The pain of prisoners

Columban missionary Sr. Tammy Saberon talks about her ministry with prisoners “prisoners and her realisation that "underneath their tattooed skin, they are beautiful people."

Sr Tammy Saberon is a Filipina Columban missionary who ministered for many years in Hong Kong, and later in Myanmar. Her main apostolate in both places was the Biblical Pastoral Apostolate. At the request of the Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar, she headed up the Biblical Pastoral Ministry Commission. When all the materials for the ministry had been made available in Burmese and the other ethnic languages of the region, it was time to turn the ministry over to the local Church,
which she did.

After a time of prayerful discernment she felt a strong call to serve her own people back in the Philippines. It seemed to her that God was calling her to prison ministry. So she returned to the Philippines and concentrated on preparing herself professionally for this new, very different and very challenging ministry. Now, as a Pastoral Care Counsellor, she meets prisoners in a large Manila prison on a one-to-one basis.

“I listen to their stories and am touched by the prisoner’s struggles, their pain and their anxieties. It particularly pains me to listen to young girls, many in their teens who are themselves victims of sexual violence, particularly incest, or who have been sold into prostitution. I feel helpless and vulnerable when I hear of these girls having babies while they are still children themselves – often just thirteen or fourteen years of age.”

“One such woman, I’ll call her Maria, left home to follow her dream of pursuing her education. She worked as a maid for a rich family. But after a short time she was drugged, held in chains and raped by the son of her employer and other clients of this drug lord. This went on for years and she gave birth to two children. One day a surprise ‘client’ entered her room. Shocked, he recognised his very own sister. She did not recognise him. He was a friend of the drug lord and was into drugs himself. Appalled at his sister’s situation, and no doubt with some feelings of guilt, he worked hard and was able to rescue her and her two children and bring them back home to her family.”

Reflecting on the effect of this ministry on herself, Sr Tammy explains, “This ministry to prisoners has touched my heart of stone and changed it into a heart of flesh. I have come to realise that, underneath their tattooed skin, they are beautiful people, as they break into tears telling me their personal stories. Although the conditions in the prison are terrible – the prison was originally built to house 800 and it now houses 3,000 – many of them are grateful to be in prison. If they go out, they have no family to return to and no work, so they will go back to stealing food in order to survive. Also, some of them would be in danger of being killed by drug lords. More importantly, many of them have become aware of God in their lives. They realise the kind of life they lived before going to prison, and gradually they come to experience a change of heart.”


“In the midst of all the listening I find I am able to do something practical to help those who are imprisoned on lighter charges. While I am the only one providing “One such woman, I’ll call her Maria, left home to “the pain of A Columban missionary talks about her ministry with prisoners “prisoners and her realisation that “underneath their tattooed skin, they are beautiful people”. one-to-one counselling, there are many Service Providers in the jail from different organisations, Christian denominations and NGOs. I am therefore able to recommend the prisoners to agencies such as the para-legal services to review their cases and speed up their trials. Others need scholarships so that their children can be educated, and in these cases the volunteer service of Sacred Heart Parish run by the Divine Word Congregation, is able to help.”

“Many of the prisoners themselves have only received an elementary school education. I can help them finish secondary school so that they qualify for some skills training. They are helped to learn vocational skills by the Alternative Learning System that prepares them for life after prison. For example, thanks to our Columban friends and benefactors, I was able to supply the ingredients for some of them to qualify in baking and pastry-making which offers an opportunity to work in hotels or bakeries. I was also able to secure four sewing machines for the livelihood programme – two traditional and two electric ones. It opened doors of opportunity for many of the women. The certificates they get from the Department of Education do not indicate that their training was in the jail.”

Recently, another dimension of the ministry unfolded. “One day the Warden approached me to ask if I could help with the staff, so that they would have a better understanding of themselves, and so be able to give a better service to the inmates. I took this on and now I meet the prison personnel individually.”

Sr Tammy concludes, “I am happy that my service is welcomed and needed and I can feel the unfolding of God’s call for me as the ministry develops. Even though it can be stressful and difficult, I love my apostolate. It is an enriching experience to journey with people on the margins. I thank God every day as he continues to bless each one of us in his great love.”

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”

Isaiah 61:1