On the outside looking in: a ministry for women with a loved one behind bars

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The women are cautious when they gather on Friday evening, drawn from their homes across Sydney, with just one thing in common: a loved one behind bars. Shunned by friends and family, many have had no outlet for sharing their greatest hurt. Until now. 

“It’s a hidden suffering,” says Sr Patty Andrew osu, a chaplain with Kairos Outside for Women, an organisation devoted to women with incarcerated relatives. “These women are doing time as well, even though they’re not behind bars.”

After 46 years as an Ursuline Sister, many of them as a teacher and principal, she has devoted her semi-retirement to this a band of chaplains and volunteers trained to support women with a loved one in prison.

At the centre of the ministry is the weekend retreat, where guests learn to trust the organisation, its staff and each other.

“They’re usually quite fearful because they’ve lost a lot of trust in systems,” Sr Patty says.

“Even just going and visiting their loved ones is quite difficult.

“Usually their loved ones are very grateful but sometimes even they can be abusive and emotionally manipulative.”

Fellow Ursuline Sister and Kairos chaplain Sr Venera Nicolosi osu says many women in this situation are trapped in self-imposed exile.

“Some of them don’t go out for weeks and weeks,” she says.

“They do feel so alone and ashamed. This gives them the opportunity to meet others and feel that it’s ok, they’re not alone.”

Over the course of the weekend guests are encouraged to share their experiences, with regular breaks for meals, music, and other creative outlets.

“The change by Sunday afternoon is absolutely amazing, the way they’ve all let down so many walls,” she says.

“You start to see something released in them.”

While the women come from disparate backgrounds, differences fade in the face of the “all inclusive spirit” of the weekend.

“It’s the whole culture of care; people start to feel secure.”

The focus is also on making women feel worthy, deserving of support, of a weekend away, of a few luxuries.

“There are lots of rituals throughout the weekend,” Sr Patty says.

“On Sunday morning we have a special morning tea, a high tea with good crockery and a cake with candles for all the women.

“They recognise that, because of having someone inside, they’ve missed out on so many celebrations, like Christmas, their own birthdays, maybe their children’s birthdays.”

The “crescendo of emotion” is overwhelming, she says.

Later, chaplains hand out scarves knit by members of a local craft group.

“It’s like we’re saying to them: ‘It’s not only us here, there are people outside you are praying for you.’

“It is a building up of the whole Christian community that they’re held in.

“I find that so beautiful. For me it’s like being wrapped in love.”

The retreat is followed by regular reunions and frequent contact from Kairos workers.

“You do see them going away with more hope,” she says. “It’s like being absolutely showered with God’s love. That’s the spirit of the weekends.”

Kairos also offers programs for incarcerated women, and for men with incarcerated loved ones.

a
Chaplains Sr Patty, Sr Ven, Caroline Smart, Peter Watson, Marg Irwin, and Maree Williams.

The chaplains’ story

Sr Patty always felt drawn to the Ursulines.

“I’ve always been grateful that I got to know the Ursulines and got drawn into them; it’s just right for me,” she says.

When she entered, religious life was very different than it is today.

“It was a very monastic form. I did enter not long after Vatican II so there was a sense that changes were coming, there was the modification of our habit.”

She is greatly enriched by the ecumenical setting of Kairos.

“I couldn’t imagine that I would have had the same enrichment had our lives stayed enclosed.”

After 30 years as a primary school principal in the diocese of Parramatta, Sr Venera trained as a trauma chaplain through the Uniting Church’s Disaster Relief Chaplain Network.

She was on hand to counsel victims, staff and families after the 2011 Quakers Hill nursing home fire.

Fourteen people died in the blaze. Nurse Roger Dean was later charged and convicted of deliberately lighting the fire to cover up his theft of prescription drugs. In 2013 he was sentenced to life in prison.

“It was very traumatic,” Sr Venera said.

“Some of the nurses felt immense guilt, like if only they had known about that man…I felt so much for them and the families.

“It was a great tragedy.”

Last year she was part of a team who responded to offer trauma counselling to those affected by the Springwood bushfires.

With locals were overwhelmed by feelings of loss and disbelief, psychological support, in addition to the provision of food, clothing and shelter, was critical.

“To be able to talk, to speak to someone, cry with someone, that’s what they needed.”

shutterstock_330637523
Photo: Shutterstock

Sharone’s story

My name is Sharone. My husband and I have five children.

