In the 1950s, a new gaol was built at Risdon in Tasmania. Sisters Theresa Kenny, Jean Montgomery and M. Pauline Staunton were regular visitors. Then followed Sr M. Martha Murphy who commenced visiting the Womens’ Prison as well as the Male Prison until her retirement at the age of 90. Others accompanied her including Sr Cathy Meese from 1971 to 1974. Their ministry also included the visitation of the families of prisoners as necessary.
As well, Sr Cathy with Sr Leonore Murphy made a significant short term contribution in the absence of an Education Officer by introducing the reading program Words in Colour to those prisoners with reading difficulties.
From 2004 to 2007, Sr Cathy Meese was appointed to an official role by which she represented the Ombudsman at Risdon Prison and the Remand Centre, Hobart.
Her weekly visits enabled her to have freedom of entry to the prisons and investigate any official complaints made by prisoners. This role was one that was independent of the Tasmanian Prison Service.
In Victoria, the Sisters also ministered to those in prison. Following in the footsteps of the pioneer Sisters, Sr Joan McKenna and Sr Margaret Costigan served the prisoners with psychiatric illnesses or intellectual disability, (especially Aboriginal prisoners) at Pentridge through Chaplaincy and Education. They initiated submissions to Government and educated the community about prisons, prisoners and the justice system.
The ministry to prisoners continued and does to this day through St Vincent’s Public Hospital Melbourne. Since 1979, St Augustine’s Ward, a special secure ward, has catered specifically for prisoners who need hospital care.
It affords a degree of human dignity to the male and female prisoners from various Victorian prisoners who, had in the past been accommodated, sometimes handcuffed and with two prison officers, in general wards.
Since 1999 this Health Ministry has continued also in Port Phillip Prison, Marngoneet Correctional Centre and the Melbourne Remand Centre. Sr Maureen Walters made a significant contribution to the establishment of St Augustine’s.
At the beginning of 2017, Sr Cathy Meese commenced visiting St Augustine’s Ward at St Vincent’s Public Hospital Melbourne. She provides a welcome presence to the prisoner patients.
Prison Ministry took another turn when Blake Cottage was established in 2003 in association with VACRO (Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders).
Short term accommodation, overnight to a few days, was offered to the families visiting prisoners in the Castlemaine Prison.
Sisters Maria Cunningham and Sr Kate Fitzpatrick and later, Sr Pam Grime offered this form of homely hospitality for several years. Such a creative approach was well supported by the local community and well received by the families.
The prisoners from the Womens’ Prison Tarrengower assisted with gardening and the maintenance of Blake Cottage. The Sisters provided hospitality to the women in between their working hours at the cottage and were available for them if they wanted to share their problems or experiences.
Finally, the Sisters ministering in the prisons, in their various roles have been significant by their involvement in advocacy and prison reform and in the establishment of National and State Catholic Prison Ministry NSW as well as their valuable contribution to IPCA, the (International Prison Chaplains’ Association).
For more on the early work of the Sisters of Charity in prison ministry, click here.