Sr Mary O’Shannassy SGS OAM has been walking alongside men and women ‘as a messenger of compassion and hope’ in Victoria’s prisons for the past 27 years. She says it’s a ‘great privilege’ and in May of this year, Sr Mary was conferred with an honorary doctorate from Australian Catholic University in recognition of her service and leadership in chaplaincy for all prisoners in Victoria.

For two decades, Mary has managed Catholic Prison Ministry at CatholicCare, coordinating more than 10 chaplain volunteers, 70 support volunteers and the equivalent of six full-time paid staff, all of whom offer support and friendship to the growing number of residents in Victoria’s 16 prisons.

‘Contrary to popular belief and what they tell you in the movies, on television or in the newspapers, prison is about people,’ says Sr Mary. ‘From the outside you might see buildings and wire fences, or the bars and frames, but once you’re inside the walls, you just see the people. And each of those people is a unique human being.

‘So the role of chaplain is essentially to build a relationship and to engender hope in the lives of these people. As messengers of hope, even those in prison should feel accepted as people who have dignity. It’s really important that they understand that they have dignity as a person.’

Sr Mary acknowledges it can be difficult to recognise this inherent truth, particularly when the Victorian Government, fuelled by the media and a community ‘gripped with fear’, insists on taking ‘a tough stance on crime’.

‘Some of the people in prison have committed atrocious crimes and are professional criminals and I don’t for one minute minimise that,’ she says. ‘The majority of them need to, and do, address their offending behaviours, which is something that we as chaplains can help them to do as well’.

‘But so many of the people I meet in prison have come from broken lives—they’re broken people. Many have experienced sexual, psychological, emotional or physical abuse and have turned to drugs as a way of coping with the difficulties in life, which often leads to crime. They lack so many of the skills that many of us take for granted.’

CatholicCare Executive Director Netty Horton echoes Sr Mary’s sentiments. She says that in Australia, incarceration is inextricably linked to societal disadvantage. ‘Compared to the overall population, Victoria’s prisoners are disproportionately poor, Indigenous, mentally ill or with acquired brain injuries, poorly educated, have histories of trauma and abuse, and problems with substance abuse. They come from, and return to, Victoria’s most disadvantaged postcodes. One in three were homeless in the month before they were imprisoned and one in three are released into homelessness.’

Netty says placing people in prison doesn’t just harm the incarcerated individuals. ‘There are profound, ongoing negative impacts for offenders’ families, including children,’ she says. ‘Parental incarceration is one of the strongest predictors for negative child outcomes, and contributes to the creation of an intergenerational cycle of disadvantage for our society’s most vulnerable.’

It is for these reasons CatholicCare has a chaplain in every prison in Victoria. It is ‘a Gospel imperative’ says Sr Mary who reinforces the role of chaplain as being a ‘messenger of hope and minister of Christ’s mercy’.

‘God’s great love and care and forgiveness are mind blowing for many of these people,’ she says.

Sr Mary shares a story that left a deep impression on her heart: ‘after Mass one day in a high security prison, a fellow by the name of Robert came up to me. In the Mass I had quoted Pope Francis’ words: “God’s mercy is greater than any sin we can commit.” He came up to me and asked, “Will you say those words for me again?” So I repeated them for him. He sat down and I sat down beside him. He was silent as he thought about it. Then he asked, “Will you say that again for me, Mary?” So I repeated it. We just continued to sit there in silence. Then he got up, shook my hand and said, “Thank you” and went away. That was a very significant moment in that man’s life.’

Sr Mary remembers another story that touched her heart: ‘It was my first Holy Week spent in a prison. I was with a group of 80 men, many covered in tattoos and sporting long beards and hair—no doubt for self preservation reasons! During the Good Friday reflection, at the time of adoring the cross, the men were so silent and respectful. And as they went away, they took copies of the readings so they could reflect on them more deeply. They found great hope in Jesus’ words to the criminal on the cross: “This day you will be with me in paradise.” It really means a lot to them.’

Sr Mary says it is moments like these, and the many surprising encounters that she has with the residents in prison, which remind her that this is ‘sacred’ work. ‘Our role is to walk alongside these people and to listen to them respectfully. In fact, I think listening is one of the greatest skills that we can give to one another,’ she says. ‘The relationship and trust that develops can lead to deep sharing, which is such a privilege. It’s sacred sharing.

‘People in prison often have a low sense of self-worth and self-esteem, which is reinforced by what they read in the media, so they often ask: “Miss, why do you keep coming back?” We keep coming back because we see and believe in the dignity of each individual. We want them to understand that they’re worthwhile people; that they’re not their behaviour. They’re not their offenses. They’re a person in their own right. Our aim is to enable them to find that goodness that’s within them and to grow in acceptance of that.’

Sr Mary shares a story about the symbol of Catholic Prison Ministry, which is a stone. ‘It’s sharp and jagged on the outside, but when it’s broken open, it has all of this precious stone on the inside,’ she says. ‘And what we aim to do in our ministry is to enable those people to come to understand and see the goodness that’s within them. We can see it, but we need to enable them to find that goodness within themselves so that they can appreciate the person they are, and so that they can come to respect the person they are, and then they’ll respect other people as well.’

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The past two years have been particularly challenging for Sr Mary and her team who have been unable to visit residents at the prisons during COVID restrictions. While they have maintained connections with residents through video conferencing, telephone calls and written messages, they feel the pain of residents who have been deprived of family visits, support and education services, and religious services.

‘When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you get to know a lot of people,’ Sr Mary says. ‘It really is a privilege to be able to journey with these people, and to encourage them to grow and to eventually move on.’

When it is time for residents to move on, family support is one of the strongest determining factors for good re-entry outcomes. Netty says, ‘CatholicCare believes if families and their communities are assisted to navigate the prison and post-release environment, this will allow for a smoother transition for re-entry. And if families are supported during this critical time, prisoners are less likely to reoffend.’

‘We’re there for these people during their time in prison, and we’re there for them when they get out,’ says Sr Mary. ‘We offer encouragement for them to address the behaviour that’s brought them to prison so that they can have the courage to move on with belief in themselves as worthwhile people.’

Drawing upon the rich experience and knowledge of chaplains like Sr Mary O’Shannassy and many others who have walked alongside men and women in prison, CatholicCare Victoria aims to extend its support for residents leaving prison, and for their families and communities.

This article has been adapted from an interview that was originally published in Melbourne Catholic magazine (2019). Images by Fiona Basile.

This weekend (7 November), we mark Prison Sunday as an opportunity to acknowledge the work of those in prison ministry. Please consider supporting the important work of Sr Mary and the pastoral care team by making a donation to the CatholicCare Victoria Chaplaincy Appeal.

To mark Prison Sunday (7 November), the Bishops Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service has prepared the following liturgical resources for those involved in prison ministry or for communities who wish to pray for the important work of prison ministry: