Nuns help rebuild people, lives broken by crime

Sr. Wilma Elena Bersabe, joined the team of Servants of the Holy Eucharist nuns, volunteers and Caritas Manila staff who organized Mass and activities for inmates, visitors and staff of the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa City, south of Manila. (N.J. Viehland)

Muntinlupa City, Philippines — The grateful bride chose Sr. Zenaida Cabrera to be her wedding sponsor after the nun and fellow members of Servants of the Holy Eucharist had helped to free her father from prison.

Cabrera told GSR that their work was representative of applying restorative justice, in this case to the life of the bride’s family.

Restorative justice is a method that includes prisoners, their families and a supportive community to help them “experience the transforming presence of Christ in their relationships.”

The nuns help by affirming people’s uniqueness, regardless of their personal history or religious beliefs and culture.

Cabrera is a pioneering head of her group; she pointed out that the Servants of the Holy Eucharist is the only association of pious women in the country solely focused on restorative justice as its charism.

The former school teacher who holds a master’s degree in Educational Management has also been entrusted to develop and coordinate Caritas Manila's Restorative Justice Ministry, which links the archdiocese with five other surrounding dioceses in a network of programs and services to prisoners, their families, communities and correction officials.

The program was not always as broad as it is today. Caritas Manila used to focus solely on the prisoners and their conditions in jail. Little attention was given to inmates’ families or the communities where they live.

"From prison ministry, there was paradigm shift to restorative justice,” Cabrera explained. “We included in our program the correctional community, and the target is to bring inmates back to themselves and their families through their community.”

Where ministry workers used to just bring groups together for prayer service and then give prisoners food, clothing and medicine, they now implement an expanded but integrated pastoral program that includes helping them adjust to life after their release.

Restoring family

The family of bride-to-be Jane Santos (not her real name) heard about the work of Servants of Holy Eucharist several years ago, so she sought the nuns' help with the case of her father: he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes he did not commit.

Working with a pool of lawyers and doing paralegal research the sisters were able to find out how policemen who had molested a student and killed her boyfriend had falsely named Jane Santos' father as mastermind of their crime. The policemen were also imprisoned in the same prison.

"We listened to the Santos relative's story,” Cabrera said. To start the research, they needed his prison number, which his relatives didn’t even know.

When the sisters looked up the case, they were able to see how the slain man's connections in the judiciary and government at that time “had pushed to speed up the ruling."

"We worked it out according to the law, and he was freed. We contacted the family of the victim and they forgave him and realized that he had no hand in the crime," she recounted.

Three daughters of inmates, center, join Servants of the Holy Eucharist sisters, auxiliary and Caritas staff at the Mass with inmates of the maximum security compound of the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa City. (N.J. Viehland)
Sr. Zenaida Cabrera, head of the Servants of the Holy Eucharist and Coordinator of Caritas Manila's Restorative Justice program talks with wardens and other prison officials during a seminar. (Courtesy of Caritas)

Post release

Ex-prisoner Santos and his whole family went through a rough period after his return home.

"He suffered a nervous breakdown, was ill-tempered, always fearful,” Cabrera said. “But his wife who remained faithful, patient and loving throughout his incarceration – and the family –understood what their father had gone through."

The sisters were able to offer his wife shelter at their convent during one of his episodes, which made him angry with them. Later, he apologized to Cabrera.

"We didn't really hold any grudges. We understood that he was undergoing something, after 20 years of being wrongly imprisoned and taken away from his family," Cabrera said.

It was when things were running smoothly in the family that Jane married and asked Cabrera to stand as sponsor. The nun continues to receive updates from the family.

"Restorative justice is a ministry of healing and caregiving that doesn't start and stop in prison," Cabrera stressed.

Redefining ministry’s geographical area and program

Nuns and some 600 volunteers serve in 10 jails in Manila (five for men, five for women) in the Manila archdiocese, as well as 11 precincts and 13 jails in Cubao, northeast of Manila; 10 precincts and 13 jails in Antipolo diocese; and four precincts and the Malabon District Jail for women prisoners in Kalookan diocese.

A precinct has a jail meant for temporary detention, which is not supposed to last more than 36 hours.

"After 36 hours either they're commuted to the jail or they are freed after arraignment, but because we have a slow judicial process others stay longer," Cabrera explained. Detainees need a commitment order from the court to have them brought either to the jail or to ministry paralegals who help reach a settlement.

Four centers in the program area hold youth offenders.

Teams conduct various components of the program in their assigned areas. For example, some volunteers do not necessarily enter jails and prisons, but focus on care of the prisoner's family. They work with parish priests and local police and civic officials. They conduct restorative justice ministry at the parish level and bring food and other supplies to detainees in precincts back-up cells.

Ministry teams also run seminars on Catholic social teaching and restorative justice for police and leaders, helping to explain how their system is working. The goal is showing that each member of the community has importance as a human person, with an invaluable dignity and the right to protection and safety.

