Editor's note: This week, GSR is focusing on the U.S. prison system and sisters who work with current and former inmates and advocate for a change in policies. This is Part 2 of 4. Read Part 1.
Providence Sr. Joan Campbell was a prison chaplain in Washington and northern California for 40 years. In those four decades, she became the first female president of the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association and, in that capacity, went to the Vatican to discuss mass incarceration with Pope John Paul II.
But for all of that, it's a story from Campbell's chaplaincy internship that most sticks with her.
She was showing Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth" to a group of inmates in a psychiatric ward, and when it came to the scene where the crucified Christ promises a thief that they will be together in paradise, Campbell said one of the inmates lost it.
"He started crying out loud, so I went over and put my arm around him," she said. "He said to me, 'I knew I was going to hell, but to think that an inmate was the first one that went up to heaven! You mean there's some hope for me?' "
Stories like this come up a lot when you talk to the Catholic sisters across the United States serving in prison and jail ministries. The United States isn't jailing hardened criminals; it's jailing "the least of these." It's jailing people who've committed nonviolent offenses, and many of these offenses stem from poverty, drug addictions and mental illness. That's one reason why women religious nationwide have taken on criminal justice reform as a ministry, including advocating for legislative reforms, caring for inmates, and helping former convicts start anew.