An Irish citizen who finds himself/herself in prison in a foreign country can be in the most isolated, marginalised and vulnerable of situations. They may face a range of difficulties including unfamiliar legal system, restrictions on communication, language barriers, unfamiliar food and culture, few (if any) friends in the country, not many visitors, distance from their family, and lack of information and news from Ireland.
As part of its pastoral care the Irish Chaplaincy Paris has a ministry to visit and be in contact with Irish prisoners in Northern France and sometimes in Belgium and the Netherlands. Under the aegis of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) established by the Irish Bishops’ Conference in 1985, the Irish Chaplain Fr Sean Maher visits a number of Irish prisoners three or four times a year. Listening, solidarity and continuity are the three pillars to this pastoral response, says Fr Sean.
“During a visit, listening is key,” continues Fr Sean. “As one of the few people who might be able to chat in English, this is a special and a very privileged moment. There may not be a need to respond. Frustrations may come out, but, on the whole, the client probably just wants to chat and to have someone who can listen and understand what is being said.”
Fr Sean says there is a sense of solidarity during visits as all visitors are locked up together in a room while prisoners are searched. “Everyone knows it will only last for a few minutes, but we are still locked up with strangers, without anything in our pockets, with passports in the care of the guards.”
A third pillar is continuity stresses Fr Sean: “One visit is great, but it is important to keep up some contact afterward. Letters seem to be out of fashion now, but this often is the best way to keep up spirits and offer a continued solidarity with the prisoner.”
Along with visits and writing letters, bringing some news or reminders from Ireland is of great comfort for the Irish people in prisons. These can be in the form of Irish national and local newspapers, food, books and clothes.
The ICPO operates a popular Pen Friend Scheme where you can write regular letters to prisoners in France and other countries. At any one time there are 800 Irish citizens in prisons around the world. To find out more information about this scheme get in touch with the ICPO by emailing our contact Kate Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org. View a video and get more details by visiting the ICPO section of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ website.
You can also read about the Prison Visits Ministry in an article written by Fr Sean published in the Intercom Magazine, November 2012