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Diaconia: Service in penitentiaries
The experience of Church service at penitentiaries
Service for prisoners in the diocese of Moscow
Church care of prisoners in the diocese of Volgograd
On the ruins of a childhood
Students of the Moscow theological schools in the service of prisoners

The experience of Church service at penitentiaries

As is known, the regeneration of social service of the Church began in 1992 when a new Law on the Freedom of Conscience was adopted, enabling church members to come out of their churches to bear witness to their faith by word and deed. The Church immediately took up as one of her social activities the visiting of penitentiaries and pre-trial jails. The service in prisons began against the background of global transformations in our society that have led to considerable changes in the penitentiary system that had established itself in the Soviet time. This system has had to cope with a radical increase in the number of prisoners, especially in pre-trial jails, a relative increase in the number of "heavy" offense convicts and a growing younger age of the inmates. At the same time, the administration has had to face the continued inadequate financing of its institutions, which has sometimes led to hunger and violent clashes in prisons, as well as difficulties in providing their inmates with jobs as the unemployment has affected penitentiaries in the first place. If in the past the primary task of reformatories was to compel convicts to work, nowadays this task has proved to be impossible for objective reasons. On the other hand, the loss of state ideology has cut the ground under their feet. What is needed for reformation is at least a theoretical moral ideal, and this very ideal was dethroned together with the whole of communist ideology. In this vacuum of values the work of the 'political commissar' has been reduced largely to organizing the inmates' leisure. Thus the Church has become, we believe, the only reformatory force possessing of a positive moral ideal and experience in its implementation. The Christian way of prayer and repentance has led many souls out of moral impasse. At the same time, the task of the Church, of course, is to baptize as many convicts as possible, to take their first confession and to help them become firmly established in the church image of piety during their term.

In the diocese of St. Petersburg, the first priests and lay people appeared concurrently in several penitentiaries and pre-trial jails in 1989-90. They came, as a rule, at the request of prisoners themselves who displayed at that time a massive interest in the Church. Especially visible was the church activity at Penitentiary No. 5 at the Metalstroy settlement, where the then rector of St. Petersburg Theological Academy and Seminary, Archpriest Vladimir Sorokin, and the prisoners themselves began building a prison chapel in 1991. Dedicated to the newly-canonized Holy Martyr Veniamin, Metropolitan of Petrograd, it was consecrated in October 1992 by His Holiness Patriarch Alexy.

In 1996, the diocese established a department for work in prisons. It was headed by Archpriest V. Sorokin. In 1997, an agreement on cooperation was signed by the diocese of St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg Directorate for Penitentiaries. At present, a priest has been appointed to each of the 15 penitentiaries and pre-trial jails in St. Petersburg. In each of them a domestic church or a chapel or a prayer room has been arranged, a library of religious literature has been formed, and divine services have been conducted. Wooden churches are being built in several colonies. The Directorate for Penitentiaries and their staff have held regular meetings with priests and the colony staff. A constructive dialogue has been established between them.

The experience of work in penitentiaries has shown that the Church has managed to incorporate in its activity up to 10% of the convicts and the level of their churchliness, i.e. regular church attendance, confession and communication, is often higher than that of people at large.

In Colony No.20/5, where I have been serving together with Father Vladimir Sorokin for 7 years now, a stable community has shaped with an established order of life. We regularly celebrate the Divine Liturgy and other sacraments, conduct requested services and catechetical talks. What is important is that the church life continues even in the absence of a priest. Believers assemble in the church for prayer three times a day to read the morning prayer, the little compline at 18.00 and the evening prayer. We have tried to involve in the reading the greatest possible number of people in the community. We have managed to engage a considerable number of believer inmates in permanent duties in the church, the adjacent territory, the church house and the small joiner's built at the church by prisoners themselves. An important role in supporting this everyday life order has been played by the warden who is appointed by the rector from among the most responsible, spiritually mature and respected members of the community. It is on his personality that the spiritual climate and the growth of the community depends in many ways.

We have sought to organize the life of the community in various ways, forming Orthodox working teams, trying to arrange for the members to stay together in a separate unit and to have fixed rules in the community. Experience has shown, however, that this method tends to produce nothing but tensions among the inmates. Therefore, we have opted for a parish principle of life when a relatively small group of 10-15 people is made responsible for church obediences, while the bulk of the believers just come for divine services and to the church library whenever they can and wish. About 30-50 people come for the above-mentioned services, while the liturgy is attended by up to 100 people.

