Set the captives free?
Spotlight.Africa's Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya spoke to Fr Jordan Ngondo, a veteran chaplain at the Department of Correctional Services, about his vision of prison ministry. Fr Ngondo says: “I would like to see the churches journeying with the offenders from the day they wear the orange uniform, being there at their parole board, to being reintegrated into their communities and churches”. In the interview Fr Ngondo speaks about life in prison and the role of the church in this ministry.
With the ever rising rate of crime, many people of faith are caught between the real fear and abhorrence of crime and criminals, on the one hand, and asking themselves how they would respond to Christ saying “I was in prison and you didn’t visit me”. Fr Ngondo shares what he thinks after many years of ministering to a wide range of prisioners in South Africa.
SA (Spotlight Africa): In your experience, what do offenders say has brought them to prison?
JN (Jordan Ngondo): They usually say “they say I killed”, etc. and obviously the next question is “What do you say brought you to prison?”… You won't get anything.
The only tool that helped me, and the volunteers that I trained, is an in-depth assessment form in a questionnaire format. This helps us to diagnose and to give therapy. By the time you are done with the offenders you will know exactly what brought them to prison, their level of education, and whether or not they were an active member of a faith based organization before they were incarcerated.
SA: With the levels of crime being where they are, there are many who would like to see offenders ‘rot in jail and the prison keys thrown away'. What do you say to this sentiment?
JN: Offenders are human. We all make mistakes and we want to be given a second chance. Offenders are our brothers and sisters, they come from our neighbourhoods, schools and belong to our Christian communities. Above all, every citizen of this country is a potential candidate of a correctional facility. This reminds me of the two questions the first time I took my ministry online.
“What will you do if your friend lands in prison, will you pay him/her a visit? The answer was a big No. Then the following day I posted another question, what if you yourself land in prison would you like to be visited by your friends, family and your church, guess what the answer was? Yes.
At times we behave like hypocrites when we see offenders as people who have messed up and must rot in prison… [when we think] “Lock them up and throw away the keys!” Pope Francis says people must look at their own sins before they judge others of theirs.
SA: What role, if any do faith communities play in the rehabilitation processes in prisons?
JN: A variety of faith groups are now present in many correctional facilities, each with their own form of religious practice. For many years, throughout the history of prisons and corrections, the clergy have influenced the treatment of offenders. A typical example is Pope Francis who uses Holy Thursdays to highlight the Gospel mandate to visit the offenders, ministering to them, washing their feet and giving them hope. As a gesture, or a token of appreciation, the inmates of San Remo prison in Italy made and gave him a crozier carved in olive wood. He used it for the first time on Palm Sunday in 2014 in St Peter's Square, though it was unfortunately broken during the Pope's later visit to the Holy land.
SA: Does it help in any way that the offender is a person of faith at the time of their incarceration?
JN: The faith of the offender does contribute to the rehabilitation process. There are offenders who were converted while they were incarcerated because of the more than 30 spiritual care programmes. The focus is no longer on preaching only, there are group sessions, and personal interviews with the offenders…
SA: How does the prison ministry handle the gangsterism in prisons?
JN: Gangsterism is dying, as more and more offenders are in programmes. There are opportunities to develop themselves spiritually, vocationally, physically, psychologically, and a lot more are furthering their studies through Unisa, we have well-educated offenders in our facilities with law degrees, PhD's and so on. Big ups to Kairos Prison ministry that was ecumenically started in the Catholic Church. They specifically target gang-leaders in prison.
SA: South Africa has a high rate of repeat offenders. Why is that?
JN: According to Police Minister Bheki Cele, many people who reoffend are on bail, have been rearrested on many occasions or were previously incarcerated. After two or three court dates, they don't even appear in court again because of corruption, their connections and/or bribery.
SA: Are you satisfied by the rehabilitation programmes we have in our prisons?
JN: Rehabilitation is a societal responsibility. The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) cannot do this alone.
SA: Is there any role the church can and should be playing in that regard?
JN: I would like to see the churches journeying with the offenders from the day they wear the orange uniform, being there at their parole board, to being reintegrated into their communities and churches because this is the golden opportunity for the church…if we don't minister to them while they are in custody, the chances of them coming back to the church is 0 out of 100.
SA: What would you say about the church’s prison ministry?
JN: Prison ministry is one of the most neglected ministries of the church. I believe that this ministry must be co-ordinated at the national, diocesan and parish level. Volunteers should be trained and explicitly prepared to go and bring the good news to the captives…
SA: In your experience, how do inmates receive visitors who are not necessarily friends or family?
JN: The prisoners are like the aged in an old age home sitting and peeping through the window looking for a visitor. Offenders appreciate group and family visits. It keeps them going, they feel wanted, loved, missed and appreciate a restoration of their image/low self-esteem.
SA: There are those who say that rehabilitation is futile, and correctional services do nothing to change the outlook of offenders. What is your comment?
JN: Everyone is capable of rehabilitation, but it is difficult to say that all offenders are rehabilitated. The focus in our facilities is rehabilitation. Gone are those days when imprisonment was punishment, brutalisation and hard labour in the scorching heat of the sun.
Fr Ngondo was ordained in 1986, worked in a parish for 9 years. He was detained for a month immediately after former President Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.
He has been in the prison ministry since 1994 when the SA Catholic Bishops Conference was asked to provide full-time chaplains. He started in Barberton, and proceeded to Kroonstad, Zonderwater, Krugersdorp and Leeuwkop in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. He left the prison ministry in 2017 after 22 years of service there. He remains passionate about minstry to prisons.
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