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Why do I go to the jail?



Br. José Santamarta Castro - Valladolid

06/05/2011: Spain

“I would like to invite you to a tribute which will take place March 19 in the Subdelegation of the Government to recognize the work that you have been doing in the Villanubla Penitentiary and to present you with a certificate of appreciation.” (Cecilio Vadillo, Subdelegate of the Government).

I responded with words of gratitude and, mainly, I explained why I went to the jail as a volunteer, which is what they had asked me. This is what I said:

“I am a retired Marist Brother. Just yesterday I turned 81. Four years ago I retired from teaching school, the one we have here on Calle Joaquín Velasco. Since then I have dedicated part of my time as a volunteer with the inmates of the Villanubla Penitentiary.

Why do I go to the jail?

On my school’s steel entrance door there is posted a thought from our founder, Saint Marcellin Champagnat. It says: “In order to educate children, you must love them”.

We could also have displayed another of his thoughts: “To educate is to make good Christians and honorable citizens”.

On retiring, I said to myself: look for something outside the school where you can be useful to the marginalized.

I looked around here in the city. I came upon a number of possibilities. Finally I chose the Penitentiary. This is what I am offering the inmates at Villanubla:

- my time and my presence, (which for a few hours enables them to forget the prison routine);

- my closeness and my companionship (because if some day I make a mistake, I would like to have a friend help me and visit me);

- my friendship and affection (simply sharing their joys and their sorrows during the nine hours over the course of the week that I spend with them);

- in the art class I teach (we talk, we pass comments, they enjoy and I enjoy because I try to encourage and to create dreams);

- I don’t know what they learn in class from my lessons, but they help me to be more human, respectful and compassionate with others who have erred.

Last Thursday one of my students told me: “Don José, it hurts to be here in jail, but I want to be a dignified and peaceful person despite being a prisoner. The silence in my cell has helped me think and reflect a lot. I want to change”.

It is very gratifying to hear this from an inmate.

If I can help just one person in jail to live his days of detention with hope and with dreams, I will be satisfied.


Do any of you know someone who goes to jail happily? I do.

“The good man, who went about doing good to everyone, but mainly to the excluded and the marginalized of his time is Jesus de Nazareth and he tells us… I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was a foreigner and you welcomed me. I was in jail and you visited me. Jesus ended by saying: Whenever you did it to one of these, the least of my brothers, you did it to me.

I believe it and that is the source of my commitment to them.”

It was a simple but moving ceremony. I am grateful for the presence of Br. Fernando Sanchez. Thank you, Fernando.


On a more familiar level, I would add: what do I do at the jail?

- The first days were difficult, very difficult. I didn’t know where they had put me. The jail got inside of me. I went with all the prejudices of the outside world.

- Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 to 1:00 I teach a class of drawing and painting.

On Sundays I accompany the chaplain to the three Masses that are celebrated in the different modules. The jail has 9.

- My students are between 21 and 65 years old. They are of various nationalities and races, serving sentences for very diverse mistakes and crimes. I have always had Basque terrorists in class. Last year I had 8. One of them completed his seven-year sentence last May. On saying goodbye he gave me a book dedicated with these words: “To Don José, my good teacher and best friend”. At Christmas he sent me a card he had created himself.

- At times they can be very creative. One painted a large black spot in the center of his painting resembling a strange phantasm and four red crosses. I asked him what it represented. “They are the four persons I have killed and whom I carry on my back as an unbearable weight”.

- We interrupt the class so a guard can come in and I help the students take their dose of Methadone for the day.

- The Penitentiary lies 14 Km. from the city. I get a ride from a Jesuit who does social work there; when he is unable to take me, Br. Angel del Río does. Thanks again, Angelín.

- You find yourself among people of very different states of spirit: some who ooze hatred, despair, anguish, loneliness because nobody loves them, not even a visit … but in all of them there is a grain of goodness and good sentiments. I try to bring them out. I distribute the handout of J. A. Pagola’s weekly commentary of the Sunday gospel. I suggest the write on the blank back of the page what the reading suggested to them. So many hours alone in the cells allows many things.

“I have four children, I pray Jesus that the never see themselves as I am here in jail. Make them be good”, one man wrote on the page.

With an abrazo from your brother and friend.

Br. José Santamarta Castro - Valladolid, Spain
Prov. Compostela

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