It was the mid-1950s and jobs were scarce in Ireland when 17-year-old Angela Brennan left her rural community in Ardara, County Donegal. She boarded an immigrant ship, the S.S. America, to New York in search of work. That young girl never imagined that 64 years later she would be a Maryknoll sister bestowing love and spiritual guidance at high security prisons in El Salvador.
Now 81 years old, Sister Brennan has been visiting “those deprived of liberty,” as she prefers to call prisoners, for the last seven years in some of El Salvador’s most needy and overcrowded prisons. This octogenarian thinks nothing of traveling four and a half hours each way on a local bus, then passing up to three security checks to visit a prison. With typical understatement and in her strong Irish accent, she says: “It’s a bit wearisome at times, but I read or sleep on the bus and it’s worth the sacrifice. They (the prisoners) are so appreciative of any time and care investment.”
Angela Brennan entered the Maryknoll Sisters in 1957. She has served in Namibia, Chile, the Marshall Islands, Los Angeles, Hawaii and Brooklyn, where she got a taste of prison ministry. Having long wanted an assignment in El Salvador, she finally got her wish in 2010.
Often dubbed “murder capital of the world,” El Salvador, with its history of civil war and death squads, especially between 1977 and 1992, was at that time one of the world’s most dangerous countries for religious personnel, who were often seen by the government as subversives for defending the rights of the oppressed. Archbishop Oscar Romero and four Catholic churchwomen, including Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, were among those murdered in 1980.
While political unrest and persecution of progressive church members ended, it has been replaced by a more random violence from gangs, international organized crime, narcotrafficking and money laundering, which has only boosted the prison population. “I work at the men’s prison, which is the biggest in the country, built for 800, but it now has 6,000 to 7,000 inmates,” says Sister Brennan. “I also work in the women’s prison, built for 400 but now has more than 2,000.”
Despite the sweltering, jam-packed conditions in the prisons, the Maryknoll missioner notes changes for the better in recent years. A new director general, she says, promises relief from overcrowding within a year. She says that when she first arrived in El Salvador, security in the prisons was under military control. That changed but, with deepening violence, military personnel are now involved again, challenging more enlightened directors to add a human touch.
Most prisons, for example, are subscribing to the Yo Cambio (I Change) Program, which teaches prisoners skills like carpentry so that when released, they will be better equipped to find jobs. Because many inmates have had only a few years of schooling, most prisons, in collaboration with the Department of Education, provide primary and secondary classes to compensate for lost opportunities. Drug and alcohol abuse, conflict and problem resolution, and values programs are obligatory.
Sister Brennan teaches Scripture, theology and a course called “Searching for a Personal Spirituality.” Many inmates, she says, lose contact with their families, some of whom have died. Others are either intimidated by the security searches they have to undergo entering the prison, or don’t have the money for long bus trips or time off from work to visit. Prisoners, she explains, are often left without basic necessities such as toothpaste, let alone people who care about them. They welcome expressions of love and understanding from weekly visits of volunteers.
Sister Brennan petitioned for several years before gaining access to those tagged “most violent.” It is heartwarming, she says, to hear comments from them like the following. “Until you came nobody wanted to come near us,” one prisoner said. “I thought I was nothing. There was no reason to go on living. Nobody gave us value. Nobody told us that God loves us unconditionally … but now I want to go out and share the Word!”
Sister Brennan is encouraged by the government’s attempts to rehabilitate prisoners in recent years: “I am so happy when I see the large numbers being excused from their prison sector to attend school,” she says. “One catches their sense of enthusiasm and accomplishment. Some cook the meals … many staff the bakery or are working hard in the huge carpentry shops or making school uniforms under contract from the government or creating handicrafts as well as more sophisticated paintings. For many, these are newly discovered talents. Some practice music for hours, having formed an orchestra that plays before big events.”
But El Salvador’s prisons remain extremely grim places and present constant challenges, starting with gaining access, which is sometimes limited by conditions in the prisons such as diseases and infections among prisoners. Sister Brennan must remain dogged to continue her work.
She was elated when she was allowed to evangelize at Zacatecoluca, the maximum-security prison. With their handcuffs still on, she says, prisoners attended classes. Her spiritual counseling sessions included gang leaders, always kept in extreme isolation. She is convinced that lack of pastoral care only increases bitterness and the desire for revenge, which ultimately leads to more people being victimized.
Weighing the pros and cons of the prison system in El Salvador, Sister Brennan concludes: “This is not to deny the sadness here. After all, we’re talking about a prison, but it shows what can be done with good and just leadership, creative organization and facilitation by Church volunteers, plus state services such as education. In a country where development is incredibly difficult because of extensive violence, those without hope can be, and are being, helped to regain a sense of dignity or maybe discovering it for the first time. People like myself are doubly blessed to witness their tremendous faith, humility and patience, but especially to be privileged to make some contribution to their self-esteem and guide them to live into the future while retaining their past only as a distant memory.”
Featured Image: Sister Angela Brennan gives classes to prisoners in a prison in El Salvador. (Sean Sprague/El Salvador)