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For I have sinned

With guidance from Boston College volunteers, inmates at the state prison in Norfolk find a path from the past to spirituality and 'internal freedom'

A prisoner at MCI-Norfolk participates in a class in which inmates discuss faith and philosophy with volunteers from Boston College. A prisoner at MCI-Norfolk participates in a class in which inmates discuss faith and philosophy with volunteers from Boston College. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)
Email|Print| Text size + By Manny Veiga
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2008

For Christians, the season of Lent is a time to reconcile with God and repent one's sins. Nowhere do the themes of reconciliation, forgiveness, and penance ring truer than at the state prison in Norfolk.

Spanning 35 acres, the medium-security prison is the largest correctional facility in the state, by acreage and by prison population. A 19-foot high, 5,000-foot-long wall surrounds the perimeter, enclosing 1,466 inmates, 80 percent of whom are serving time for violent crimes.

Yet the prisoners in Marina McCoy's discussion group could not seem any less threatening.

McCoy, an assistant professor of philosophy at Boston College, is among a group of BC volunteers who make regular trips to MCI-Norfolk. In the cramped Catholic chaplain's office, she discusses philosophy and theology with eight to 12 inmates at a time.

During one recent session, the men sat on steel folding chairs against concrete walls that are covered with portraits of saints, angels, and scenes from the Bible. There are no orange jumpsuits or prison stripes. They are dressed casually, in jeans or sweats, with crosses hanging from their necks or wrists. Most are middle-aged and look like fathers or uncles, with gray or thinning hair. The atmosphere is casual and welcoming.

One man, Wayne, led the group in a 20-minute prayer session. Each took a frayed Bible from a cardboard box and, in deep voices that resonated in their tight surroundings, chanted hymnals and sang "Amazing Grace."

Over coffee and tea, McCoy and her class discussed Spe Salvi, the encyclical letter of Pope Benedict XVI. One inmate quoted an Emily Dickinson poem about hope. Another, Ritchie, offered his opinion on technology, saying that the elimination of God from modern life is the downfall of progress. Another added that progress is desirous because it focuses on the wish that something better will come, rather than the hope of achieving an expected outcome. The back-and-forth banter had the air of a $600-per-credit college course.

Sister Ruth Raichle, the Catholic chaplain at the prison, said Jesuit priests from BC were first invited to celebrate Mass with prisoners in the late 1980s.

"When we were looking for guest speakers for the different groups that we run, the Jesuits from BC would always find someone very interesting from the faculty or the Jesuit community to come in and share with the inmates," she wrote in an e-mail. "Some get hooked and become volunteers."

At her first visit, McCoy was struck by the prisoners' candor and their ability to discuss their pasts.

"They're very open to reflecting on philosophy, theology, spirituality, and are very authentic and real about themselves," she said.

The Rev. Eduardo Henriques, a Jesuit priest and doctoral student at Boston College, has been making visits since 2004. A native of Brazil who is fluent in Spanish, he says the weekly Mass with a Spanish-speaking prayer group.

"I did not want to be patronizing," he said. "What helped me was that I dealt with Spanish inmates. I speak good Spanish, but it's not my [native] language. So in some ways, they are the experts. I ask them, 'How do you say this?' and they laugh when I make a mistake. That helped me not have a patronizing attitude."

The Rev. Bob Ver Eecke, Jesuit artist in residence at BC, has hosted Sacred Movement workshops with prisoners and noted their eagerness to participate.

"These guys in prison are sometimes freer than people I've worked with outside of prison," he said. "There's an interior freedom for them to express what's inside. With people outside, there's hesitance, like, 'Well, I don't want to make a fool of myself.' So there's a kind of paradox. They're in prison, but they have that internal freedom."

For some, being around "the family they never had" offers them the comfort to express their fears and desires, McCoy said.

"They are comfortable around each other because of their community. It's the first time they were around a place they could call home. They've been together for years, so they're open to speaking about faith, family, internal struggles, and how they've encompassed themselves and God into their community."

Bruce Feiler, a Brooklyn-based religious scholar and author of the book, "Walking the Bible," says that prisoners are able to identify with the stories of hope and oppression in the Bible. "In the Bible, there really is a narrative of hope, and it can be helpful to people who have gotten themselves in a difficult situation."

Outreach programs, Feiler said, "allow people to find their own story in the Bible."

McCoy views her visits as a window into the prisoner's world.

"I don't see what I do as charity. I get to be more of a witness and I get the opportunity to be in this amazing community with people who are profoundly in touch with God and experience struggles with forgiveness."

Many of the men in a religious discussion group led by associate professor John McDargh have been sentenced to life without parole for second-degree murder. He holds discussions about forgiveness and reconciliation, their attempts to come to grips with their crimes, and the certainty that they will never leave. Some are Third Order Catholics, who have adopted disciplined lives similar to that of the clergy.

McDargh remarked that the men in his group are aware that their capacity for compassion goes mostly unnoticed.

"They often feel that what they have is unknown," he said. "If all Catholic parishes had this level of passion, we'd say that's an on-fire parish. They have that. They know what it's like to live in [the] constant control of others, but they aspire to keep their hearts open to each other and" to the people who imprisoned them.

The staff at MCI-Norfolk has been accommodating for the volunteers. After a rigorous search at the gatehouse, visitors are escorted past a large steel door into a high-ceilinged, cement room that looks like an elevator shaft. Once the first door is secured, a steel door on the opposite side opens, revealing a cement path that leads to the administration building. After another check-in, they are escorted to the community service building.

The building looks like the basement of a church. One floor up is a large auditorium, and down the hall, men learn to speak Hebrew by reading from the Torah. Outside are red-brick buildings and an area of cement walkways that might be mistaken for a college campus, if it weren't for the barbed-wire-lined walls just visible around the corner.

While all manner of violent criminals are held at the prison, Henriques has encountered men full of remorse, seeking a chance to rebuild their lives.

"They are adults and they are eager to be treated as adults," he said. "They grab these workshops or programs as opportunities to start over. They say, 'We made mistakes, we are paying the price for them, but we want to become better people.' We're not here to chastise them, or make them pay. We want to help them become reintegrated. I think that's the right way to go as far as penal philosophy. There are two sides of the coin."

In the meantime, the men look toward their precious few hours of prison outreach as a chance to experience freedom, faith, and reconciliation while still behind bars. In McCoy's group, they link hands and pray, in booming voices: "To you, our Lord, I make my prayer for mercy."

Manny Veiga can be contacted at mveiga@globe.com.

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