Being by someone’s side, notwithstanding anything; giving hope in spite of one’s reserve and withdrawal; hoping for penitence and rethinking often without detecting even the slightest gleams of faith. The conversation with the Head of the Pastoral Department in Ukraine’s penitentiary system of the UGCC Patriarchal Curia, Fr. Constantine Panteley, disclosed a completely different dimension of clergymen, volunteers, and prisoners.
Читай українською: В’ЯЗНИЦІ, ЯК ДЗЕРКАЛО СУСПІЛЬНОГО СУМЛІННЯ
The existence of a prison system offers an opportunity for the Church to express its entire God given potential for doing charity. The prison, as is my belief, is the only place on earth where all the appeals to mercy for the soul and body can be accomplished simultaneously: “Give something to eat to the hungry; give something to drink to the thirsty; clothe the one who needs clothes or has no proper clothing; go visit the one who is in prison…” — said Fr. Constantine, starting our conversation.
Teach faith and goodness to the one who doesn’t know
The imprisonment of a criminal apparently resolves the problem, since the evil is punished. But is it possible to mend one’s ways in an environment of similar delinquents? For imprisonment, even in an ideal society, transforms into the conservation of crime, fostering malice and the desire for revenge. Thus, in order to somehow change the situation, we have to be present among those people so that they could understand that we support them in everything, except for sin.
No doubt that direct pastoral care is of great importance when a priest communicates with a prisoner and is able to listen and give advice. But pastoral care is represented by the very presence of a priest attesting that these people have not been forgotten. Such moral support is needed, however, to the prison staff as well, since, while doing their service, they also, to a certain extent, have limited freedom.
Exhort a sinner and bring him back from a destructive path toward the good one
It is most difficult for those who received long-term sentences or life imprisonments for their grave crimes. They need spiritual support and, at the same time, are in extreme despair and cynicism. For the deeper their psychological wound is, the greater is their alienation. Therefore, a priest should show the most patience with them.
The prisoners of an especially difficult category are those who committed crimes of a sexual character. Such people endure a double punishment: social isolation and cruel treatment from others convicted. Among those who are difficult to work with are also disabled prisoners who have grave mental deviations, while they are convicted as those who can be held responsible in court.
Helping juveniles who are imprisoned is also not simple. Presently, the code of criminal procedure has somewhat mitigated the treatment for juvenile crimes, so their number is decreasing. According to the statistical data, on September of the last year, there were 316 such prisoners in Ukraine. But those who are convicted have graver crimes and receive big terms.
The imprisonment, even in an ideal society, transforms into the conservation of crime, fostering malice and the desire for revenge
It is a specific environment where continuous close attention is needed. And, in our country, there’s the lack of systematic and professional work with juvenile prisoners. The problem is also that most of those who are behind bars are sixteen years old. It means that, just in two years, they are moved to adult prisons, and the communication with criminals of a different “service and status” make them more criminalized. I know many cases when those who were, after reformatories, placed into adult prison found themselves there again for new crimes, which often are much more cruel.
Therefore, in order to avoid such a progression into the criminal world, the juvenile convicted would have to stay in separate institutions. They should be treated individually, since different crimes require different therapy, and, to work with them, there must be professionally prepared social psychologists, pedagogues who primarily would like to cure such individuals morally.
Women prisoners are a vulnerable category, especially those convicted multiple times. In our Church, the adaptation center for women has been established. Over thirty formerly convicted women have gone through this center, and the majority of them have found themselves and remain rooted in the Church’s life.
The prospect for moral recovery and an easier adaptation of prisoners is provided by an interdenominational approach, to work with the confined when the shepherds stand unanimously, appealing to the prisoners.
Pray for him so that God may help him
But pastoral care is not only for a priest but, to a greater extent, volunteers. During many years, we have observed how important the presence of the faithful is. Prisoners often perceive priests as people who lead a special way of life, which is inaccessible for others. When volunteers come, being different people from different social groups with their own problems, they demonstrate that, with God, one can go out of various hardships, giving hope for change.
I will never forget the question we were asked by a convict when he was saying goodbye to us, “Is it possible that you were not paid for coming to visit us?“ That is, those people could not believe that someone voluntarily, sacrificing one’s own time, could come to spend time with them. It makes them aware that they can be important to someone.
