“The hardest time is when the prisoner arrives in prison. This is when the Bible is most valuable. Prisoners don’t ask for it to please us: when we visit their cells, we can see the Bible, it’s open on the bed or the table. Some are reading it when we arrive.”
Marie-Josèphe Dubertret, a retired teacher of Spanish, leads the Catholic chaplaincy team at the maison d’arrêt (a unit holding people awaiting trial or sentencing) in Villepinte, near Paris.
Villepinte holds 950 people in a building designed for 650. “You could only dream of having just one person per cell,” says Mrs Dubertret. “They get to experience lack of privacy, they have to learn the hard way to live with strangers and to be tolerant.
“How does the Bible help prisoners? Some say that they read it every day and that this keeps them alive. At a time like this, a turning point, you are much more open. When you are thirsting so much, you receive a great deal.”
It is no exaggeration to say that, for some, the Bible is absolutely essential. Pastor Mas Miangu, the Protestant chaplain for the Paris region who works from de la Santé prison in Paris, shares this view.
“When people arrive in prison, they all face the same challenge: loneliness. They suffer deep within themselves. When you are suffering like that, you look for something to cling on to.”
All prisons look the same if you are not familiar with the penal system. But in fact there are three categories: the maison d’arrêt, detention centres for low-risk prisoners and full prisons.
“People find the maison d’arrêt hardest,” says Pastor Miangu. “They’ve left police custody, they don’t know what’s happening to them, what’s going to become of them, how they’ll manage. They spend four months there, which can be renewed several times. They don’t know how long they’ll stay there.
“In contrast, when you’re in a detention centre or prison, you know how long you will be staying. You want to pass your time of imprisonment peacefully. And the chaplains can work with prisoners throughout their time there.”
Nevertheless, prisoners held in maison d’arrêt centres can take part in Bible studies. This is what is happening in Villepinte, where every Saturday the Catholic Bible study group attracts between 20 and 25 people.
“The Bible study group is friendly but serious, you don’t go there to joke around,” explains Mrs Dubertret. “The prisoners listen for an hour and a half and I’m always struck by the great respect they show each other during their discussions.
“When you’re alone in your cell, you face God’s Word directly. It touches you, it helps you to live, it nourishes you. But doing this with others is a different experience, it’s a communal one.
Funding a child’s studies
“Those who attend the Bible study group also have the opportunity to tell their stories, which are often very difficult ones: some prisoners of Latino descent, for example, have worked as drug ‘mules’ to fund their child’s studies, or cover a medical expense, or repay a debt…
“It’s a wonderful thing to be able to tell others about your suffering and humiliation and to pray about it. To have people listen to you really makes you feel valued.”
A time of reflection and listening. This is what Pastor Miangu sees in prison, too.
Reflection and listening
“I often say to prisoners: ‘Take time for yourself’. They need to question themselves, to reflect. When they are released, they will be different people. They realise that it’s not possible to live alone. People are in relationship with others, and these relationships need to be nurtured. During times like these, the Bible is a valuable tool because it addresses these issues.”
“Prisoners face existential questions: human dignity, human rights, justice, guilt, failure, life’s purpose… The Bible accompanies them on their journey towards their release. And what happens then? I don’t know: it’s in God’s hands,” concludes Mrs Dubertret.