By Fr. F M Britto
Raipur: Catholic priests and nuns in a central Indian town offered books, television sets, refreshments and writing aids to prisoners on Aug 26. The prisoners, on their part, entertained the religious with cultural programs.
“We offered 1,725 books, costing 78,000 rupees, two Led Television sets and offered 14,400 rupees for their refreshments,” said Salesian Sister Annies, an official of the Prison Ministry team of Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh state.
They belonged to the Bilaspur deanery of Raipur archdiocese. They had collected the money from the local parishioners and well-wishers, besides contribution by their religious congregations.
Sekhar Singh Tigga, superintend of the Bilaspur central jail, said they had asked the prisoners what they wanted. “And they asked for books for the library.” The jail library, which they began last year, didn’t have enough books, he added.
“These books in Hindi and English are on all topics,” said Franciscan Sister Sophia, the president of the unit. Besides books on general interest and educational, it also contains books on all religions including Christianity, she added.
“Since they have plenty of free time, these books will give them knowledge and inspire them to lead a worthy life,” said the Superintend. “We had asked many organizations to offer these books. We had submitted 550 titles, but the sisters have offered us 1,800 titles,” he said.
Ajay Kumar Vajpayee, assistant superintend, said he had gone through the titles of these books. “They are very varied, inspiring and interesting. They will help them to become good citizens,” he said. The prisoners had even given them titles of their interest.
Two TV sets in their barricades got spoiled. The government does not provide them TV. “So we requested the sisters,” said Tigga. “The prisoners do not have any other recreation,” he added. “According to our need we ask them, and the sisters provide us,” he said.
While one television set had been purchased from the money collected from the donations, the other set was offered by their community, said Sister Annies, superior of Susamati Niwas, a maternity center in the city.
“Our parishioners were very generous in contributing towards this cause,” said Sister Annies. “All the book sellers gave us very good reduction. Otherwise it would have cost more than one lakh (100,000) rupees,” she added.
Last year being the Year of Mercy, the religious had collected 98,000 rupees and got released 60 prisoners, added Sr. Annies. “We worked very hard for that. It was an act of mercy,” she explained.
Many prisoners languished in the jail because they could not pay even the two hundred rupees as required, she explained. Even many non-Christian shop-keepers contributed generously, she added.
The religious have taken up the prison ministry three years back, after the arrival of the favourable Tigga. He had served in all the five prisons of Chhattisgarh for two terms each, including Bilaspur. But the religious are not allowed regular visits.
The prisoners are visited by many non-government organizations (NGOs) like the Lions’ Club, Rotary Club and the Brahma Kumaris, who came to tie rakies on Rakshabandan festival day, explained Tigga.
On Christmas evening the church personnel visit the prison and offer Mass and sing carols. “The prisoners make beautiful cribs and decorate everywhere. They sing and dance,” said Sister Kusum, the unit’s secretary.
On Good Friday they visit the prison, wash 12 prisoners’ feet and conduct the Way of the Cross. The prisoners include 56 Christians.
They celebrate the Women’s Day too.
The prison opened in 1873, houses 3,414 prisoners, including 230 women. And it also houses their 40 children. The religious visit the juvenile home on other dates.
Enumerating the gospel story of the woman caught in adultery, when the state prison ministry coordinator Jesuit Father Arvind Vinay Tirkey said that Jesus forgave that woman saying, “I too don’t condemn you. Do not sin again,” there was thunderous clap from the prisoners.
The Prison Ministry of India (PMI) was started in 1986 in Kottayam, Kerala, to bring justice, release, improvement, and rehabilitation of the prisoners. India has 1,397 prisons and PMI’s nearly 7000 volunteers serve them with counseling, medical camps, imparting legal aid, technical training, coaching classes, beside helping them with cultural programs.