No cell is so isolated that it can keep the Lord out

Mercy in prisons, you must be joking! Lock them up and throw the key away, that’s all they deserve.

As Christians, we beg to differ, knowing that mercy is the heartbeat of God, embodied in Jesus.

I have experienced this mercy and long to share its truth with prison inmates. My hope is to empower them to live in a more merciful, forgiving way while incarcerated and to prepare them for a more positive lifestyle upon release.

So how can this come about in a prison where some individuals ruthlessly use power and resources to frighten and hurt others?

I have until recently been Chaplain at St Heliers Correctional Centre, Muswellbrook, and am currently based at Cessnock’s Correctional Centre. My role, which has been both challenging and rewarding, includes support of both prisoners and prison officers.

Perhaps contrary to the expectations of some, there have been many occasions when Mercy has triumphed, among and through inmates.

One morning an agitated inmate came into the chapel. He said he didn’t know where else to go; he wasn’t a Christian but needed to talk to someone he could trust. He had hardly slept for the past month, he was exhausted and at the end of his tether. He and other inmates had been bullied, stood over, threatened and had food stolen from them by a huge ‘strong man’. He had concocted a plan to take this guy down that morning. He said that he was going to do what he knew best and that was to stab him.

He broke down and sobbed, saying he didn’t want to resort to this but didn’t know what else to do.

I asked if I could pray with him, that God may lift his fear and allow him to sleep through the night. He agreed, saying he would do anything in order for things to get better.

After a simple prayer, I sent him away. I was concerned and asked him to come and see me next morning.

He met me at the chapel door and told me how much better he felt, having slept all night.

He asked me to give him some more of my magic! I laughed, handed him a bible and told him this was the medicine he needed to take every day. Over the following weeks he read the bible from cover to cover and began coming to chapel services.

I had noticed a massive change in this man so I asked him to attend the next Kairos Journey Day. This involves people from different denominations who visit prisons, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and their own testimonies. He was excited to be included.

When the Kairos Day arrived I noticed that the inmate who had been causing all the grief, the one my friend wanted to ‘take out’, was also on the list. I immediately called the original complainant and offered to remove ‘the bad guy’ from the list. His reply to this was that it was not necessary as he had forgiven this man!

I was blown away. This man gave his testimony the day before his release testifying to the fact that at his lowest point God had shone light into his darkness and had changed him from an angry scared man into a person of love and hope. That’s the mercy of God in action.

On another occasion a young man came into my office to introduce himself. He was a friendly bloke and proceeded to tell me that this was his first time in prison.  He shared his life story including the issue of drugs which led to imprisonment.

He also told me that he was a Christian and had attended Church for a couple of years but then stopped.

The inmate told me he was angry with an officer who had been very rude to him and who was holding back an item of his property. He had approached the officer on two occasions to retrieve his property, only to be rebuffed. I reminded him that he was a Christian and suggested he go back to the officer and ask once again, calmly, and quietly bless the officer before and after the event, irrespective of the final outcome.

He left my office, returning a short time later laughing with excitement at what had happened.

He said that when he approached, the officer dismissed him and walked away. He prayed for the officer and soon the officer returned − with the property − and handed it to the inmate – with a smile!

This example of prayerful mercy boosted this inmate for a while. He began attending chapel services with enthusiasm but over time drifted away and has since been released.

One frosty winter’s morning as I drove through Muswellbrook heading to St Heliers I recognised a young man walking down the footpath. He wore a tee shirt, board shorts and thongs and carried a small, clear plastic bag holding all his belongings.

He was an inmate who had just been released. He must have been freezing. I decided that I needed to put a better system in place to help men when they are released.

From that day, with the generous support of the St Vincent De Paul Society at Muswellbrook and private donors, I filled a cupboard with good quality new and used clothing to enable inmates to be released from prison with suitable clothes and some dignity.

I recall an inmate trying on clothes to prepare for release. He broke down and cried, because “it was great to feel normal again”.

I am privileged to play on God’s Mercy team.

Pope Francis has asked that a Jubilee for Prisoners be celebrated during the Year of Mercy on 6 November 2016. The Bishops’ Delegate for the Australian Catholic Prisoners Pastoral Care Council, Bishop Terry Brady, said, “Pope Francis shows us the importance of accompanying one another in the ups and downs of life. We all stumble; make mistakes; fail others and ourselves. But we are all capable of loving and of experiencing hope.” Recognising and valuing the human dignity of prisoners, Pope Francis said, “no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy….the task of a chaplain is to let the prisoners know that the Lord is inside with them. No cell is so isolated that it can keep the Lord out. He is there.” 

To learn more, please visit the Catholic Australia website.

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Deacon Gerard McCarthy Image
Deacon Gerard McCarthy

Deacon Gerard McCarthy works as a Chaplain at Cessnock Correctional Centre. 

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