Thursday, February 15, 2018

When I Was in Prison You Visited Me



By Cecilia Rupell


We are all more than our worst deed.


These words are spoken daily, by Sisters Kathy Claflin SSJ and Kathleen Rooney SSJ—both prison chaplains. As Sisters of Saint Joseph, they bring the charism and mission of the Congregation—unity and reconciliation and love of the dear neighbor without distinction, to places of great hopelessness and despair—prisons.

Sister Kathy is missioned to the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center. This facility houses women who have been arrested, but not yet convicted and sentenced. Today, 163 women are divided between two dormitories. Approximately 160 miles northeast of Baltimore, Maryland, Sister Kathleen spends her days in Clinton, New Jersey, at the maximum security prison, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women (EMCFW). It is the only women’s prison in New Jersey and it houses 613 women, from all backgrounds, between the ages of 20 and 70.

Cold and foreboding, prison is an unattractive place. Upon entering the building, everyone, be they staff, volunteer or visitor, must first empty their pockets, walk through the metal detector and be
Sr. Kathleen Rooney, SSJ
physically frisked. For Sister Kathleen, the greatest challenge of her ministry is the environment. “When you minister in a prison, YOU are in prison,” Sister Kathleen explains. “The rules and protocols that must be followed, especially in maximum security where I spend most of my time, can be very disturbing and disruptive. I need to keep my focus on why I am there and that God is with me. I can’t put my eyes on the darker side of the system.”

Both sisters credit their years as teachers as the perfect foundation for prison ministry. “I spent 30 years living and teaching in the Western and Northern sections of inner-city Philadelphia,” says Sister Kathy. During summers, she volunteered at a rural Catholic Home for Delinquent Girls. “I feel these ministries with the marginalized were good training grounds for the role prison chaplain.”

Sister Kathleen shares, “My years in secondary education as a religion teacher prepared me so well! At times I have to laugh at myself—teaching high school teenagers religion prepared me for prison ministry,” Sister Kathleen shared. “Many of the women at Edna Mahan are like teenagers emotionally, psychologically and socially.”

The SSJ mission: “We live and work so that all people may be united with God and with one another,” could not be more needed than by the imprisoned,” says Sister Kathleen. “Many of the women feel alienated from God because of their crimes. They are in need of reconciliation with those they have harmed—be it their victims or their own family members. They are in dire need of self-forgiveness. My ministry is focused on that unioning—with themselves, with God and with others. That is my aim in everything I do, be it one-on-one spiritual counseling, facilitating a weekly prayer group, or giving a homily at a Communion Service.” The majority of her meetings, groups and classes are in maximum security, comprised of seven housing units across the compound. “On the days I am at the prison, I facilitate two Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) Interfaith Services two times a week (RHU is for women who have broken a prison rule or are charged with an action against another inmate or officer). I also see women individually in RHU. As this is a restricted area, I am always with an officer and can speak to individual women only through her cell door.”

The most rewarding part of being a prison chaplain is her relationship with the women. Sister Kathleen shares, “We talk about things that matter—their hopes, their fears, their struggles in the facility, their families, their joys. There is no time or desire for superficial conversations. I like these women—I do not fear them or judge them. By my presence as a sister chaplain, I hope the women will know that they are not forgotten, they have value and importance and that God loves them unconditionally. We are all more than our worst deed.”

Sister Kathy believes the Congregation’s Generous Promise (initiated at Chapter 2014) to work for
Sr. Kathy Claflin, SSJ - Photo by Cristina Diaz
the poor, marginalized and vulnerable is lived daily in prison ministry. Many of the women she meets with are dealing with domestic violence, anger management, prostitution, unemployment and lack of education. The message she gives is that this doesn’t have to be their only story. Sister Kathy explains, “When someone comes in and it is her first offense I tell her, ‘Don’t let this one thing define your whole life.’ For one in prostitution, I tell her, ‘You are more beautiful and precious to God than this.’ ”

Women must ask to see the prison chaplain. Sister Kathy says, “They want to see me because I provide hygiene items (donated by churches, SSJs and the Archdiocese of Baltimore). They also come for prayer and spiritual counsel, which is heart to heart. Many women want me to pray with them, especially on days they are going to court. Each meeting with Sister Kathy is an opportunity to be one on one. “When they are in the dorm, they have the tough appearance, but with me, they can let down their guard, cry and say where they truly are.” For initial meetings, Sister Kathy does a personal inventory to learn who they are, where they come from and with what crime they have been charged. “I have a 25-page resource packet of Baltimore City services for shelter, medical assistance and for substance abuse, so they don’t end up back on the streets.”  

