Karin Lundback, The Star, South Africa: Red drapes billow from the ceiling, tea lights flicker in front of an altar and chants play softly — it is easy to forget the setting is Sweden’s top security prison and the men meditating are hardened convicts.
Kumla prison, 200 km (125 miles) west of Stockholm, runs a unique project where inmates serving long sentences can apply for contemplative retreats in a prison wing turned into a monastery.
The project, initiated by the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, is based on the teachings of Saint Ignatius Loyola, a monk who founded the Jesuit order in the 16th century. Loyola’s spiritual exercises lay the foundation for programs used by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
“It is like a cleaning process which aims to make you aware of what you covet. Only then you can leave such things behind,” said Father Truls Bernhold, in charge of the project.
The bible is used frequently but the aim is not to push Christianity. On a three-day retreat, three Muslims attended.
Fifty-year-old Francisco Severino has spent nine years behind bars, sentenced to life for murder. Born in Uruguay, he moved to Sweden in 1982 and became a member of a criminal gang. In prison he decided to change his life and took part in the monastery’s first retreat. He is now a member of the Franciscan Order and leads retreats for other inmates.
Severino said he regretted his deed but said getting stuck in the past would not be of benefit to anyone.
“I can’t change what happened or the crime I committed. What I can change is myself and become a better person,” he said.
DIM LIGHTS HIDE TEARS
In the monastery, Severino serves coffee and home-made cake. Small details add to the ambience. The lighting is soft. All inmates are called by their first names.
Father Truls acknowledged a retreat would not automatically change the minds of men who had committed severe and violent crimes.
“The monastery is just the beginning of a process. When you have spent 15 years of your life going to hell, your problems will not be solved in one month,” he said.
There are around 4,000 people in Sweden’s prisons and since the project began in 2001, some 150 inmates have visited the monastery staying from one to 30 days. The longest stay is spent in silence with only a half-hour daily chat to a retreat leader.
Next year’s retreats are already fully booked and back in the regular wards prisoners request more activities of this kind. This has prompted Severino to start ‘quiet Saturdays’, where both religious and non-religious inmates gather to talk.
After 10 years a lifer can ask the government for pardon, setting the average sentence at 15 years. Severino, a father of eight, said he did not know when he would be released but he hoped to continue with the project outside.
With the Swedish welfare system, once held as a role model, now struggling to maintain its high standard of social services, some critics say prisoners eat better than pensioners.
Earlier this year former Serbian President Biljana Plavsic began an 11-year prison sentence in Sweden after being convicted of war crimes. The choice of a Swedish prison angered some who said the conditions were too plush.
Sweden’s crime policy is based on the idea that being denied freedom is punishment enough and that prisons are responsible for helping inmates to find a better life on release.
“Every inmate with a long criminal record that we can put on the right track is a huge benefit for society,” said Ulf Janson, head of regulations at the Prison and Probation Service.
Though guards witness significant changes and a calmer attitude in prisoners who have been on retreat, some inmates have suffered from depression when returning to their own corridors. While the monastery encourages individual decisions, the monotony of regular prison life represents the opposite.
Father Truls and Severino hope for special wards for those who have gone on the program. This, combined with a house for ex-prisoners to visit after release, could significantly reduce the risk of relapse, they believe.
Father Truls said he was still amazed by the project and said:
“I see it as a miracle that the prison service builds a monastery in one of the world’s most secular countries.”[Original article no longer available]