Sadly, two of our sons have been in and out of prison for the past 29 years for drug-related crimes.

Our eldest son is now 46 years old and currently inside. His younger brother is 36 years old and is addicted to pot, heroin and ice.

Recently he was re-arrested, and so my husband and I will soon be on the legal merry-go-round once again as we try to support him in the best way we can.

The saying goes: “The prisoner does the crime, but the family and friends share the time.”

The whole family suffers when one of them goes to jail. Initially, they often have to deal with the rejection of others – the ‘guilt by association’ factor. Difficult emotions crop up such as denial, guilt, anger and depression. These can be overwhelming. The huge on-going worry I have concerning my sons’ welfare and safety is difficult to put into words. I so wish that people would acknowledge the fact that most family members of those in prisons and juvenile offender facilities are hurting deeply. Like me, their hearts are breaking over the bad choices made by those close to them, and their own inability to fix the problems that led to the imprisonment. All we long for, especially during the initial time of adjustment to having someone inside, is a listening ear – a sense that others care and are there to help us cope with the challenges.

From experience, I’ve found that prison inmates are stigmatised. All too often they’re seen simply as criminals – unloved rejects who deserve to be in jail for the rest of their days. As a practising Christian, while I understand that actions must have consequences, I also see prisoners as those God loves unconditionally. In my mind, there’s no such thing as a hopeless case.

I recognise that there are innocent victims of crime, and offenders need to be made aware of the impact of what they’ve done and punished for their bad choices but, as a mother, I still find it hard to accept that my sons are living wasted lives. They both had such potential but have chosen to go the wrong way.

My sons know that their choices have ruined their opportunities and, especially for my eldest son, have led to him becoming institutionalised.

My younger son was sexually abused as a boy, and false guilt turned him to drugs, an addiction from which he has never recovered.

While I was pleased when his molester was sentenced to eight years for the crime against my son – I also recognised that he has family that must have suffered like my family has suffered.

Initially I was unaware of the jail system and how it works. I will never forget the first time I went into a correctional centre. I was asked to take off my jewellery and place all my things in a locker, not realising I needed a $2 coin to make the locker work.  Filling out forms and waiting in lines was another experience that was new to me. I went through one door that clanged shut behind me and then through another. I was so embarrassed and unprepared for all this, and I wanted to fall through the cracks in the concrete. I felt like I was the criminal.

Then to see my son, for security reasons, dressed in a white jump suit tied at the neck with a cable tie, was more than I could bear. Even the table and chairs were secured to the floor. At first, I was shocked by everything I saw but, as time went by, they became second nature to me.

At that time, my other son was in prison in the Riverina region – or so I thought. I made the long journey from Sydney after making the required appointment to see him only to find, on arrival, that my son had been moved to another facility.

My earlier visits with him were difficult enough when we sat on either side of a glass petition and I was unable to touch him – but this time, when I was not even able to see him, was even worse. During more recent visits, my husband and I have had dogs sniffing us for drugs and other contraband, have had our fingerprints taken and been processed for an iris check.

While I am fully aware that these security procedures are both important and necessary to ensure everyone’s safety, they are still very hard for the friends and families to cope with during their visits.

In the midst of all this emotional pain, I was introduced to Kairos Outside for Women. This wonderful organisation provided the life-line I needed so badly.

When I attended one of their residential weekends, I met others who fully understood the hurt and pain experienced by those left behind to cope with the devastating consequences of a friend or family member’s imprisonment. Kairos Outside offered me the time, space and safety to explore new friendships and fresh options – and to draw strength and on-going support from others who knew how it felt when a friend or relative goes to prison.

I was amazed that there was no cost to attend the weekend, and transport was even provided by kind people who just wanted to demonstrate that I was not alone in my struggles.

At Kairos Outside, I met others from a range of backgrounds, many of whom remain my closest friends and supporters. I learned that such weekends are held in different regions across Australia once or twice every year, and that a similar support network is available to the male friends and relatives of people who currently, or have in the past, done time in prison.

Kairos Outside is a branch of Kairos Prison Ministry Australia – a national community-based Christian organisation with approximately 3000 volunteers who work in teams to reach out to prison inmates, juvenile offenders, and their friends and family members.

If you or someone you know has ever had a friend or relative in prison, don’t hesitate to call the Kairos Office on (02) 9987 2016 or visit kairos.org.au for more information.

The support that Kairos offered changed my life, and it could change yours too.

kairos.org.au