The Angel of Prisons – Sr Mary Jane

April 21, 2016

It must have been around 2002, when I had resigned from my job at the local newspaper, because while I enjoyed working with insane persons, I drew the line at working under a complete moron.  So I tried different types of writing and got drawn into Sanjit Rodrigues’ Chaka-Chak campaign where as Commissioner of the City of Panaji, he wanted to rid the city and its drains and river bank of the scourge of plastic, and make the residents of the city more accountable for the garbage they created. One of the many solutions he thought up was to make paper bags available to stores, so that dependence on the Plastic Bag could be reduced. Sanjit, or maybe Patricia Pinto thought of forming a linkage with the prisoners at Aguada Jail where newspaper and glue would be supplied to the inmates and they could make vast numbers of assorted paper bags, that could carry a maximum of 5kg weight. Patricia knew Sr Mary Jane of the Prison Ministry who was working with the prisoners and she said she would talk to her. I went with her to meet Sr Mary Jane at Aguada Jail, and that had to be one of the most eye-opening days of my life.

Aguada Jail is right on the mouth of the River Mandovi, and there are many who would give an arm and both legs to be able to spend out the rest of their days in this location. But when you enter the premises, you know it’s not that great a place to spend the rest of your days in. It’s a prison – drab, dank, depressing. We went through a few security checks then this nun breezed in.  Sr Mary Jane.

Grey habit, grey veil, covering most of her grey hair, with the white band framing her cheerful face. Her smile was bright and quick, and lit up her eyes, it was alight now with a group of assorted sized male prisoners around her, most looking adoringly at her, others, sheepish, because she had just finished giving them a good scolding for not doing their ‘homework’. Not only was she teaching them arts and crafts for sale, she was also teaching them.

Just yesterday, Elvis Gomes, Inspector General of Prisons, Goa, wrote a piece on Sr Mary Jane and in it he wrote about how she was instrumental in setting up IGNOU and NIOS centres in inside the jail premises – the result was the prisoners could answer their examinations on the premises itself. Elvis Gomes also wrote about how she used to work with the prisoners’ families and the victims and their families to enable the prisoner to reform himself and be accepted into society when he was released.

She was smiling and whacking one of the sheepish prisoners on the back for some minor transgression. She showed no fear simply because she had no fear. Later she told me, they are human like you and me, Life just gave them a different set of choices and they made the wrong ones. We could do the same, she said, only we were lucky.

I had a look at the work they were doing and while some pieces of art were mediocre, there were some bordering on brilliance. There was one particular piece of driftwood that she had given to one of the younger inmates who was in for 10 years on a narcotics dealing conviction.  The artist found a part of the driftwood that was shaped like a hand and part of the wrist. He had shaped the fingertips into claw like nails and the hand was open in a questioning manner, or it could be supplication. The memory of that hand has stayed with me for the last 14 years. I touched the fingertips with one of mine and the artist saw I was moved. He sidled up to me and we had the following conversation in English:

“Madam, do you like this?”

“Like it? I love it!”

“Then can you keep it for me?”

“Er… Keep it for you? No, I cannot, but, WHY?”

“Because Sister won’t be able to sell it for much, you will be able to sell it for much more.”

“You can sell it yourself, make some more and you can even have an exhibition, when you get out,” I said.

“I won’t be out for another 8 years,” he said.

“Then just imagine how much more you will be able to make here,” I told him. “Even if you cannot sell it right now, you can work on your technique and find ways to improve it.”

He lost interest in me then and said, “Don’t tell Sister, she’ll get angry with me.”

I looked at Sister Mary Jane, she was looking at some writing assignment she had given one big hulking fellow with sunken eyes and a sheepish smile which sat oddly on him. She whacked him on back, to show her displeasure, then smiled that smile and whacked him again to tell him she had faith in him and that he would do better the next time.

Patricia told her about the paper bags idea and she said they already did the paper bag idea, but there was not much response for it. She was ready to try it again if the newspaper was sourced by CCP and sent to the inmates.  No scissors would be allowed though she said, the prison authorities were very strict about anything that could be turned into a weapon. She would require a large strong wooden table, she said for the workspace.

The paper bags were duly made, sufficiently large quantities to supply the stores of Panjim city. The Chaka Chak campaign which included, waste segregation at source, public composting stations in every ward of the city was a success. Shopkeepers were held responsible for keeping the pavements and gutters outside their establishments free of waste, or else they were fined heavily. Panjim shone.  And there was no council then, just the CCP commissioner, CCP staff and volunteers. The Chaka Chak campaign also saw the public spaces and gardens opened up to free music concerts and various festivals, people erected stalls to sell recycled products, compost, food items and there was one Prison Stall presided over by Sr Mary Jane, cheerfully exhorting people to buy handicrafts made by the prisoners.

And guess what! Right in the forefront was that hand made out of driftwood, and it looked like it was reaching out to take Sr Mary Jane’s hand. There was no price label fixed to it, I asked her how much it was. She placed her hand on it and smiled, “This one is not for sale,” she said. “This is to show people that the prisoners are human too, as good, as bad and as talented as any of us outside jail.”

The next time round however, she told me, it was sold. Quite possibly the artist who crafted it insisted it be sold.

And now she’s dead.  She died yesterday. And she was just 75. That’s young for someone who had changed so many lives. Not just prisoners, but all those who were lucky enough to have a conversation with her. The grey haired nun with the gamin grin is my idea of what a Saint should be, but I doubt anyone will think of canonising Sr. Mary Jane.  I doubt she would care. She was an angel to the prisoners of Goa’s jails. And any fool knows – angels carry more clout than saints.

This is one of those times, I wish Heaven really does exist. Seems a shame that one who gave so much of herself and made such a difference to countless lives, just turns into dust. That would be an anti-climax of the worst kind. She needs to hang out with angels like herself and if there really is a Heaven, Sr Mary Jane will rock the joint.

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