Christmas celebration amid COVID-19 at Berhampur Circle Jail

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By Shanti Pulickal

Berhampur, Odisha: Every year, around Christmas time, we were sure of receiving any phone calls from the prisoners, ‘When is the Christmas Mass? Will the bishop be coming? What are the songs to be selected and so on? But this year they were silent and we kept wondering.

In Berhampur Circle Jail, there are around 70 Christians among the 800 male prisoners and we arrange Mass, confession and counselling for them on different occasions.

We had not been to the jail since March due to COVID-19 regulations and we were eager to see them. It was difficult but finally, seven of us were permitted to enter on December 20. But most of the prisoners were depressed with no visit either from us or from their family members.

The mood of the prisoners was reflected in the celebration. There was no crib, no decorations and no excitement. The two seminarians in our group were musicians and they helped in creating a happy, heavenly atmosphere all around. Father Jusman offered Mass and gave the Christmas message of hope amid hopelessness, fear and anxiety.

After the service, the prisoners flocked around us. Some of them were there for years and so they were familiar with us. They were worried about their families. We could only promise them our prayers. We could not visit them due to travel restrictions. Some were in tears as their bail applications were not sanctioned even after paying a huge amount of money to the lawyers.

They were happy to receive our Christmas gifts, a sign that we love them and care for them. St Joseph’s School and Holy Cross Provincial had sponsored snacks and other Christmas gifts for all the inmates of the jail. We handed it over to the Superintendent to distribute later.

Every year, Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur used to visit and offer Christmas Mass but this year he could not. But he sponsored sumptuous Christmas lunch for all prisoners. All appreciated his generosity.

St. Vincent School had sponsored sarees for all the female prisoners and dresses for the young children remaining with their mothers. We were happy that we were allowed to visit them, speak to them and spend some time with them.

Remaining in limited space and overcrowded rooms and with no one to visit them they were more depressed than the male prisoners. Our visit, love and care brought real joy to their faces. All appreciated the gifts and particularly the love expressed through the gifts. The children were a bit scared of seeing us but felt happy to get the new dress.

It was time for us to leave the jail. We met the Superintendent and other jail officials for allowing us and for making all necessary arrangements to have this privilege of meeting the prisoners, conducting the Christmas services and bringing new life and hope to them.

As we were getting ready to leave we were surprised to see 16 women sitting on the floor there. The jailor said that they were arrested for the violation of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 about a minor girl. All of them were from the same village. We were sad but could not do anything at that time. POCSO offenses are serious and often non-billable. We thought of their families and the sorrow they would be going through.

We left the jail after spending about two hours. We know that our services are very little but may the Mighty God do great things through us to bring some joy and relief to our sisters and brothers behind the bars.

(Shanti Pulickal is a member of the Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod of the Kolkata Province, India. She is the diocesan coordinator for the Berhampur Diocese for the Prison Ministry India Commission)

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