By Santosh Digal
Manila, October 23, 2019: Sister Jane Agnes Singh is a volunteer of the Prison Ministry of India, an office under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
The member of the Sister Jane Agnes Singh’s North-East India and Nepal province, joined the ministry after being a teacher for 15 years in various schools. Teaching, in fact, runs in the family as her father, siblings are also in the profession.
The prison ministry volunteers commit to work for the release, renewal, and rehabilitation of people behind bars.
Santosh Digal, Manila-based special correspondent of Matters India, conducted an email interview with Sister Singh about her work as a prison ministry volunteer in Bengaluru, capital of Karnataka state.
Please tell us yourself.
I was born at St. Mary’s Hill, Kurseong, District Darjeeling, West Bengal. Kurseong is 32 km from Darjeeling and 47 km from Siliguri and is connected by road and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
Since the city sits at an altitude of 1,458 meters above sea level the climate remains temperate for most of the year. The land of white orchid has tea estates, hills, valleys and the panoramic view of the kanchenjunga mountain, which is breathtaking on a clear day.
I am proud to say that my paternal grandfather was in the British army. He had fought World War II and had reached Bethlehem.
My father Anthony D Singh is a convert to Christianity. He was a primary government school headmaster for years. He also worked at Jesuit’s St. Mary’s College as a typist. My mother, Margaret Benjamin, is a sister to late Bishop Eric Benjamin, the first prelate of Diocese of Darjeeling. I am the eldest in the family followed by two sisters and two brothers. My siblings are all teachers and well settled in life.
I was in-charge of different schools for the last 15 years. Last three years, I was in a formation house assisting the pre-novices of the province.
Why did you opt to work with the Prison Ministry of India?
It was my choice. I had been working in schools for years. For a change, I opted for the periphery ministry as Pope Francis would call it. The provincial was kind enough to give me a leave of absence from the province for a year.
What has been your experience working with prison ministry so far?
I am happy to be part of the PMI team in the National Office, Bengaluru, with the co-founder Father Francis Kodian, (a member of Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament) who is now national coordinator. We are in collaboration with many congregations of priests and religious who work as volunteers. At present, the team has nine members. Prayer, common Eucharistic adoration, individual and fasting is our daily schedule in the national office.
What lessons have you learned from this ministry?
The best lesson I have learned is never to condemn prisoners but to help them to transform their lives, listening to their stories, praying with them. We conduct counseling and visit their families to reconcile them. We also help them get released from jail and rehabilitate them.
Convenience to inconvenience is a guiding principle. God’s providence is our bank balance and begging is our lifestyle. On different occasions on Prison Ministry Sunday, we stood outside churches after Masses for donations and people contribute generously.
We help people behind the bars to transform their lives praying the Word of God and counseling. Our volunteers are mere instruments to bring God’s mercy and forgiveness to them and make them that they are not alone.
What are the challenges people behind the bars experience?
They feel the pain of separation from the family and society. They endure rejection, loneliness, emotional and spiritual brokenness. They go through guilt. Some people are behind the bars for no fault of theirs. They lack money to hire good lawyers to attend hearing and trials. Justice is compromised to them due to many financial and legal constraints.
What more could be done?
We need more volunteers to opt for this noble ministry to reach out to the last, lost and the least. We could be a channel to bridge the gap to reconcile them to their families and they may experience the acceptance by society. To help them experience the mercy of God and change themselves is everyone’s responsibility.
Regular visits help them to have more confidence in us. Lot could be done in skill development to help them earn a living after their release.
What are the challenges people who work with different prisons across India face?
PMI personnel and volunteers feel bureaucratic pressure. Government officials think we are going to convert the prisoners. Our IDs are not renewed every year. They tend to cut down the programs organized by us for the people behind the bars, despite due permission is obtained and all the protocols of safety and security are ensured.
How many volunteers are there now?
As of now, around 5,000 both priests, religious and lay volunteers are working almost in all Indian states. The prison ministry is challenging, but rewarding.
The good news is we managed to get 140 prisoners release before their term just in the second week of October. God will bless them to start a new leaf in their lives as part of restorative justice.