Reconciled to God: St. Luke’s Centre and Carol Smith work with hardcore prisoners

Sara Jewell, Presbyterian Record,
March, 2009

At one o’clock in the afternoon, there is a knock on the door of the one-storey white house. Several men in their twenties and thirties walk in. They are dressed similarly, in jeans and white or light blue T-shirts. Carol Smith comes out of her office and greets the men with a wide smile. “Hi, guys,” she says. “Come on in.”

One of the men walks up to her. He is six inches taller than Smith and his chest is wide and thick. He wraps two muscled arms around her, the sleeves of his light blue T-shirt riding up to reveal heavy, colourful tattoos on his solid biceps. Without saying a word, he squeezes her. “It’s good to see you, James,” she replies, hugging him back.

This display of affection is a rare sight in a medium-security prison. However, the possibility exists inside the Springhill Institution, on the edge of Springhill, N.S., because of Smith and St. Luke’s Renewal Centre. It is located on the grounds of the institution and is the only stand-alone restorative justice program in the Canadian penal system. It was opened in 2000 by the Christian Council for Reconciliation, a non-profit organization based in Springhill that is dedicated to prison ministry.

“I think the founders of CCR saw there was a need for the prisoner to be reconciled to God, to the community, and to self. That’s the heart of it,” Carol Smith explains. “It’s drawn from the Scriptures where Paul tells us that we are in the ministry of reconciliation.” [2 Corinthians 5:11]

An ordained Presbyterian minister since 1995, Smith has volunteered with prison ministries for years. “Wherever I happened to find myself serving a congregation, I would volunteer at a nearby prison,” she says. She completed a diploma in restorative justice in 2002 and has been the facilitator at St. Luke’s since March 2007. Unlike prison chaplains she is not employed through Corrections Services Canada but by the council.

“I like the ecumenical nature of it and the focus on spirituality,” Smith says of her work. “You’re mostly dealing with the life issues and deep spiritual issues. You tend to feel like you’re relating to people on a very meaningful level.”

With roughly 500 inmates housed at the Springhill Institution, Smith says there are plenty of opportunities for spiritual care. In the course of a year, about 100 inmates will choose to visit St. Luke’s. As the only staff person, Smith says she wears different hats every day. Some days she is a teacher, other days a counsellor. “When I run a program like non-violent communication, the guys will come for the morning or afternoon and we’ll go through a program designed to help them deal with issues that relate to where they find themselves.” Other times, St. Luke’s offers a spiritual retreat for one inmate. “That would be a quiet day,” Smith explains. “We’d have coffee and a muffin then chat. The day is focused on what his needs are. The guys usually enjoy being out of the units where it’s quite noisy. This is a rest for them, a time for them to think, a time for us to talk.”

According to Smith, even prisoners considered ‘hard core’ can be changed by St. Luke’s because “just their interest in taking the programs or having a day apart for spiritual renewal means they are on the journey of healing.” But that healing journey may involve years–and several stays at the institution. “For restorative justice to take place there has to be reconciliation with the community, with the victim if possible, and with oneself,” explains Smith. “Restorative justice is hard work. You’re dealing with coming to terms with the wrong that has been committed. For healing to take place, there has to be some kind of acknowledgement of that. A lot of times, that element is left out and the inmate gets released and ends up feeling more isolated than when he went in.”

Smith encounters inmates who struggle with the feeling that no one, including God, cares any more. “I encourage them by saying ‘There is a purpose to your life, you are a valuable person and I believe that you can have a good life. There are a lot of things we can’t fix but we can try to heal as much as possible and try to move on.'” Forgiveness, she adds, “is a big issue. There seems to be a constant exploration around forgiving oneself.”

A man with a white beard strolls into the living room. “Hello, Pastor Smith,” Mel calls out. In prison for nearly 40 years, eight of those at the Springhill Institution, Mel considers St. Luke’s a refuge. “It’s a lot different than what we’re accustomed to,” Mel says. “We’re told you’re no good, you never will be any good. At St. Luke’s, there’s encouragement. They seem to think we’re of some value.”

This is Carol Smith’s vision of restorative justice at St. Luke’s. “We try to relate to the humanity in each of us,” Smith states. “When someone comes into St. Luke’s, we don’t label him a thief, a con artist, a killer. He’s a person with potential. With a family and hopes and dreams.”

And Rev. Smith will welcome him with open arms.

Sara Jewell is a freelance writer.