Orthodox mission is most successful when believers themselves are engaged in working in teams. Besides, a group of prisoners has made daily visits to the quarantine station to where groups of new convicts are brought, talking to them about faith and the life of their Orthodox parish.

An important role, we believe, has been played by visits to the colony by former prisoners, accompanied by a priest, who continue to live Orthodox life after regaining liberty. Their witness has shown that the Church is not just a way for prisoners to survive or kill time, but a real prospect for their future life, especially if the Church undertakes to take care of them after they have been released.

Generally speaking, we believe the rehabilitation of the newly-released who came to believe in the colony to be one of the most important tasks. As is known, after regaining liberty, a person encounters a great deal of social and personal problems. Among the former is the absence of a place to live, a residence permit and a job, while the latter include the disintegration of the family, sometimes because of a difference in values after one spouse has been inchurched while the other refuses to accept this fact.

The charitable brotherhood of St. Anastasia was founded in St. Petersburg in 1992. It embraces in its activity a wide range of social services. At present this structure can provide jobs for some 10 newly-released from prisons at construction sites, workshops, the visiting nurses service, the asylum for street children, etc. The principal factor facilitating the rehabilitation of these people is an industrious church milieu showing good will towards them. It is very important that they should feel at home among believers engaged in a meaningful church task, be close to the priest who was with them in prison for several years and fulfill various obediences in the church. After a while, a person gets the feel of life and finds a new, better-paid job that enables him to support a family, to help his parents, etc. More often then not, his service in the Brotherhood does not stop at that as he continues to work in it at his leisure time. Experience has shown that it is with great joy and care that former prisoners look after the sick, invalids, elderly people in hospitals and at homes visited by the Brotherhoods' nurses. The miseries they themselves experienced make them more generous and sensitive to the suffering and pain of others. We are in a continuous search of jobs at churches and other brotherhoods and sisterhoods where we could place the people under our wardship for the beginning, and such places have been found. Some people live permanently at monasteries and some of them have become monks. Many of them work and serve at parishes not only to their own advantage, but also that of the parishes.

Another way to help the newly-released is to create rehabilitation centers in the country. This allows to solve the basic problems, such as housing and job at the same time. Such a center has been launched by our brotherhood at the Pushkinogorsky county near Pskov. It has already started functioning as a rehabilitation center for those who finished an orphanage school and remained homeless and without family. It is headed by a former convict from our colony who has worked in the center for 3 years now. At present there are 5 young people living at the center. There is a house, a tractor and a farm. It is planned to build a church and some more houses and, in the future, a whole village. In spring 2 or 3 more people will join the community.

An important task for the future is to inchurch the families of convicts while the latter are still in prison and to give them moral and material support. Here again the principal role is to be played by the newly-released who can act as a link between convicts, their relatives and the Church. On the whole, we should organize a full chain of rehabilitation measures for those prisoners who came to believe while serving their term, beginning from providing them with housing, job, vocational training and support in their spiritual life.

Rev. Alexander Stepanov
 chairman of the Charity Department
of the diocese of St. Petersburg

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Service for prisoners in the diocese of Moscow

In fulfilling her calling on the earth to preach the Heavenly Kingdom, the Church of Christ, with all her pursuit for the heavenly, has never forgot about the earthly. "Little children", says St. John the Theologian in his letter, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action" (1 Jn. 3:18). Attention to social problems has been characteristic of the Church throughout her history. Despite decades of a complete ban on any activity outside her walls, the Russian Orthodox Church has not petrified spiritually, nor has she forgotten about "these little ones" or "shut the door of her heart".

Penitentiaries are houses of sorrow. Those located in the Moscow region are the main responsibility of the Moscow Diocesan Administration. With the blessing of His Eminence Juvenaly, Metropolitan of Krutitsy and Kolomna, all the penitentiaries situated near churches in the diocese are taken care of by its clergy. In total, 21 parishes in the Moscow diocese take care, spiritually and materially, of 23 penitentiaries and pre-trial jails situated both within and without the diocese.

