by MICHAEL OTTO
Imagine two large hands struggling to tie a bow made of ribbon. Picture other large hands, some with tattoos, trying to do the same thing. They are not getting very far.
The scene is a room at the Auckland South Corrections Facility in Wiri. The hands belong to prisoners.
Then a young voice makes a suggestion.
Hold your pinky fingers in the air, the voice says. The words come from a young man called Geoff Siale.
So the men do what Geoff suggests — and young volunteers like him tie the bows for them. The bows will be part of Christmas cards that the prisoners have been making to send to their children, families and friends.
The young volunteers were in the prison for a day in November as part of an initiative of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, helped by Auckland Catholic Youth Ministry.
SVDP Kingsland operations manager Del Soti said the young people were understandably nervous before going into the prison, despite having had several inductions.
It is one thing to hear all the facts and figures about prison and prisoners. It is another to be sitting across from a gang member trying to assemble a star, Ms Soti said.
Nonetheless, at a later debrief, many of the young volunteers revealed they were shocked at how “normal” the prisoners seemed.
“They said it was like my brother, it was like my dad,” Ms Soti said.
One young volunteer met a prisoner who is related to him.
But many of the volunteers were keen to be involved in further prison initiatives. More card-making visits to the Wiri facility were planned for December.
Ms Soti acknowledged there are potential tensions with such activities. “What happens in any prison, when you go in with a group and [prisoners] know there are going to be activities, because they are quite scarce, everyone wants to go,” she said.
“So then it causes tension in there.”
During the late November visit at Wiri, nine young people went into the prison, and they worked with about 120 men. There were between 15 and 50 men in any one “session”, which typically lasted 20 minutes to half an hour.
As predicted, the “sessions” proved popular.
Ms Soti was told: “The news has gone across the prison, you know there are 900 guys there, you need to come back and you need to come back before Christmas.”
The volunteers were using Christmas card kits designed by Vinnies youth.
A call out for help to put 2000 kits together was made on social media. This plea drew an enthusiastic response.
Students from Marist College, St Mary’s College, St Therese’s parish Three Kings, an Auckland Catholic Youth Ministry group, St Mary’s parish in Mt Albert, Young Vinnies, Holy Cross Henderson, St Mary’s Avondale, Our Lady of Lourdes Glen Eden and tertiary students all pitched in to help.
By early December, 1100 kits had been assembled.
Prison guidelines had to be followed, so things like sharp objects were excluded.
The initiative came after SVDP asked Ms Soti to find ways to involve more young people in the prison ministry work the society has been doing for decades.
Faithful SVDP volunteers are still working well in prisons, but their numbers are dwindling.
Young people had already been involved in music at liturgies in prisons, but chaplains asked if more could be done.
So SVDP in Auckland liaised with Bernadette Pereira from the Wiri facility about what possibilities might exist.
She suggested a hands-on approach, as many of the prisoners were not great conversationalists.
A trial last year making Christmas cards proved successful. So this year, Auckland Catholic Youth Ministry sent a call out to parishes for volunteers for similar work.
SVDP is also supporting a wider group of young people called “Psalm 69:33 Ministry”, which has been formed to learn about, support and carry out ongoing prison ministry work.
Beyond this, Ms Soti said, a theme stressed in SVDP school programmes is “exclusion”.
Poverty is more than a lack of material goods; it is also about exclusion, she said.
Learning about prisons and prisoners is part of this.
School students have found out about the high rates of mental health issues among prisoners, the fact that many come from poorer backgrounds, the fact that many are Maori.
“So in the end, [we] are sending [our] sick and [our] poor, as well as a lot of the indigenous … to prison,” Ms Soti said.
School students learn, do research and help provide resources for prisoners and families.
But once students leave school, it was felt that another step needed to be taken.
That involves somehow having face to face contact with prisoners, in order to help them, and that is what the SVDP is keen to encourage.
Ms Soti said such activities are in line with the Fit for Mission Auckland diocese pastoral plan. It is also about faith formation for the young volunteers, building connections and living out the Gospel.
“But it is also about understanding that [volunteers] have a huge gift to receive from this experience,” Ms Soti said.
Plans have been made to run a similar “craft” exercise at the Auckland City Mission. And related projects are being planned at a caravan park in west Auckland and at local emergency shelters.