Bringing light to the 'House of Sorrows'
--The Tidings / December 2006
Photos by Bill Stephens
Men's Central Jail I follow Sister Patricia Geoghegan down a windowless hallway
talking!" sign. Handcuffed high-security inmates led by a Sheriff's deputy
shuffle past. We pass a group of general inmates.
wall! Face the wall!" a passing deputy calls to them.
I follow Sister
Patricia to the Catholic chaplain's office, a Spartan room with old desks, two space heaters,
and a mural of Jesus calming the apostles. A religious literature cart stands
ready to roll. An inmate sits down across from silver-haired 75-year-old Sister
Patricia, who's dressed in a blue turtle neck and long blue skirt.
"What can I
do for you today?" she asks.
"I read the
book you gave me about St. Theresa of Lisieux," says the man, who's
awaiting a possible life sentence. "It touched me."
spoke with you the first time, I was hopeless.
I still worry,
but I'm better."
promises to find him similar books. "Read Psalm 88. It's about a person
who was in the
After she reads
part of it to him, he thanks her and leaves.
She tells me:
"Reading about Theresa, who suffered but kept faith, lifted him up."
Psalm 88, she says, is to read when you're down. She shakes her head: "My frequent
challenge is how do you minister to people trapped by the narrow gang
* * * * *
Patricia's first day at Men's
Central Jail four years ago, a concerned colleague asked at lunch:
Actually, I love relating to these
might have been different if her life had been different. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Beverly Hills, she wanted to
be a nurse. At 20 she felt called to be a Daughter of
Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. So she became a nursing sister with the
Daughters of Charity, who care for the poor. She worked among other things as a psychiatric nurse, nursing school director,
and hospital CEO. She founded and taught at a nursing school in Ecuador, and
helped start poverty hospitals in Angola and Haiti. Returning to L.A., she felt called to
Sheriff's Department Men's Central Jail houses 6,800 men.
This includes many high-security inmates awaiting trial and transfer to prison,
and some serving short sentences. Educational/rehab programs are limited
because inmates are in transit.
and gloomy," she says. "I call it the 'House of Sorrows' because
there's so much pain."
Patricia is one of five Catholic
chaplains here, part of L.A. Archdiocese's Office of Restorative Justice/
Detention Ministry, started in the 1970s to serve Southern California's growing
prison population with specialized chaplains. The Archdiocese provides 23
chaplains for 61 county, state, and federal facilities.
counsels individuals, spending half her time in the office meeting with
inmates, half going to those who
can’t leave their cells, meeting with high-security inmates. "People ask
if I'm afraid. We're at very little risk. Inmates know
while we can't love their crimes, we love them as humans and God's children.
"Our Chaplains have passion for the work, which includes
respect for inmates and deputies alike.
express what they want, and we try to meet their needs, giving comfort, providing reading material, counseling, referring to
appropriate departments or agencies. We don’t always talk about God. But
since their problems relate to the spiritual, we usually get around to that.
"Our purpose isn't to promote our religion, but to
facilitate an encounter with God, if the inmate desires. Many say they can’t
pray. We help."
is a way to connect with God. So I may
say: 'Read this psalm. When you come to a spot that touches you, stop
and let that happen between you and God.
inmates, if you just listen to their story, they tap feelings that help them
find themselves and answers. Most are inveterate
gang members. I try to remember this person was once an
innocent child before 'friends' got
hold of him, and he changed. I pray that the real person can be restored."
She worked with
a member facing prison who was
finally touched by feelings of remorse, and changed his thinking. She
corresponds with him and visits him in prison, where he studies.
I may lay a guilt trip on an inmate and try to wake him up. I remind him, for
instance, selling drugs hurts people and choices
have consequences. When you're in jail, your whole
family's in jail.
chaplain is heavy work because there's much pain and suffering here. But I love
bringing God into inmates' lives."
* * * * *
In the office, a
young Latino tells Sister Patricia he's worried about his family and a possible
He complains he can't pray.
"Can you talk to your mother?"
"Do the same with God. Just talk and listen. Especially
When the inmate
mentions eye pain, she checks it
and suggests he visit the clinic.
Patricia telephones, Chaplain Paulino Juarez-Ramirez tells me she really
listens and follows through, that inmates like her maternal instinct and
Spanish language ability.
Horan, co-director of the Office of Restorative Justice/Detention Ministry,
thinks her Third World experience makes her resourceful in the jail
environment. "She's compassionate, but challenges inmates to grow."
jail, Sister Patricia shows me the
education center. We peer down a
row of high-security cells. As she strides mazelike hallways, passing inmates
Sergeant Daniel Pollaro. He says Sister Patricia walks the toughest rows, is brave, and
never too busy to give spiritual support.
Patricia chats with Deputy Chris Medina. He says
religious programs help jail morale
by showing somebody cares. They make our job easier, he says.
I was told that
later in the day, Sister Patricia walked a gang row. The men wore tattoos and
downbeat looks. But when she entered the corridor they came alive. Hands
reached out to greet her. Many wanted to talk.
multi-person cell the inmates were creating a seven
foot drawing of Our Lady of Grace on the cell wall.
it ?” she asked.
“All of us.”
They made many
Patricia, help me talk to my boy."
One asked for
“Can we get
One man told her
his infant child died, and requested a special visit from the baby's mom.
Sister Pat consoled him and said she would try.
The men asked
her to pray with them. They closed their eyes, moved closer to the bars, put
their hands together.
“Lord. Bless these men and their families for what's been done to them. Forgive
them for what they've done to others. Give them courage for whatever's in store
One inmate said
Sister Pat helped him. “We feel down. She
* * * *
now believes the U.S. criminal justice system needs to be much more
rehabilitative and more compassionate to inmates and victims.
To unwind, she
walks, reads, listens to music, watches birds, and sees friends.
this chapter in my life because of the one-to-one interactions. I find God almost anywhere. I don't plan my career. I
just listen when God speaks."