e-mail us

Fall Ministries - Chaplains

Shining God’s forgiveness, love through broken lives

Special Report Writer
Danbury, Conn.

Franciscan Sr. Anne Marie Raftery has spent most of the last decade as a chaplain at women’s federal prisons in Marianna, Fla., and now in Danbury. She has worked with women serving terms of 25 to 40 years -- sentences nearly as long as the 38 years she has freely given to religious life.

Although Danbury houses 1,300 inmates -- 200 over capacity -- and has a staff of 260, Raftery is the sole chaplain to look after the religious and spiritual needs of both groups. Besides some 400 Catholic inmates, there are 300 to 400 Protestant women, 50 Muslims, 18 Jews, 11 Chinese Buddhists and a few adherents of Hinduism, Rastafarianism and Native American spirituality.

Raftery spends much time seeing inmates one-on-one and talking to their families during their visits to the prison. The prison needs at least two more full-time chaplains to share the work, but “they must be called to it,” the nun said, adding that it is a “very draining task. You are constantly listening and you can’t always meet their needs.”

Many of the women are depressed when they first arrive. “They don’t know how they’re going to cope” or how their children will get on in their absence. Eighty-three percent of Danbury’s inmates are mothers. Many are grandmothers. “They feel such helplessness and guilt when a child is sick,” the chaplain said.

“I try to help them hand it over to God.” She urges them to write to their children daily. “A chaplain tries to give meaningful and effective care in a very difficult situation,” Raftery said. The ministry of caring for the spiritual and emotional needs of the incarcerated means seeing each woman as a whole person -- as mothers, grandmothers, some with language problems, others with handicaps and disabilities, she said.

“Prison almost destroys some women,” she said, but “it’s amazing how they learn to do time. They teach each other how to do time. … Even those who can’t be paroled learn to do time.” The prison also employs five psychologists and has a psychiatrist on call.

Often Raftery takes off her shoes and does the seven-circuit Labyrinth Walk with inmates in the prison chapel. The walk opens with a prayer said to the four directions, followed by a centering prayer. She asks the women to enter a penitential rite, leaving their frustrations and worries outside the chapel and considering instead their faith journey. Along the path to the center of the circle the women may encounter a chaplaincy volunteer, who offers an American Indian feather blessing to those who would like them. At the fringe of the Labyrinth carpet, Raftery asks the women to meditate about an insight they received on the walk. Often they leave energized, she said. “The spiritual exercise helps them to let go of negativity and anxiety and allows God to come within.”

All inmates must work. Most find employment in a small prison factory that makes cable and electronic components for military use. They get $1.25 to $1.44 per hour and can earn performance bonuses. Raftery hopes that wages will rise so that the women will have more funds for child support and restitution. About 200 of the inmates in low security work in community custody doing landscaping, assisting in Habitat for Humanity construction projects and even lecturing in high schools about how to avoid going to prison.

Inmates are also required to attend classes. These range from preparation for the high school equivalency exam to college-level business and computer courses. More than 60 percent of inmates are at Danbury for drug offenses. Drug education programs are mandatory for these women. Those who complete 500 hours in the drug education program can have their sentence reduced by a year.

Prison education instills life skills, self-discipline and goal setting, Raftery said. Recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous -- while separate from chaplaincy programs -- teach “how not to be the victim,” she said, adding that many inmates suffer from “multiple victimization.”

To aid healing and help them regain their self-worth, the prison holds healing retreats four times yearly. Fr. Larry Carew, a priest of the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese, has adopted his “Healing the Shepherd” retreat for ministers into a “Healing the Imprisoned” retreat. Some 200 inmates attend the retreat, which is also offered in Spanish. Raftery said the event, which ends with a healing Mass on Sunday afternoon, is popular with Catholics and non-Catholics. “It helps them get in touch with their hurts.”

Sunday Mass is well attended at the prison as is the Sunday evening Protestant service, which also attracts many Catholics and features the prison’s Gospel Choir.

In mid-August Raftery, aided by 50 community women volunteers, ran a four-day Kairos Retreat designed “to demonstrate that the light of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness shines through a broken life, and can transform it,” she said. The 25-year-old ministry has been used in 175 prisons in the United States, England, Ireland, South Africa and Australia. Raftery said that Kairos is widely recognized as the most effective process available to positively change basic attitudes of prisoners.

For the retreat, volunteers -- who worked one-on-one with 50 inmates -- trained some 40 hours before the event on such topics as “The Power of Personal Choice,” “Friendship with God,” “Acceptance of Self” and “Creative Use of Anger.”

The ultimate goal is to have inmates become a caring Christian community behind bars. The women are taught how to pray and study the Bible in small groups of twos or threes.

Warden Kim Reid introduced Kairos to Danbury after learning of it at a warden’s conference. Reid saw it as a viable religious tool to target unchurched prisoners and to help recognize and nurture the potential leadership and talent of inmates, Raftery said.

Reid is a strong supporter of Raftery’s ministry and is eager to hire more chaplains. To do the job, “you need the heart of a servant,” she told NCR. Evidence exists at Danbury -- and at other federal prisons where some 10,500 women are incarcerated -- that the opportunity to practice one’s religion helps women to become rehabilitated, Reid said.

Religious practice, along with self-help education, substance-abuse training and physical education that increases wellness and self-esteem all contribute to an inmate’s improvement. “When these four are in place, we find less misbehavior, less recidivism and fewer incidences of violence against other inmates and staff,” the warden said.

Reid called the chaplaincy a “shining light.” Its chaplain, programs and religious services help inmates, who range in age from 19 to 73, to experience self-worth. “The more appreciated inmates feel, the more enhanced is our institution,” Reid said, adding that treating people as worthwhile makes for greater “peace, harmony and industriousness.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000