The prison is a closed world par excellence. However, by the time, some jails have become more friendly places and even places where meeting is possible: it is so because those jails have been regularly visited by members and voluntary workers of the Community of Sant’Egidio.
There is an evangelical basis for that. Jesus identifies himself with the prisoner. ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’ (Matthew 25: 35-36).
Moreover, most of those who end up in jail are poor people. Many detainees are people in need, foreigners, people with drug dependence, women and men who experience various kinds of discomfort. Some of them used to go to the Community’s soup kitchens and welcome centres, or they were met on the street by the members of the Community. Thus, visiting them in jail is a way to carry on with the closeness and assistance towards them, even if they might have gone wrong, sometimes seriously wrong. As Lorenzo Milano said: ‘Who is not able to love a poor while he goes wrong does not love him at all’. Visiting them in jail is our refusal of their isolation and marginalisation.
The voluntary workers of the Community represent for the prisoners the extramural world entering the gates of structures that allow very little to filter inside from the outside. The visit creates a precious bond. It is an irreplaceable link with the world.
The characteristics of Sant’Egidio’s intervention in the jails are attitude of listening, will of making friends with the prisoners, faithfulness while the time is passing. Standing by the convicts means to accompany someone who is living troubling times. If they do not receive answers or they are not listened to, they might be driven to extreme acts. Those who are sentenced to imprisonment have been pushed away from society. They can only speak to relatives, lawyers, magistrates. When they can speak to someone else it is like to be recognised as persons, regain their dignity, feel again respect for themselves and for the others. Which is to be on the way of reintegration. So, the visits take on a great importance, especially for those who have no relations. Anyhow, the presence of people foreign to the institution positively conditions the environment of the convicts: it’s a circulation of a less stale and more serene air.
Sometimes a face-to-face meeting is not possible. But yet, letters can be exchanged. In the last years a number of members of the Community started correspondences with prisoners in different parts of the world. Correspondence is an important aspect of the life of the detainees. It represents a sort of freedom of thought, a free expression of the feelings, which helps them remain human.
In addition to the visits and the correspondence the Community of Sant’Egidio arranges distributions of food and clothes, mattresses and material to improve hygiene, particularly in the South of the world. Besides, psychological and moral support is provided, along with information about the prisoners’ rights, advice about the laws, cultural mediation for the foreign detainees. Distribution of books and dictionaries, celebration and socialisation events are also arranged. Catechesis and religious meetings are offered to those who are willing to enjoy them