There are many people who help us in various activities, such as collecting all the necessary things for the prisoners or preparing some events. Such volunteering is necessary, as a testimony of social solidarity. Systematic work is more difficult. There are chaplain assistants who, in one way or another, get involved in conducting retreats, evangelizing. They need more substantial preparation. Anyway, however, while preparing volunteers to communicate with the prisoners, we put emphasis on the moral aspect. Since everyone has one’s own notion of a prison, sometimes there are situations when a volunteer who comes there for the first time feels a little bit tense, and it, consequently, reflects on the conversation. It is important to behave naturally and with ease so that no one would feel discomfort.
It is not worthwhile to confine a certain priest to the jail. He should be rooted in his parish community’s life and, alongside, accomplish his service to the prisoners
But I have to underline that supporting the prisoners is useful also to those who help them, as it is due to this that we can acquire a deeper awareness of what sin is. It helps us to grow spiritually and to understand the fullness and significance of freedom, as well as motivating us to overcome temptations and defeat the evil in our heart. Even the parish life becomes more valuable, profound and conscious when, among the different initiatives of service, there’s time for prisoners.
The important issue is also to involve more priests. At the moment, in our Church there are 34 chaplains who perform systematic pastoral work. But, it is most effective when there’s a certain rotation of chaplains so that they could recuperate in order to give more efficient assistance. I stand on the idea that it is not worthwhile to confine a certain priest to the jail. He should be rooted in his parish community’s life and, alongside, accomplish his service to the prisoners. It enriches the ecclesial life of the community and of the whole eparchy, as well as offering an opportunity for major cooperation with the volunteers.
Forgive wholeheartedly to those who have offended you
A deeper awareness of the Church’s mystery consists in being interested in each other’s lives. In order to overcome alienation towards people who have committed crimes, one should remember the words pronounced by Pope Francis at the meeting held on October 23, 2014, with the delegates of the International Association of Penal Law. The Pope says that there exists a so called populism when we are ready to apply the biggest punishment for any crime and make the responsibility for it exclusively on those people, in which the evil was manifested, relieving ourselves of our responsibility for involvement in various tendencies and trends of evil. The recovery of society is possible if we will respond to the pains and needs of every person. The Pope paid attention to the fact that the concept of “administering justice” doesn’t mean “punishment for the sake of punishment” but aims at “reeducating offenders” ― “real punishment doesn’t exist without hope.”
Console and comfort the grieved
Our Church works with the prisoners in many directions. Unfortunately, there’s still no rehabilitation center for men, though I think we are quite able to create it.
An important direction of supporting the confined is the service of correspondence. In Kyiv, since 1992, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Community has been active, which continuously keeps in contact and tracks positive changes during the developmental process of these people. Besides, we encouraged seminarians to create the program, Introduction to Holy Scripture, in order to explain God’s Word in letters to prisoners.
To support the convicted, we involve people from different professions. So, for instance, among volunteers, there are many professional jurists who understand the problem of penal law and perform remedial and juridical functions. There are also medical volunteers, which is especially relevant for prisoners. Last year, we successfully conducted eye examinations for prisoners, and eyeglasses were purchased to those who needed them. To work with the prisoners, we also involve pedagogues, psychologists, and social workers.
There are also people who help the prisoners to discover their own creative abilities, which is especially relevant for the reformatories. Quite often, prisoners discover talents in decorative, applied arts or fine arts. I saw how juvenile prisoners learned to embroider in different styles, to bead accompanied by their instructor in the Kremenchuk reformatory. Such skills diversify their stay in prison and modify their character, forming in them persistence and aesthetic delight from work.
Many of them sing, which also contributes to their spiritual growth. We receive great support from the Fraternity of Cossack Fighting Custom “Spas”. They organized Cossack entertainment and a sport competition for the juvenile prisoners during the summer period, which contributed to educating their spirituality and patriotism.
So, we conduct a vast activity, but still more is to be done. Therefore, we always welcome various social initiatives for supporting the convicted and those who have served their terms.
Recorded by Natalia Pavlyshyn