The coronavirus crisis isn’t just sanitary and economic. It also attacks indirectly groups with certain social vulnerabilities, where it causes psychological and spiritual imbalances. Unfortunately, it’s the case that prisoners are living these days. In the Archdiocese of Madrid, the epicentre of the coronavirus infection in Spain, the Penitentiary Pastoral Ministry, whose delegate is Maria Yela, accompanies the inmates of three centers: Soto del Real, Victoria Kent, with some family projects in Navalcarnero.
Another Type of Ailments
Yela, thoroughly knowledgeable of this very delicate situation, described to Zenit how they are feeling. “If for everyone it was at the beginning a sensation of ‘unreality,’ living it with uncertainty, we feel vulnerable and it seems that the world has stopped, imagine how it is for them, that even if they have wounded and are judged and sentenced, they are human beings, who live in a small cell with many people, with a population that is quite vulnerable, which has another type of ailments, and many persons are living together in a small module.”
Even so, the delegate pointed out that solidarity has also been established in penitentiary centers. “Tremendous gestures of companionship are being witnessed in prisons. Some of the inmates have also written letters of support to the officers.”
For instance, in Aranjuez the prisoners “have written” the Directress of the center, asking for “care materials for the officers,” concerned that they have physical care “and all the rest so that they are not infected,” said the Madrid volunteer.
The Pope’s Concern
Everyone knows the Pope’s predilection for prisoners, who in the last years has washed the feet of inmates of Rome. Moreover, he visited several prisons during his recent trips to the United States, Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, and Panama, among others.
In fact, given the pandemic, the Pontiff has appealed to the competent authorities to address the problem of overpopulation in prisons and to take the necessary measures “to avoid future tragedies.”
He has done so on several occasions, including last March 19, during the Eucharistic Celebration in Saint Martha’s Chapel and at the end of the Angelus prayer, on Sunday, March 29.
“Write a Letter to a Prisoner’
The objective of the initiative “Write a Letter to a Prisoner,” is to reach all those inmates that these days hardly have contact with the outside, as volunteer Alfonso Vargas explained to the weekly Alpha y Omega.
All those that feel called to write to a prisoner can do so at the same address or by e-mail at email@example.com, “and we will take charge of putting them in touch,” said Alfonso.
“There is an army of volunteers that want to write letters to inmates, and there is a multitude of prisoners who would love to receive those letters,” said Alfonso Vargas, a volunteer of the Penitentiary Pastoral Ministry, who is driving the initiative “Write a Letter to a Prisoner,” to put an inmate in contact with the outside world, given that forced confinement is accentuated in the case of the prison population.
Here is a translation of Zenit’s interview with Maria Yela, delegate of the Penitentiary Pastoral Ministry of Madrid.
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–Q: How are the inmates of Madrid’s prisons living this situation psychologically and spiritually?
–Yela: If in the beginning, it was a sensation of “unreality” for all, living it as we are with uncertainty, feeling ourselves vulnerable and thinking that the world has stopped, imagine how it is for them who, although they have wounded people and have been judged and sentenced, they are human beings, who live in a small cell with many people, with a population that is quite vulnerable, who have other sorts of ailments and many persons are coexisting together in a small module.
How are they living that sensation of fear, which we all live deep down, but which is, <perhaps>, an adaptive fear, a logical fear? However, that sensation of defencelessness no matter what we do, as we cannot change the situation — the contradictions, the anxiety we are witnessing every day . . . In short, if we want to go to the fridge at 2 o’clock in the morning, if we can’t sleep, we can drink a glass of milk. We can call someone on the phone and receive messages. Sometimes we are saturated, including with those things, but they, <the prisoners>, don’t have mobile phones. So they are living in fear; they are living with the privation of relatives’ visits and of the prison’s volunteers, because since these visits have been suspended, both of families as well as of those of us that go to them from outside for workshops, to accompany them, to listen to them . . . The truth is that they notice it, they comment on it, they feel much more lost, much more alone.
