Reaching Out to Those Behind Bars: Prison Ministry Becomes ‘Vibrant Movement’ Across India’s Catholic Church

Initiated by a pair of seminarians more than 40 years ago, Prison Ministry India is now a nationwide effort, with more than 8,000 volunteers serving inmates in 1,300 jails.

Participants gather for the 13th general assembly of Prison Ministry India, which took place Nov. 16-19 in Goa.
Participants gather for the 13th general assembly of Prison Ministry India, which took place Nov. 16-19 in Goa. (photo: Anto Akkara photos)

GOA, India — A casual talk between two seminarians about visiting prisons, while on phone-attending duty four decades ago, has flourished into a massive network recognized by the Indian Church.

Nearly 500 hundred delegates engaged in reaching out to prisoners and their families across India attended the recent 13th general assembly of Prison Ministry India (PMI). PMI’s leadership includes a special office of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), guided by a chaplain bishop.

“Glad to share that the prison ministry has a become vibrant movement in the Church,” said Father Francis Kodiyan, PMI’s national coordinator, welcoming the delegates to the Nov.16-19 convention in Goa. Father Kodiyan, a priest of the Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, initiated the prison ministry with Father Varghese Karippery of the Archdiocese of Thrissur when they were in the Kottayam seminary in 1981. It was there, at Kottayam in Kerala, that they began their visits to jails.

With more than 8,000 registered volunteers — including priests, nuns and laypeople — the prison ministry has grown exponentially since then. Its teams now fan out to 1,300 prisons across the country, housing more than 600,000 prisoners, counseling the inmates and facilitating and supporting the education of the children of those behind bars.

Along with that, PMI runs occupational programs for inmates as well as 20 homes for children of prisoners and another 20 homes for the rehabilitation of released prisoners.

Father Karippery, co-founder and first national coordinator of the movement, recounted to the Register how it evolved from weekly jail visits from Kottayam seminary to other seminaries and recognition by the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council in 1989 and CBCI in 1994.

Of the nearly 1,200 ex-prisoners who stayed at the Snehashram (Home of Love) — the first prisoner-rehabilitation center set up at Thrissur — at least half of them are “now leading normal family lives,” Father Karippery said.

“Serving prisoners is serving suffering Christ,” Cardinal Filipe Neri Ferrao, patriarch of Goa, said in his Nov. 16 presidential address to the assembly, setting the tone for the assembly proceedings. “The Pope has shown the path for us.”

Calling for reintegrating prisoners into society after their release, Cardinal Ferrao pointed out how Pope Francis went to jail and kissed the feet of the prisoners on Holy Thursday.

“It is an unforgettable lesson in courage and Christian compassion. We have the duty to reach out to those behind bars,” Cardinal Ferrao exhorted.

Transformed by Love

“It was this kissing of the feet that changed my life,” Vethalam Babu, a native of the Christian heartland of Kerala with a record of dozens of criminal convictions, including homicide stemming from street fights, testified at the assembly.

After repeated visits to the “drunkard, drug addict and rowdy” Babu, Catholic couple Jolly Varghese and his wife, Nimmy, took him in 2000 to noted preacher and social worker Father George Kuttickal, founder of the movement Aakasa Paravakal (Friends of Birds of AIR), which cares for social outcasts.

“When the saintly Father knelt and kissed my feet saying, ‘I see Jesus in you,’ it melted me. That [act] transformed me and changed my life,” the 67-year-old Babu told the Register.

Soon, Babu’s house in the slums became a center for Rosary prayers, and his misbehaving friends also started attending the prayer gathering.

“I ensured that the prayer gathering continued for long, and all had a simple dinner, without anyone going to liquor shops to throw away their daily earnings,” recounted Babu, who is now known as “Eeso” (Jesus) Babu, partly in recognition of his long beard as well as his Christian discipleship.

His three-decade-long association with the prison ministry has been a “spiritually enriching experience” for Walter Kamble, a government railway officer who heads the ministry in his Nasik Diocese near Mumbai. “Jail officials cautioned us not to approach a hardened prisoner,” Kamble told the Register about one inmate who was transformed by his encounters. “But he was so touched with our regular visits, he came a Christian and now leads a happy life as a preacher.”

The Contribution of Nuns

“Prison ministry is a most compelling ministry, and prisoners treat us like angels,” Sister of St. Anne Inigo Joachim, who is engaged in visiting New Delhi’s Tihar Jail, the most crowded prison in the country, with more than 12,000 inmates, told last month’s conference.

When she was superior general of the Sisters of St. Anne in Chennai, Sister Inigo had heard inspiring testimonies of nuns who volunteered for prison ministry.

“So, my term ended; I opted for prison ministry and moved to Delhi in 2002,” the nun, who was a “special invitee” to the 1994 Synod of Bishops, told the Register.

“Incarceration must give every opportunity for prisoners to accept their own guilt and acknowledge their need for repentance and reformation. It is the duty of the government to make sure that prisoners enjoy the fundamental and basic human rights,” said the mission statement of the PMI convention.

Pinpointing “serious problems to be remedied,” PMI urged the government to take “immediate action” to end overcrowding, corruption, delay in trial, neglect of health and hygiene, and address the large percentage of undertrials [pre-trial detainment] in prisons.”

“Let us not forget that repentance and reconciliation are acts of grace and spiritual warfare for overcoming our worldly challenges and struggles,” said Bishop Alwyn D’Silva, chairman of CBCI’s office for prison ministry. The bishop, who also serves as PMI’s chairman, called for strengthening the Masses, Eucharistic adorations, intercessory prayers, Rosaries and Divine Mercy Chaplets that are offered “for the fruitfulness of our PMI ventures.”

In fact, the PMI assembly has started 24-hour “intercessory invocation,” for those languishing in jails and their family members, from its headquarters in Bangalore.

“Our ministry is not just social service. It is rooted in prayer and divine intervention,” Father Kodiyan told the Register.

More Help Needed

“Prison ministry in our region is not easy. We lack volunteers, finance and transport,” Ursuline Franciscan Sister Jobina, regional prison ministry coordinator for northeast India, told the assembly.

Hence, PMI has resolved to increase the number of volunteers by 5,000 and urged India’s bishops “to launch many more initiatives for released prisoners, such as employment, housing, health care, marriage, shelter homes and homes for prisoners’ children.”