Douillard, Phyllis – Encountering Prisoners and Former Prisoners,

… a Mission of Transformation

Sister Phyllis Douillard could never have imagined the surprising discoveries that she would make when meeting people ostracized by society as a result of their criminal activities.

She credits the origin of her commitment to these marginalized people to two landmark experiences dating back more than 26 years. At that time, Sr. Phyllis was teaching at a school within the Montreal Catholic School Commission. Each year, inmates would come to share their journey with the students.

During that same time, she and her students would go to Holy Family Parish to participate in an annual retreat led by a former prisoner. These moments of encounter became a source of revelation. “I began to realize that these people had discovered their mission. They could make a difference in the world. Their mission was unique and linked to their life experience.”

“Seeing the beauty in each person”

From there, Sr. Phyllis joined a Francophone and an Anglophone volunteer group, whose participants visit prisoners in penal institutions. The beginning of a new adventure of encounters was opening up, based on the restorative justice approach which encompasses three levels of offender involvement.*

Involved in what is referred to as the first-level approach, Sister Phyllis, along with five other volunteers, participates in regular meetings with six inmates. This first-level approach aims to help the prisoner become conscious of the scope of his/her crime and the effects and major impacts experienced by the victims and their families.

These meetings, experienced in an atmosphere of trust and truth, have profoundly transformed Sr. Phyllis. In calling to mind Mother Marie-Rose, she emphasizes “I have learned to see the beauty within each person, to help each person become his/her true self, in the depths of that person’s being, regardless of his/her criminal acts.”

The power of the Spirit

An encounter with a 25-year-old deeply touched Sr. Phyllis. By generously sharing who he was, with no pretense, this young man demonstrated that his inner child was good. However, shaken up by the circumstances of life, he had allowed himself to be led into committing a crime.

“His story made me realize how much God loved this young man, with his history of crime. As surely as God loves him, God loves me. God loves me with the same love. God loves me just as I am. In fact, God loves each person just as he/she is.” This awareness, like many others, surfaces through regular contact with the prisoners and the other volunteers. Each one allows himself/herself to be transformed by these conversations marked by truth.

Sr. Phyllis has surrounded herself with a network of prayer to support her in her commitment. And so, the Sisters in Pavillon St-Charles are sometimes invited to pray for a particular prisoner or for the resolution to a complex or difficult situation. “I am convinced that the Spirit is a great source of help to me in my commitment,” she affirms.

Spreading the transformative effect

 Sr. Phyllis also shares her experiences within her community group and in her daily encounters with others. It is a way of bringing others into contact with a very particular reality and of leading them to greater openness in the face of difference. Because of these discussions, people become more aware of the principles of restorative justice.

Almost unconsciously, Sr. Phyllis spreads, to those around her, the effect of this “transformation” experienced through contact with prisoners. It is one way to broaden the scope of her mission.

*What is restorative justice?

The concept of restorative justice draws on the cultural and religious traditions of indigenous peoples of North America and New Zealand (Zehr, 2010). This modern concept made its appearance in Quebec in the late 70’s, after an initial venture into Ontario in 1974.

While recognizing that there are several definitions of restorative justice, the basic principles are indisputable, including acknowledging that criminal behaviour affects not only the victim, but also the community and the criminal himself/herself. (Ontario Justice Education Network [OJEN], date unknown).

“In restorative justice, we focus on the implication of the victim, the community and the offender (OJEN, date unknown), who are all seen as core players in the restorative process. The state may have a certain role in facilitating the process, but it is not central to the process (Zehr, 2002). The damage caused by the criminal act creates, on the part of the perpetrator, the obligation to repair it. The latter is led to an awareness of the harm caused to the victim and undertakes ways to repair it.”

“Crime also engenders community responsibilities: support for victims of criminal acts and participation in the social reintegration of offenders. Restorative justice aims at healing the wounds inflicted on all those affected by the crime and repairing the harm that has resulted. . .”

In short, “restorative justice has as its goal to meet the needs of the victim, as well as those of the offender and the community (Zehr, 2010).”

Source (Text in French only)

Other sources in English: Justice Canada  | Centre de services de  justice réparatrice

And a video