For inmates, paralegals help with "sleeping cases" like that of Santos, doing paperwork and research to refer cases to the public attorney’s office or the pool of lawyers at Caritas. Last year, 108 prisoners were freed through this service.

Paralegal assistance is tied with formation programs, however. "They [prisoners] aren't just freed. Doing case work is tedious, and the inmate is required to attend our program that gives classes in catechism, health and livelihood," Cabrera said.

Herbert Colanggo, who was imprisoned for robbery, accepted his Caritas certificate of good conduct and service to community from Sr. Zenaida Cabrera. They are in the music studio of the national penitentiary. (N.J. Viehland)

Some of graduates of the one-year program have become leaders in the national penitentiary.

Former death row inmate Benedicto Ramos serves as president of the parish pastoral council of Mother of Mercy Parish. He told GSR before a Sunday Mass in the compound, "I try my best to serve and be useful because this is like my second life. I was seventh of nine inmates on death row when the death penalty was stopped." He said he had already been discussing with the prison chaplain what he wanted included in his last meal.

That day, some inmates, such as Herbert Colanggo, received certificates of good conduct and service to community from Caritas in appreciation for personal contributions to the prison community. Afterward, Colanggo performed with a band for Cabrera and team of nuns and volunteers at the maximum security compound studio and autographed CD recordings of his music.

"If my family were rich, I wouldn't have a case against me," said the inmate sentenced for robbery. He said in the 1980s he was a server at a southern Philippines restaurant, getting paid 50 pesos (roughly U.S. $1.14 these days) a month. That salary also supported his mother, father and younger sibling. "I prayed that customers would not finish their food so I could bring leftovers home to my family," he told the nuns and prison volunteers.

At graduation rites usually held in December, some 50 to 100 students receive their diplomas and certificates signed by Caritas Executive Director Fr. Anton Pascual for good conduct that helps cut short their prison time. Graduates of the year's program are then given priority for paralegal assistance.

The nuns have arranged for Cardinal Luis Tagle to join this year's graduation rites on Dec. 20.

Freed inmates get help with job hunting through a Caritas employment program or get medical assistance through its health program. Caritas' livelihood activities, including the sale of prisoners' artwork and crafts, as well as scholarships for their children's schooling, are also made available to freed inmates and their families.

Sr. Zenaida Cabrera welcomed Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila on a visit to the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong City, southeast of Manila organized by fellow Servants of the Holy Eucharist nuns and other Caritas Manila Restorative Justice program volunteers with CIW officials in Nov. 2013. (Courtesy of Caritas)
Former military comptroller Carlos Garcia who was convicted for plundering hundreds of million pesos of public funds gives out communion at Sunday’s Mass in the maximum security compound of the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa City, south of Manila, where Garcia is imprisoned. (N.J. Viehland)

Restorative justice and religious vocation

Cabrera told GSR, "All my experiences since I got involved in prison ministry in the 1990s have deepened my commitment and vocation because it's not just serving in prisons and jails. We see lives, we experience, we hear people's joys and sufferings. They are like ‘confessions’ of the lives of each prisoner we encounter," the nun said.

She looks upon her task as a "pilgrimage." "We accompanied them [prisoner and family] through their lowest moments," Cabrera said, lamenting that "many prisoners and families are also victims of poverty."

She told GSR she never thought she would land in prison ministry. "That's why when I was invited to visit the city jail, I had many apprehensions and fears. When I listened to them [prisoners] tell their story and tell us, 'Sister we are very happy that there are nuns willing to give time to us,' that's when I realized we had something to offer them and that's where I saw the way we were doing things before had to be different," Cabrera said.

Under Pascual, Cabrera was given responsibility and "leeway" to try to improve the way things were done. The former principal drew from her experience and training. "We organized the program and activities school-style, so that volunteers don't just go in and out visiting prisons. We pushed to develop volunteers, so that each jail must have a coordinator, and more productive activity than just going in there with a bag of buns. If a volunteer can't teach, he could check attendance, if one knows to treat wounds, he could work in the health service, if one is a mother – give family and life classes. For personhood classes, I drafted some modules that anyone can teach," Cabrera said.

Inmates, relatives and guests join hands while singing the Our Father at the Aug. 31 Sunday Mass organized by Servants of the Holy Eucharist nuns, volunteers and staff of Caritas Manila's Restorative Justice program. (N.J. Viehland)

Caritas eventually presented the completed integrated program and got the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology to agree to a memorandum of agreement for the implementation of its program.

Since her profession as first sister of the group on Oct. 7, 1997, six other nuns have joined, including graduates of courses in computers, a social worker who had worked in the National Housing Authority, a graduate of Religious Education studies and a graduate of public administration.

[N.J. Viehland is an NCR correspondent based in the Philippines.]