How the prison setting becomes a path of freedom

The 29th of August 2015: after 18 years in Madagascar, I returned to Québec where, first of all, it was a matter of settling in! Three months later, the desire for a new mission arose … but where? It was then that I heard about the community chaplaincy of the federal prisons that was looking for volunteers

 Their project then appeared very interesting to me.

The “Rainbow” programme deals with 8-9 prisoners at a time, with as many volunteers and two animators, male and female, for a period of 8 weeks, once a week. 
It is a matter of restoring together what was broken by violence. 
In the Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow)  programme, through a process of awareness raising and education, the prisoner will journey towards the restoration of bonds that were weakened; it is a matter of rebuilding the social fabric by offering paths of healing and of reconciliation. The term ‘‘Rainbow’’ was chosen symbolically because within it is the proposition to recreate union and harmony among all the persons concerned. 
The programme is intended for the residents at the ‘‘minimum’’, that is, those who are coming closer to their “discharge”. They are already living in a small group, in a condo, with a sharing of responsibilities, something that makes this stage in a prison setting more “human”, closer to a ‘’normal life’’. 
Up to now, I have participated in three “Arc-en-ciel’’ programmes. Each time, it is a new adventure 
First of all, between the volunteers there is a basic kinship arising from this setting of sharing and intervention which, in return, shapes and nourishes us. There is no need for words to explain ourselves on the matter … it exists like a joy in being there! And this is something that is mentioned to us each time by the new prisoners who undertake the adventure. 
What tools are used to facilitate the task? Texts, pictures.What animation: time spent in the big group, and a lot of time in twos during which each prisoner studies the theme proposed with his volunteer. The times for putting this in common, when each one is free to speak, lets us glimpse the beauty or the difficulty of the paths taken by one or another. … Also, some role play, carried out with shudders, showed us a little of the depth of their life experience… 
And now, I am going to try to highlight some features of the residents with whom I have journeyed. 
     The first,64 years, who was to be freed some months later, after 40 years of imprisonment interspersed with times of freedom and more offences… He knows that he must never return to his city where he would inevitably find his ‘‘gang’’ … 
In the course of our meetings, he told me that, when his father died, he was still not able to forgive him … and he added: “… but now, it’s done … I know that both of us were at fault … Unfortunately, now I cannot say it to him!’’ Once his emotion had eased, I asked him: ‘What can you do?’ – ‘‘I am going to write him a letter and I will take it to the cementery’’.
He also told me that in 40 years, he has never discussed with those close to him the effects his imprisonment has had on them. Then he mentioned that he would telephone to one of his sisters, the one to whom he used to go on the occasions of his “outings”, and ask her what she had experienced because of him… The following week, he recounted: ‘‘I called her, and she replied: ‘But what has come over you? !!’ We laughed!’’  Of course, a surprise after 40 years! 
And they agreed to talk together again. Six months later, a week before his departure, he came to greet the volunteers. And he whispered to me, his eyes shining: ‘‘I have talked with Diane!’’ How marvellous! 
          2nd group: I am journeying with ..., aged 37, imprisoned at the age 20
“I have done what is the worst” he said to me, “I killed!”.  Not having learned to love, he killed his “girlfriend”. So, it is difficult to raise the level of self-estee.
  He no longer has any bonds except with his mother and grandmother, and the relations with them are not constructive. Since he was imprisoned he has availed himself of the different forms of training: information technology, psychology etc. He is lucid about himself and knows that he still needs to strengthen himself to face life in society. 
      One day, we were looking together at a list of values, and he pointed out those where he recognized himself. At the end of the meeting he shared in the group what this work had done for him: “That makes you more complete!” 
How good it is to discover that we are more than the dark side of our lives.
    And finally, there is ..., 83 years, imprisoned for about a year for having abused one of his nephews, 7-8 years old, 50 years ago, and for not having protected his brother from a similar situation. A man who is experiencing only shame … 
  One day, he talked to me about his sleepless nights. The following week, completely transformed and at peace, he recounted to me: ‘‘One night, I told myself that I was responsible, that they were right, and that I was going to forgive them for having denounced me … I wept a lot… from relief … and the following nights I slept well!”  
I was left speechless.  “The truth will set you free”, St John tells us. 
    Reviewing the stages of forgiveness on the basis of his experience, we arrived at the question: Can you find a meaning to the offence? I rephrased it: ‘‘Did that experience bring you anything?’’ – ‘’Well, yes! Before, with people, I used to talk about different things and that was all. Now, I am going to try to understand them…’’ Once again, I was speechless before this man, almost illiterate, who was capable of recognizing the source of that astonishing inner trans-formation. 
   At the end of our work together he told me about another event that was so consistent with what has gone before: ‘‘One of my sons wanted to pay a lawyer so that I would not be sent to prison. I said to him: ‘No, it is for me to pay for 
 what I have done’ …Also, he is planning to bring his family together when he returns home… “To celebrate? I asked him. ‘‘No!  To tell them what I did and that they may react. We will celebrate afterwards!’’  
Is any other conclusion needed? 
Only to repeat that I give thanks for this life setting that has been offered to me … 
Perhaps Etienne has taken charge of my re-integration in my country? …
Sr Colette Normandeau
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