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Prison Ministry In Kerala

Ex-convicts get their lives back on track in India

Father Joy Cheradiyil did not blame Rajesh’s wife, Anu Rajesh, for not wanting her husband back. Their arranged marriage had been a disaster. Rajesh, now 35, was a petty gangster, a thug-for-hire who specialized in extortion and intimidation. He even used to threaten his wife’s family. Then Rajesh was caught and sent to jail, and who could blame Anu for saying good riddance.

But jail might have been the best thing for Rajesh, said the Syro-Malabar Catholic priest who heads a branch of Prison Ministry India in Ernakulum, a city in Kerala. Through the organization, which originated in Kerala in 1986 and has since spread throughout the country, clergy try to rehabilitate prisoners like Rajesh.

“In prison, Rajesh came to regret the way he had lived,” Father Joy said. “We worked with him, offering counseling and guidance.”

Rajesh was released after three years, but the life of an ex-convict in India is as difficult as it is in most places, and perhaps more so. Typically, ex-convicts are shunned by the small communities from which they come. Jobs are hard to come by, especially in Kerala, where the unemployment rate is around 50 percent. But most difficult of all for Rajesh was the rejection by his family, including his two children.

“I went and spoke to his family, and no one wanted him back,” Father Joy said.

Once he got out of jail, Rajesh spent several months at the ministry’s center, Shanti Bhavan, which means Home for Peace, in the small town of Edappally. Here Rajesh received additional counseling and job training, turning farther away from his life of crime.

Finally, Rajesh and Father Joy visited Rajesh’s family. Father Joy spent two hours with his wife. He assured her that Rajesh had indeed changed. This was not just some act to get back into her good graces. Okay, she said, I’ll give him one more chance.

Today, Rajesh and his family live in a rented house. He does laundry for Indian Railways, a job the ministry arranged. They are poor but are saving to buy their own home. The ministry may help out. It has helped purchase about 50 modest homes for ex-convicts, who do not gain control of the title for 10 years to ensure they do not return to crime.

“We are poor, but I’m very happy,” Rajesh said. “Now, I have a life I never dreamed possible.”

Prison Ministry India, also known as Jesus Fraternity, was born from a discussion group of seminarians at St. Thomas Apostolic Seminary in Kottayam, Kerala. There was an obvious need to rehabilitate the nation’s prisoners, prostitutes and beggars. In 1990, the ministry was incorporated into the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference, and soon afterward it established support groups to tend to the needs of prisoners in each of Kerala’s 44 prisons. It also opened support centers specifically designed to help female prisoners, child prisoners and prisoners with H.I.V. Funding comes from local churches, communities and other benefactors, including CNEWA.

In the mid-1990’s, the ministry expanded from Kerala, where Christians are a significant minority, to other parts of the country, where the Christian presence is relatively minimal. But the ministry was never intended to help only Christians, in Kerala or anywhere else (Rajesh is Hindu). Though Hindu and Muslim religious organizations also have prison outreach programs, Prison Ministry India organizers knew more could always be done. In 1996, the ministry established a national office in Bangalore. Its first national conference, inaugurated by Mother Teresa, was held in New Delhi.

Father Joy and his colleagues work with criminals who have committed much worse crimes than Rajesh. Take Francis Joseph for example. After a village political dispute turned ugly, he was convicted of murder and spent eight years in jail. Previously, he had worked six years in Libya as a driver, making a good living. But while he was in prison, Mr. Joseph’s brother took control of his property. Now, after spending several months at Shanti Bhavan, the 46-year-old ex-convict is trying to get his life back on track. He has taken jobs as a cook and day laborer and is working on becoming a professional driver again.

“Father Joy is trying to bring us back to life, gradually, in a systematic way,” said Anwar, a 48-year-old Muslim who spent three months in jail for stealing. “He tries to clear our minds of the past and think only of the future.” Anwar taught English and economics at a high school in Nilamboor, Kerala. But after his students saw him in handcuffs, it is unlikely that he can return to his former job. Currently, he is staying at Shanti Bhavan, one of 10 such centers in Kerala. He works as a night watchman, but is itching to return to the classroom.

At each of the ministry’s centers, there is a mixture of counseling, spiritual renewal and job training. The ministry helps the men find jobs, and once ex-convicts have gotten themselves reestablished, Catholic clergy continue to look in on them and offer support.

It is a difficult job and one that some of his fellow clergymen sometimes resist, Father Joy said. “These criminals are seen as the worst of our society, and that can even put off some of us in the church from wanting to spend too much time with them,” he said. “I have been working in this field for eight years, and I can tell you that the first two or three were hard. To understand these people and live with them is not easy.

“Sometimes we ask seminarians to stay in an ex-prisoner’s home and look after him, which is not an easy thing to do,” Father Joy continued. “But once they come to know these people as people, not as criminals, they see how meaningful the work is and how necessary.”

Finding a job is one thing, finding a wife is something else. In Kerala, as with India as a whole, most marriages are arranged by families. This holds true for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. A single man just out of prison is not a hot prospect to most Indian women, whose families are expected to pay a dowry to the groom’s family. Thus, marriages are difficult to arrange.

Once the staff is satisfied that one of its unmarried clients has reformed, it sometimes approaches one of the church’s many orphanages and sees if a marriage can be arranged. The sisters who run these homes generally help the orphans into their adulthood, helping them find husbands and jobs.

Saju Joseph (no relation to Francis) was involved in petty crime at an early age. His father ran a toddy shop, India’s version of a dive bar, and he grew up around criminals. Mr. Joseph, now 35, used to extort money from local businesses, for which he spent two years in jail. It was time to turn his life around, Mr. Joseph said.

Once he did, the ministry arranged his marriage to Roymol, 31, who grew up in a Catholic orphanage in Kerala. She is well- educated and pretty, but being orphaned meant she could not pay a dowry to a potential husband. Now, the couple live in a three-room concrete home in the small village of Paracode, not far from Ernakulum. He works as a driver and has not strayed back into crime. And soon the church will transfer its stake in the family home to the Josephs. Best of all, the couple have two young children.

The Josephs were delighted when Father Joy paid a visit recently. There was tea and tapioca and laughter all around. “You see, if you touch their hearts then you can get them to change,” Father Joy said.

Based in Wales, photojournalist Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to ONE.

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