This is a manifold service which includes the administration of the holy sacraments of Baptism, Penance and Communion, catechetical and apologetical talks, distribution of religious literature, icons and crosses. To celebrate and conduct requested services, special prayer rooms were arranged with video equipment for showing religious films. In some penitentiaries churches have been built for conducting divine services on a regular basis.

There are some examples of this service. In the Sergiyev Posad deanery, three monks of St. Sergius's Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Archimandrites Triphon, Nicodim and Bonifatius, visit the local prison every Wednesday, taking confessions and giving communion. In the Mozhaisk deanery, 4 penitentiaries are taken care of by Archpriest Peter Derevianko. At the village of Vozmische near Volokolamsk, Archpriest Nikolay Popov visits the local pre-trial jail and penitentiary 4 or 5 times a month, giving catechetical talks, icons and crosses. At the penitentiary of the Novogrishino village near Dmitrov, Hieromonk Daniel Zhirnov of the Mytischi deanery and Father Constantine of the Dmitrov deanery baptize inmates, take their confessions and regularly bring them humanitarian aid. They plan to bless a prayer room at the penitentiary by Easter. On the initiative of the director of the penitentiary, V. Onyanov, a church will be built in its territory. One could give more names of priests and lay people who are engaged in this great task of service of prisoners bearing in mind the words of Christ: "Blessed are the merciful; for they will receive mercy" (Mt. 5:7).

Rev. Alexander Agrikov
dean of the Mytischi county in the Moscow region and
secretary of the Diocesan Commission for Social Service,
Charity and Pastoral Work in Penitentiaries
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Church care of prisoners in the diocese of Volgograd

There are 14 penitentiaries in the diocese of Volgograd, with 2 pre-trial jails and one children's reformatory. The clergy and laity of the diocese are actively involved in aid to their inmates. Special forms have been chosen for work in colonies. In penitentiaries the Church has not created any special or separate system, but has just joined in the reformatory work carried out by the Directorate for Penitentiaries. In each penitentiary a domestic church has been founded with the status of the bishop's metochion. Experienced priests have been appointed as their rectors. The rector is responsible for conducting divine services and requested services and for carrying out church construction and missionary work. All others are visiting priests.

The bishop's metochions have been equipped with libraries, containing religious literature and audio and video materials. The work is well in hand to have the religious and moral principles of Orthodoxy interpreted through penitentiries' radio-networks. The inmates have an opportunity for listening to religious music and spiritual talks and sermons.

The rectors of the metochions have also given convicts social support after their release from prisons.

A great importance is given to such form of work as prevention of children's crime, carried out through religious and moral education of children and teenagers.

P. V. Smirnova
Head of the Office
Department for Spiritual Care of Prisons and the Army
Diocese of Volgograd
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On the ruins of a childhood

In the former Monastery of the Intercession at the town of Ardov near Nizhni Novgorod, there is a reformatory for juvenile delinquents from 14 to 18 and sometimes 21 years of age. The number of inmates vary from 350 to 500. I will undertake to give a brief description of the wards. They are teenagers who got their terms mostly for petty theft, but their terms from 2 to 5 years are enormous, simply disproportionate to their crimes. Most children in the colony are not criminals at all; they are victims of our society. Most of these children are from troubled families, but there are also many orphans. They are underfed, poorly clothed and totally neglected. What they saw in their families was alcoholism, continued dirty swearing, debauchery, abuse of the weak. Often they themselves and their small brothers and sisters were subjected to violence and humiliation.

The children themselves told this. Just imagine a drinking party; the mother brought in drunken lovers. They drink, smoke, eat. The children reach for the food; their hand are beaten; they are flung off with guffaw. A hungry child goes to a street kiosk, takes something from it, gets caught and sentenced.

I will tell you a typical story. A fellow came to us in the Cathedral of the Virgin of the Sigh for help and support. He got his first term for having stolen a bicycle in the boarding school. He got a suspended sentence. He was sent to his mother who was deprived of the parents rights, being an alcoholic. When at home he stole two frames with honey from an acquaintance's bee-garden. He did it out of hunger. He was caught and sentenced again. Combined with the previous one, his term comprised 3,5 years. He sat three years as half a year was knocked off by the Decree on Early Release. After the release he lived for sometime at our parish. Later he stayed with one of our elderly parishioners and then left for Nizhni Novgorod to stay with his sister who promised him to get him a job at an automobile plant.

