he believed that the change in Tim was due to the fact that he felt somebody cared.
What I learned from Tim was that we are all vulnerable human beings. He taught me that when we go the extra mile, we liberate ourselves and our humanity to become the people we are meant to be.
What I learned from Tim is our capacity for compassion is way beyond what we think we can or want to do.
When Tim eventually spoke to me about the violent crime he had committed, he did so with deep concern for the damage he had inflicted on an innocent man, his victim’s family and their wider circle of associates.
What I learned from Tim was the importance of reflecting on my own brokenness as a human being, and the need to shed the grip of fear and give way to a deeper generosity or as the Irish poet John O’Donohue remarks – ”A new confidence will come alive, to urge you towards higher ground, where your imagination will learn to engage difficulty as its most rewarding threshold!”
This Christmas, let us be grateful for our fears. Let us risk for good. And, let us discover holiness in the one who puzzles us the most. Let us be open to taking chances on the spirit of another and let us be open to filling our peaceful words with measurable actions.
This is what I learned from Tim.
Deirdre Mullan is a Sister of Mercy from Ireland currently living in the USA where she is actively involved in educating girls to educate girls in the developing world – firstname.lastname@example.org