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Prison Ministry In Kerala

by Sean Sprague

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Father Joy Cheradiyil did not blame Rajesh’s wife, Anu Rajesh, for not wanting her husband back. Their arranged marriage had been a disaster. Rajesh, now 35, was a petty gangster, a thug-for-hire who specialized in extortion and intimidation. He even used to threaten his wife’s family. Then Rajesh was caught and sent to jail, and who could blame Anu for saying good riddance.

But jail might have been the best thing for Rajesh, said the Syro-Malabar Catholic priest who heads a branch of Prison Ministry India in Ernakulum, a city in Kerala. Through the organization, which originated in Kerala in 1986 and has since spread throughout the country, clergy try to rehabilitate prisoners like Rajesh.

“In prison, Rajesh came to regret the way he had lived,” Father Joy said. “We worked with him, offering counseling and guidance.”

Rajesh was released after three years, but the life of an ex-convict in India is as difficult as it is in most places, and perhaps more so. Typically, ex-convicts are shunned by the small communities from which they come. Jobs are hard to come by, especially in Kerala, where the unemployment rate is around 50 percent. But most difficult of all for Rajesh was the rejection by his family, including his two children.

“I went and spoke to his family, and no one wanted him back,” Father Joy said.

Once he got out of jail, Rajesh spent several months at the ministry’s center, Shanti Bhavan, which means Home for Peace, in the small town of Edappally. Here Rajesh received additional counseling and job training, turning farther away from his life of crime.

Finally, Rajesh and Father Joy visited Rajesh’s family. Father Joy spent two hours with his wife. He assured her that Rajesh had indeed changed. This was not just some act to get back into her good graces. Okay, she said, I’ll give him one more chance.

Today, Rajesh and his family live in a rented house. He does laundry for Indian Railways, a job the ministry arranged. They are poor but are saving to buy their own home. The ministry may help out. It has helped purchase about 50 modest homes for ex-convicts, who do not gain control of the title for 10 years to ensure they do not return to crime.

“We are poor, but I’m very happy,” Rajesh said. “Now, I have a life I never dreamed possible.”

Prison Ministry India, also known as Jesus Fraternity, was born from a discussion group of seminarians at St. Thomas Apostolic Seminary in Kottayam, Kerala. There was an obvious need to rehabilitate the nation’s prisoners, prostitutes and beggars. In 1990, the ministry was incorporated into the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference, and soon afterward it established support groups to tend to the needs of prisoners in each of Kerala’s 44 prisons. It also opened support centers specifically designed to help female prisoners, child prisoners and prisoners with H.I.V. Funding comes from local churches, communities and other benefactors, including CNEWA.

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Tags: Kerala Syro-Malabar Catholic Church