By the way, he was not at all the only former ward to live at our parish, though the conditions we offer are more then modest. It is a great pity that we have no asylum or facilities for rehabilitation. At present the Cathedral of the Virgin of the Sign is raising funds for constructing at least a small building for a hostel and a rehabilitation center for those released from prison.

We, a small group of the clergy and parishioners of the Cathedral of the Virgin of the Sign, have worked at the Ardatov colony since 1993. We began with Christmas gifts, greetings and Easter colony line. Then we arranged with the administration to open a Sunday school and began to work with children at the club. Some time later we obtained facilities for a prayer room. Teenagers themselves built an icon screen and altar - all we need for a small church. This church was accommodated in a former class-room. Metropolitan Nikolay of Nizhni Novgorod and Arzamas permitted us to celebrate the liturgy in it on the communion cloth we brought from the cathedral. We celebrate the liturgy there three or four times a year. During the rest of the time we give children reserve gifts.

Yevgeny, a reader from the Cathedral of the Virgin of the Sign, is always available in the prayer room. Father Sergiy and I, rector of the cathedral, come to the colony once a week for confessions, sermon and lessons in the Sunday school. Patronage over the reformatory is one of the main areas of our work. The reader conducts the morning and evening prayers and catechism, preparing children for baptism and communion. Our priority is religious education. We seek to make teenagers, especially those who come to the prayer-room and the Sunday school, understand the need to live with God and according to His commandments and try to help them find what they lacked in life before, to find a way to God.

Another area of our work is material support for the colony. Since 1996 the food supply from the depot of the local Derectorate for Penitentiaries has been rather scarce. For the last four months, thanks to the denotations of parishioners, various private persons and charitable organizations, we have added to the colony's food reserve, buying butter, groats, greases and medicine. In addition, by Divine Providence, we have struck an acquaintance with a well-known advocate of human rights, Valery Abramkin, who has put us on the Russian radio-program called "Clouds". I made several appeals on the radio to help the reformatory children. There has been an enormous response from all parts of Russia. Parcels and money transfers keep coming in. Of course, this is not enough to support the colony all year round, but quite enough for a short-time support and aid to those in abject need and weakened. Moreover, those who give help are themselves not reach people. Among them are pensioners who tear away perhaps the last crumbs from their miserable pensions. Appeals for help have come from other colonies, too, especially from tuberculosis and "non-working" colonies where it is impossible for the inmates to buy anything even in local small shops.

Thanks to the "Clouds" program, we have also managed to get acquainted with Australian philanthropist doctor Allan John. He is a psychotherapist and homoeopathist. Sasha Chapskaya, an interpreter, is working with him. She is also a doctor. We and the colony administration have grown convinced that what matters is not so much medicine and its amount, but a well-considered course of treatment. Prevalent among the children are cutaneous diseases, such as scab and fungus. Thanks to the right diagnosis and consistent treatment, the wave of especially serious and mass diseases has been curbed.

It should be mentioned that the colony is not just 350 or 500 teenagers, deprived of everything and miserable. They live their own life in their own world with their own laws. Even in the situation of sweeping misery there are authorities standing out among them. They are those who enjoy special privileges and force others to work in their stead. Normally, these 'others' are the most neglected and weakened. They comprise from 8 to 10 percent of the total number of wards. We made a suggestion that they should be separated from other inmates for at least a short period of time so that they could feel free and nourished.

The administration agreed to allocate a special room for them in the medical quarters. We have planned to put about 40 children through this room. The project has been intended for 40 days. This means that 10 people could stay there for 10 days, receiving additional food and medical care, a regular wash in the bath-house and clean clothes. For at least 10 days they could break away from the world of continuous violence and humiliation. This seemed to be the first experiment of this kind to be held in a children's reformatory. Unfortunately, we have failed to complete it as only 20 children have been treated in this room. When we let in the first group, I came to them, put icons on bedside tables, distributed religious books and crosses to those who did not have them. Have a rest, kids, I said, and pray; for 10 ten days you can be free. Surprisingly, the group immediately developed a leader and a model of relations prevalent in the colony with the same social micro-structure.

