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No place for angels

Security is much tighter these days at the state prison in Shirley. Not even a guardian angel can slip through the cell bars.


Four months after Joseph L. Druce sneaked into the cell of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan and strangled the convicted child molester, little gets past the guards and the 366 cameras monitoring the 1,000 inmates at the maximum-security prison.

In her Christmas card to a former student, incarcerated for murder, Sister Ellen Powers enclosed a prayer card with a tiny tin angel encased in the lamination. Prison administrators at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center sent it back, with a notice that prisoners are not permitted to receive "contraband."

"Contraband. What did they think he was going to do, use the angel as a weapon?" asks the incredulous Sister of Saint Joseph. "It's no bigger than a baby's thumbnail!"

Sister Ellen had been pleased to find so perfect a gift for Justin Holmes, the 32-year-old convicted killer she has known since he was a disruptive 14-year-old freshman at North Cambridge Catholic High School, where she is the principal.

He was so defiant a teenager that she and Sister Lorraine McLaughlin, then vice principal, made the difficult decision to expel him for the sake of their other students.

Neither woman ever gave up on Holmes, however. When he was arrested at age 18 in June 1989 in the stabbing death of a young man during a drunken brawl, they prayed for him.

When he was convicted of second-degree murder for the slaying of 19-year-old Juan Andreas Dresp four months later, they began a correspondence that, for Sister Ellen, continues to this day.

In 1997, after Sister Lorraine's death, Holmes wrote to Sister Ellen about the nun's impact on his life.

"I was given a lot more chances at NCC than I deserved, and she was always there to try and show me the right way," he wrote. "I may not have listened at the time, unfortunately, but in thinking back along my life, which I have plenty of time to do, I have learned a lesson or two. Sr. Lorraine will be a Guardian Angel for me."

Last spring, Holmes was transferred to Shirley. His letters to Sister Ellen since have been full of excitement about the range of therapeutic and educational programs available and his hopes for parole.

In August, he wrote of "the terrible killing of Father Geoghan," telling Sister Ellen that inmates were "locked in for a day and I said a prayer for him, his victims and the kid who did it. It's sad all around."

The prayer card, with its tin angel, "was my way of telling Justin that someone was watching out for him in there," says Sister Ellen, a gesture he acknowledged in a recent letter.

"I do want to thank you for sending it," he wrote. "I didn't get to see it but I am sure it was beautiful, as is its message. I would have liked to get it as Sr. Lorraine is my Guardian Angel and the angel on the card would have reminded me of her."

Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the Department of Correction, says that she can understand Sister Ellen's frustration, but that prison officials need to exercise caution that might appear excessive to an outsider.

"Lamination is not allowed because drugs can be smuggled inside the folds," she says. "You would be amazed at what can be turned into a weapon. We have a vendor who sells religious articles to inmates. They are not authorized to have charms not purchased through the prison."

Holmes is more sanguine than Sister Ellen about prison and its rules.

"I look at this as the first step to a new beginning," he wrote to her when he was transferred to Shirley. "I know it's hard for you to understand the goings on in here.

"It's a society that no one could ever understand unless they experienced it and, even then, some don't understand."

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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