Reading in jail – the ballad of a volunteer

Sr Josepha edited

My interview with Josephite Sister Josepha O’Connor had to be squeezed between her morning Age Concern exercises and meeting at Quillan Court, where she lives in Whanganui. This busy 90-year-old retired on December 17 after teaching literacy for six years at Whanganui’s men’s prison. Twice a week, she drove to this minimum-to-high security corrections facility 10 minutes south of the city.

“It was really sad to hear the security gate shut behind me for the last time, but it was time to step back. Age had caught up with me. And that was it,” she said.

She recalled her first few days of going through the security entry points at the main entrance.

“Metal bars in my shoes would set off the alert beepers. From then on, I would always use . . . old, black, soft saggy shoes. I called them my prison shoes! No problems again,” she said.

Shifting from Wellington in 2013, where she’d been the prison chaplain at Arohata Women’s prison, combined with 72 years of teaching, pastoral ministry and a strong conviction that reading is everyone’s right, made her an extraordinary volunteer.

“I had been invited to a Howard League day for Penal Reform at Whanganui’s prison and from there became a volunteer of the prison programmes department,” she said.

She assisted 24 men all up for different lengths of time, on a one-to-one basis for an hour in an interview room off the visiting area. Calling her “Miss”, the men were always cheerful and grateful. They were there to work. Never once did she feel intimated or frightened.

“The man across the table was never a prisoner to me, but someone seeking literacy help. Double sounds, triple blends, vowels and consonants flowed freely. Capitals, full-stops, punctuation [were] most important. So many laughs. Times when a swear word would roll off the tongue — an apology following close behind. So in ear
nest to get things right, to improve, to read!”

Maia Williams, principal of St Marcellin’s Catholic primary school, loaned Sr Josepha many books and educational resources, selecting books at individual reading levels and specifically topics geared to the outdoors that would interest the men.

At the end of most sessions, they would start chatting about general day-to-day things and they always enjoyed a laugh.

“Any new planting in my garden? How was the river looking? Had I walked around the lake of late? But when Shrapnel — my cat — died, one took it personally saying ‘I can’t read today Miss. I’m too upset’,” she said.

A special bond formed between Sr Josepha and the men that she now misses. “

I liked these men. They endeared themselves to me and I may have endeared myself to them too,” she said.

She is a great encourager, so it not surprising that her parting comment to her students before leaving was to keep up their reading and remember to stop at the full-stops!

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Sue Seconi

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