by Gaby Maniscalco
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — An already difficult life inside a prison can become even more challenging for those who are from a minority community, which is why an international association of prison chaplains has come together to discuss needed approaches.
The European branch of the International Prison Chaplains Association (IPCA) was meeting in Rome Feb. 29 to March 3 to look at the isolation, discrimination and lack of resources that religious, ethnic or other minorities may face in the prison system.
While one of the means of survival for people in prison is to find common ground with those who have similar backgrounds and experiences, minorities can find themselves at a disadvantage, said the Rev. Bill Cave, a prison chaplain and vice-chairman of IPCA-Europe.
Prison life tends to be marked by power struggles, bullying and the formation of gangs so “if you are in prison and you find yourself in a minority group, then life can be very lonely indeed,” he told Vatican Radio Feb. 26.
Minorities may feel isolated because “there is little support from the custodial authorities, there can be challenging behavior from other people in detention and perhaps the resources of your own community, whether it is faith or culture or ethnic or national background, could also be very stretched indeed in being able to give you support while you’re in custody,” he said.
He said the association does not have any easy answers to the problems facing minorities, but the conference in Rome would give people from other countries the chance to reach out to people involved in prison ministry in Italy and discuss the challenges.
Although the IPCA was originally an association for Protestant prison chaplains, it quickly expanded to include Catholics and Orthodox, the Rev. Cave said.
While it remains a Christian organization, it underlines the importance of hospitality and welcomes people of other faiths so “we set a good example by cooperative work together in prisons,” he said.
Rev. Cave reflected on Pope Francis’ call to Catholics to be more merciful toward others, especially during the Year of Mercy.
He said one thing he has learned from ministering to prisoners and immigrants in detention is how difficult it is for people who are “dispossessed” to become a person of compassion themselves.
“This is really where I think Pope Francis’ challenge to the church, not only to begin to understand God’s mercy for yourself, but to become people and institutions of merciful attitudes to others,” is centered, he said. “I think this is where the power and the challenge of the Year of Mercy comes.”