Christmas in prison: a message from a Centacare prison chaplain

My name is Sr Elisabeth Keane, but the inmates call me Sr Lis.

I don’t have an office but I move around the centre, talking to staff and inmates – I am there for all. A conversation may be a greeting of a few minutes in passing, or it may be sitting down for a long conversation.

I’ve been a Centacare Pastoral Ministry chaplain in prisons for 16 years. I work in a low security correctional centre for women. Many inmates work on the prison farm or take part in community service to make reparations for their crime.

Prisoners know that chaplains are not involved in the sentencing system – while almost everyone else in the prison is. For that reason, chaplains are often entrusted with the prisoners heaviest burdens, as they know that we have the time to listen. They trust us.

I realised the other day that we are now experiencing the third generation of drug use in many families. There are prisoners who can remember as kids answering the door and collecting the next package of drugs for mum and dad. Until they come to prison they have never met a person who can mentor them.

Mostly we do not know the crime for which a person has been sentenced. We are seen as people who won’t condemn, and we represent a God who can be trusted even if no one else can be. The faith we preach by our presence is a very basic one where we see people as human beings, not as criminals.

As a chaplain I have to show the love of Christ, even to the most unlovable. It’s not always easy I have witnessed bullying and a lot of manipulation.

The most heartbreaking part of this job is seeing those prisoners who will return to a life on the streets or addiction after they have served their sentence, what’s worse is when they return for another crime. But, there has never been a day that I have been deterred from my work. Prison is not an easy place to turn your life around. However, against all odds there are many women who learn housekeeping skills, undertake barista courses, and finish university degrees. It is encouraging to walk with those women who want to use their time in prison to free themselves of a crippling addiction to drugs, or leave an abusive partner. More than once those who have undertaken community service here in the local parish have returned to thank the parish staff and bring them morning tea.

The prevailing attitudes of our society can make it difficult for prisoners to ever have the hope of living a fulfilling, productive life after their sentence. I have heard them all, “lock them up and throw away the key,” “make them live on bread and water,” “why should they have TV – they should sit and think of what they have done.” From my experience, I can assure you that the women never forget what they have done – often the hardest thing for a prisoner to do is forgive themselves and to move forward.

Just last week, Pope Francis asked us all to pray for prisoners. His Holiness called for a Jubilee year for prisoners and homeless people and presided over Holy Year Masses for these people. When the Pope addressed a group of prison chaplains last year he reminded them that they are, “a sign of Christ’s nearness to these brothers [and sisters] who are in need of hope.”

With the compassion you show for people in need through your support to Centacare you have also been, “a sign of Christ’s nearness to those who are in need of hope.”

Christmas in prison is lonely and sad. The whole season can pass without a visit from a family member or friend.

Every year, I celebrate Christmas with the prisoners and the other chaplains. We do a Church service, and two friends of mine come out and play the guitars so we can all sing carols. The chaplain’s annual Christmas play gets a lot of laughs. We give gifts so that every one of the 120-130 prisoners receives a Christmas parcel. They get shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste, and a toothbrush – and a handwritten Christmas card. With the help of others, I also take 140 pieces of individually wrapped fruitcake for each of the women to take with them at the end of the carols.

I would like to make a special thank you this Christmas season for your generous support of Centacare’s Catholic pastoral care programs. We chaplains don’t ever get to meet you but the work that we do is only possible because of what you give. I want you to know how much we appreciate it and how much it benefits those to whom we give our time and our love.

Please keep these women in your prayers this Christmas.

With gratitude,

Sr Lis

Prisoners’ Services
Centacare Pastoral Ministries


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