The first day they slept, the second day they began to eat, quickly making it up in their nutrition. They were given high-calorie food: milk, kefir, cottage cheese, eggs, etc. they did no see in the colony. By the end of the day they developed indigestion. Later they accustomed themselves to the food, and everything settled down. But on the fourth day I was summoned to the colony and told that the experiment should be stopped. Why? Once they had a good rest, good food and their sleep out, the teenagers got up to mischief. They threw the food out the window, shoot one another with porridge, pasted the ceiling all over with it, even hit the officer on duty who called on them. With the consent of the administration we had to take this step: we let in an authority with the next group. He called on them during the day, gave them a ticking-off, told them what to do and how to behave. He threatened that in case of even minor violations they would have to deal with him. It was only under this pressure that they began to rest and undergo treatment. And what next? Shall we feed them up and let them out into the same aggressive element? Would they not feel only worse after that? We can embitter the whole population of the colony against them. We have not heard yet of any repression, but if the rest see that these, the most miserable and contemptible, get regular help, how will they treat them?

We have to state with regret that the problems of material support for the colony's teenagers require enormous energy and time which are so needed for the religious and moral work with them.

Rev. Michael Rezin
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Students of the Moscow theological schools in the service of prisoners

Reviving the tradition of caring for prisoners which was characteristic of the Russian Orthodox Church in old times, the Moscow Theological Seminary and Academy have been actively involved in cooperation with the pre-trial jail at the town of Sergiyev Posad. They began this work in March 1989 in response to a request made by the jails administration to the authorities of St. Sergius Monastery of the Holy Trinity to send them a priest as was asked by many people under investigation in the jail. In November of the same year, spiritual fathers from the monastery began to visit the pre-trial jail on a regular basis.

In view of the fact that there were about 100 minors sitting in the pre-trial jail, it was decided to invite students from the Moscow theological schools for talks with them. At present about 10 students are in constant contacts with the prisoners of the same age.

In addition, the editorial board of the students journal "Meeting" are working on an supplement to the journal intended for the prisoners. They plan it as a quarterly to be distributed to penitentiaries. The number of copies will depend on the journal's financial resources.

In their desire to involve the greatest possible number of people in the missionary service in prisons, the Moscow Theological Seminary and Academy convened on 12 March 1998 a special meeting. It was attended by theological students and professors and priests taking care of prisoners. Among the participants were Captain V. Kulikov, director of the Pre-Trial Jail in Sergiyev Posad, and Ms. N. Vysotskaya, chairperson of board of the Faith, Hope and Charity foundation.

This meeting proved to be very beneficial for all its participants. Indeed, the service of prisoners entails certain difficulties. But the most burdensome thing is the 'silence' and irresponsibility of those to whom you come. And if you meet a person in the cell with whom you got acquainted during his previous term, you often come to the conclusion that your visits are all in vain. But in fact this is not at all so, as the experience shared by the participants in the meeting showed.

Natalia Vysotskaya, after introducing the meeting to the work of her foundation, which has existed for 7 years and has given a considerable legal, material and, most importantly, spiritual support to prisoners, said in conclusion that "through contacts with prisoners you come to a better understanding of the Gospel, a better understanding of the fact that you are also a prisoner, a prisoner of sin". "It is my profound conviction", she said, "that prisoners have a shorter way to come to God than those who enjoy freedom living a criminal and sinful life".

This is really so, but one has to know how to show this way to the prisoner. Regrettably, not every priest is up to this task. Therefore, the meeting gave special attention to what the priests had to say. Having specified the problems involved in the care of prisoners, they unanimously pointed to the most important thing: "Prisoners are great psychologists. They can immediately discern falsehood and indifference in a preacher. But if they feel otherwise, their hearts open up. Just as water compressed in a vessel strives upward so the human soul, squeezed from all sides by sorrows and narrowness, aspires up to God in heaven". Therefore, the principal condition for communication with prisoners, just as with anybody else is sincerity. Burdened with sins, prisoners wish to open their souls. Here the experience of spiritual father is needed. "I am absolutely sure", said Captain Kulikov, "that no psychiatrist can heal the soul in the way a priest does". These words acquire a special authority when uttered by a man directly responsible for prisoners and having their reformation as his task.

It is planned to hold in the future the same kind of talks concerning rehabilitation of former prisoners. We invite to discussion all those who are engaged in missionary work in prisons and who are ready to respond to the call of the Apostle : "Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them" (Heb. 13:3).

Alexander Bolonnikov,
student of the MTA

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