Sister Kathy shares,“ When I hear their stories, it rips my heart out.” With her index finger and thumb separated by an inch, she says, “As Pope Francis said when he visited prisoners in Philadelphia: I am only this far from the person on the street. It is only through God’s graces and the advantages that God has provided in my life that I am where I am—I could be that person. Sometimes, I come home to the sisters and I tell them there are a couple of women I saw that day that I wished I could bring home so they could start a new life. They just didn’t have opportunities. Part of the program is to be able to help them, to be able to make a difference and it’s a day at a time. For most of these women from the inner city, the environment in which they live remains the same from generation to generation.” She is optimistic about the State and City Police Department working together, especially to help the homeless find housing and to meet other needs. The goal is to prevent them from returning to the same place, situation and mindset before prison.

“We are always trying to provide something that can renew their inner spirit,” says Sister Kathy. “I always tell them, ‘It’s important that you become healthier in mind, body and spirit and invite God in with you on your journey.’ A scripture passage I use with them all of the time is from the Gospel of John, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’ I try to explain how they can be interiorly free even though there is a lot of chaos around them. When these women invite God in, they can speak the truth of their heart. When they meet with the public defender/attorney or the judge, they know that they are speaking God’s truth from their heart and they can have that sense of peace. Whatever the legal system decides—that’s another piece. Always be right with God.”

Our sisters, ministering as prison chaplains, have met with hundreds of inmates. Some of those meetings leave lasting impressions. In Sister Kathy’s early days at the Baltimore City Detention Center, she met periodically with a woman whose mother was sick. “I was able to make contact by phone with her sister who said the mother was doing a lot better. Two weeks later I learned that her mother had died,” shared Sister Kathy. Prison chaplains inform prisoners of family members’ deaths. “Because she was in lockdown (prisoners committing a violation are placed in lockdown), she arrived in my office with her arms behind her in handcuffs. When I started telling her about her mother, she was crying, naturally. Because of the handcuffs, she was unable to wipe the tears running down her face. It broke my heart. I took tissues and wiped the tears from her face. This moment made me think of the Stations of the Cross when Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. As I was wiping her tears away, I felt as if she were the face of Jesus for me.”

Another story Sister Kathy shared reminded her of the scripture passage of Jesus healing the blind man. “One of the things included in the hygiene items is Dollar Store reading glasses,” says Sister Kathy. “I was touched by a woman who came in and said she needed glasses. I gave her a pair of reading glasses and said, ‘See if these work.’ I turned my back to her to reach for more hygiene items and all of a sudden I hear this sobbing, and she said, ‘Oh! Thank you, thank you. You don’t know what this means to me. People think that I’m stupid—it’s just that I can’t see. Now, people will know that I’m not stupid.’ This woman had been homeless, living on the streets and couldn’t afford glasses. I think of her every time I hand out glasses. They cost $1, but they changed her whole life.”


Sister Kathleen shares one of many stories, “For the first time in years, the Bishop of Metuchen, Bishop Checchio, (recently installed as the new bishop in the Diocese) came to the prison to celebrate Mass. The women were awed! The bishop spoke to and greeted each woman individually. His homily was pastoral and loving. When the Mass was over, one of the women, crying, with tears streaming down her face, said to me, ‘I thought we had been forgotten.’ Those words broke my heart and have not left me. When I was in prison you
visited me. (Mt. 25:36)
I know now, more acutely, why Jesus included this action in his words on the final judgment.”   

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