So they have organized many activities in their daily routine to give meaning to their time in prison, including sleeping, eating, doing sports, working, writing . . . they do many of those activities in groups that, for the time being, have stopped as several persons can’t be together. Therefore, it’s a much harder time of routine, much more difficult, and they miss us. The fact that they can hear the radio or watch television helps them a lot.
–Q: Since the suspension of visits of volunteers, chaplains, relatives, the Penitentiary Pastoral Ministry has started the initiative “Write a Letter to a Prisoner.” What other initiatives are there to accompany the prisoners?
–Yela: The institution has suspended those visits so that there won’t be too many people among the prisoners; instead, they have increased telephone contacts with people outside. And for those inmates that don’t have money to make those calls, they are allowing them to make them be comforted by their families, etc.
As volunteers and chaplains can’t go in, we do a program through radio, especially Father Carod’s “Freedom for the Captives,” who is a Barcelona chaplain; we speak for them and then they have the initiative of letters and phone calls, especially. In the “Victoria Kent” center, as they are in the lower category of prisoners and have been given telematics during this stage, what we do through calls is to respond to their needs, their anxieties, their questions . . . and calls to their families, which are also worried and they are attended to; it serves them as a bridge. We also try to have volunteers engage in follow-ups because deep down they are sad that they cannot have at this time, when they so need it, persons next to them that they have chosen to bring them the Word of God, to give them hope <and> to accompany them. We all work at bringing hope to all, because we are <living> very harsh moments, and we have already seen how some people are dying.
–Q: What are the protocols for persons infected in the prisons?
–Yela: People have been infected in the prisons because some came who had permissions or were in contact with <their> families in periods of incubation, which none of us knew we had, it has also happened to us on the street, <and> this is a reflection of the outside. Then, those that are infected are isolated and appropriate installations are set up with pertinent health measures, as in a hospital and other <institutions>. Concretely, a woman has already died in Estremera; however, if the inmates get sick, they go to outside hospitals, and they are looked after there as anyone else, but with police vigilance if necessary, but cared for also in hospitals. Because, at bottom, what we hope to do in this very harsh <and> difficult stage is that it affects us as little as possible. There are many infected people; however, I would say we are all affected by this tragedy that is happening to us.
Being lived in the prison also are tremendous gestures of companionship. Some of the inmates have written letters of support to officers. For instance, in Aranjuez, they have written to the Directress and have requested protective material and other types of physical care for the officers so that they are not infected as well as for themselves. There have been some very moving letters; they are also receiving support from outside and letters from anonymous people who are expressing their care for them.
–Q: In some countries, such as Colombia and Argentina, there have been riots in prisons, including deaths. Some inmates escaped in Brazil… What work is being done in Spanish prisons to relax the tension between inmates? Is the option being studied of granting prisoners, extraordinarily, house arrest with monitor bracelets?
–Yela: What they are trying to do is to avoid riots and flights, as has happened in other counties around us at this time because impulsiveness is on the surface and, very difficult moments are being lived and it’s very complicated for us to adjust psychologically. With the lowest category of prisoners, we have been able to give them special telematic monitored permissions, so that they can be in their homes and all that facilitates their not coming in and out. What we are trying to do is to have them understand the scope of all this, and that in some way they can take up their responsibility and find some communal meaning to all this tragedy that we are all living.
I believe that in some way, our having to be responsible for our lives, be it inside a prison or outside — those of us that live outside are seeing how hard it is to be there – will make us value every day, every day, how pleasant it was, we didn’t know it, we hadn’t discovered it, to be able to take a bus to see a friend, to see a relative, etc. May this new learning root itself in us, and I know that both those outside, as well as those inside, are going to come out of this experience, but <I think> we will also come out, in some way, with a certain post-traumatic stress, but with the experience that we have been able to cope with it and have contributed to put a stop to it; that we are human beings in constant change; that inmates know that they are not alone, that they are part of our community, that they are our brothers and that they deserve our remembering them and our praying for them also.
Translation by Virginia M. Forrester