A bar of soap, a roll of toilet paper, a foam pillow, sheets, a plate: that is all that the inmates whom Sr Livia meets, own. Looking at an old phone, she says, “Here is a message: a wife who is desperate because she doesn’t know how to send things to her husband, who was arrested the other day”. She continues, “They might even be extremely wealthy people, but once they are arrested and sent to the nearest prison, all they have are the clothes they are wearing and the prison kit”. And that is where she comes in: Sr Livia Ciaramella, the head of rehabilitation programmes at the San Donato prison in Pescara, Italy. She was born in Abruzzo Region and is a religious sister of the Congregation of the Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, founded by Mother Eugenia Ravasco. After serving as a missionary in Côte d’Ivoire, in 2006, Sr Livia was invited to animate the Eucharistic celebration by the then prison chaplain, Fr Marco Pagniello, who today is the Director of Caritas Italy.
She has not abandoned the inmates since. “The most difficult moment”, she says, “is when they arrive: the impression of the prison, when they go from eating homemade food to prison food, when they no longer have anything; to lose the opportunity to speak with them, to listen to them in that very delicate moment, could have irreversible consequences”.
Her constant readiness to listen and her gaze of unconditional love point to an even greater Love. In fact, there are many spiritual initiatives for the inmates. Aside from the Eucharistic celebration and the possibility to go to confession with the chaplain, there are special occasions during the year that Sr Livia’s creativity has transformed into intense moments of prayer. “In May, I put up a calendar in each section of the prison. The inmates sign up and I go into their cells to pray the Rosary: the day before yesterday, I prayed in seven different cells. I arrive, carrying a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, and we all pray together”.
But her work is multifaceted: Sr Livia wakes up at 5 a.m. After praying, she picks up snacks for the inmates which are provided by generous benefactors. Then she heads to the prison where she leads different workshops every day so that the inmates can use their manual skills, even crafting small handmade items to be sold at benefit markets organised by Sr Livia. Proceeds from the sales go toward buying necessary items for new arrivals. Everything is thought out so that inmates do not lose their dignity. “I encounter the person”, says Sr Livia, “but in encountering the person, I am bringing Jesus, so that that person may feel loved and not judged”.
Experience has by now given her a good understanding of penitentiary system laws, and Sr Livia uses them to give inmates the possibility of experiencing true humanity, because a love this big cannot remain trapped within prison walls. There are, in fact, various initiatives that the “nun from Ravasco” — as members of her Congregation are often called — has organised with inmates even outside the prison. “In accordance with Article 21, in collaboration with Unitalsi, we have sometimes taken some young people to do community service with the sick in Pompeii or Loreto. Their tasks included pushing patients’ wheelchairs and helping them with whatever they needed”.
She pays special attention to the Eucharistic celebration, which is always prepared with great care: “In accordance with Article 17, on special occasions like Christmas and Easter, when Archbishop Tommaso Valentinetti of Pescara-Penne comes to celebrate, I invite some young people who play various musical instruments, to make Mass even more beautiful: we have a liturgical group and every Sunday, we already know who will read and be in charge of the different ministries”.
There are many stories of suffering, many broken families who find an anchor of salvation in this religious sister. And this brings about many fruits in different ways. Among them is the most beautiful of all: “Sometimes people ask me to teach them to pray, this is often the question-symptom that stirs me to ask if they are baptised. Sometimes they are not. And then I create personalised preparation programmes, in addition to Saturday catechism, so that they can receive the sacraments of Christian initiation”.
With the prison being named after Saint Donato, Sr Livia even managed to get the saint into the prison. In fact, in 2018, the urn containing the saint’s relics arrived from Castiglione Messer Raimondo (Teramo Province, Italy) and was brought inside the prison for an entire day of prayer and a Eucharistic celebration.
Sr Livia’s concern obviously extends to what happens after the inmates are released from prison. This is why she is in constant collaboration with the Comunità educanti con i carcerati (Prisoners’ Educational Communities), a project spearheaded by the “Pope John XXIII Community” Association, which is dedicated to inmates’ rehabilitation. “When they leave prison they must be stronger than before, otherwise prison is reduced to merely keeping people inside”.