Our prisons are part of the justice system, where the guilty atone for their crimes. But can they also be places where people discover mercy?
Margaret Wiseman, the chaplain at Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre, has a reassuring presence.
A grandmother of five, Margaret has worked in prisons for 20 years. For one afternoon I am in her world, crossing the threshold she crosses every morning to be with the isolated, the forgotten, the guilty.
‘Mercy is compassion. It is a transforming reality. I tell them over and over that God loves them’, she tells me. ‘None of us are our mistakes, we are God’s beloved.’
The air outside is hot and still, and there are iron fences around the glaring cement compound. Twisted razor wire claws into an otherwise blue sky. A row of red and white rose bushes follows the fence line, belying the harsh environment they grow in. It is only 2pm but the inmates are already locked in their cells for the evening.
She has taken me through an eerily vacant courtyard to a small, cream-coloured demountable with tinted windows and a wooden cross. The word ‘chapel’ is painted on the heavily padlocked door, which she unlocks to reveal a cool, air-conditioned room with deep blue carpet. It has a kitchenette to one side and a glass walled office on the other. The walls are dotted with paintings including the Last Supper and Jesus the Good Shepherd. An altar with fresh flowers stands discretely in the corner.
We are sat at a small circular table and Margaret wears a white, summer dress with matching necklace and earrings, the only person I have seen without a uniform. Its normality is disrupted by a black belt holding keys and a hefty security alarm.
I am curious to know why someone would choose to work in this confronting place.
‘Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve always had a concern for the underdog’, Margaret says. ‘I would always wonder how people in prison coped with being so separated, so isolated. I would think about the inner turmoil they must go through.
‘When I was around 40, I had a deep sense that there must be something more, and I was open to what that might be.
‘Now, I minister to the guilty. The nature of mercy is to stand up for those who have done wrong. There is no place where the grace of God cannot penetrate.’
She points out that the chapel is located in the very centre of the prison. Here is mercy in the heart of justice, an oasis for healing in a place of punishment.
Margaret’s office has a black bookshelf with a long row of Good News Bibles, and a large pinboard that takes up an entire wall. A picture of a newborn baby hangs in the bottom right corner.
‘That’s my latest godson’, she tells me fondly, ‘his mother is a woman here.’
Margaret’s eyes sadden momentarily. ‘You see’, she says, ‘people have an image of what prisoners are like. The way the media talk about them, the oppressive negativity. But when volunteers come with me into this place and stand right in front of them, they realise: my goodness – they’re just like us!
‘I don’t defend their actions, but I advocate for them. They have no one else.’
As a prison chaplain, Margaret says she is called upon to be a confidante, an advocate, friend, facilitator or just a good listener. ‘I stand with them, in solidarity, being with them and listening to them.’
Margaret has been at Silverwater since 2000 and is a spiritual director for the inmates and staff, as well as supporting the families of those inside. They run a variety of programs, including Christian meditation, retreats in daily life, and a grief and loss program. There are 260 women at Silverwater. Around 60 or 70 are involved.
‘They have a sense of God,’ she says, ‘but they struggle to believe that God loves them. We are called to show mercy, but only God can create harmony from difference, or change water into wine.’
I asked her whether transformations happen. ‘They do, but it is a long process’, she says.
There is one woman in the prison serving a life sentence who Margaret has been working with for around 18 years.
‘When she first came, she couldn’t look you in the face. Slowly, through meditation, through becoming aware of the present, she met God. She has forgiven people in her life who have hurt her badly and asked forgiveness for her own mistakes – but the hardest of all these was forgiving herself. But she has definitely changed – she’s a different woman’, says Margaret.
‘People come for all different reasons: for the company, in search of peace, or just biscuits. I don’t mind. If I can just give God that chance, I am delighted. I let the Holy Spirit do what only it can do. It’s about letting God be God.’
She looks at me with a satisfied smile: ‘Some women say they have never felt freer.’
Jemimah McMurray is a member of our young writers community.
Reflection questions and activities for 'Mercy in the heart of justice'