Right here on the East End of Long Island, a huge, labor-intensive and costly government operation quietly hums day and night. Most of us know little of this place beyond what we see as we drive past it. To others, directly or through a family member, perhaps, it is a grimly familiar place indeed.
We are referring to the Suffolk County jail. Officially, it is called the Suffolk County Correctional Facility, divided between sites at Riverhead and Yaphank. What you are about to read involves someone who knows our county jail intimately, who has worked there as a chaplain since 1993, and who has won the trust, and the hearts of literally thousands: Sister Michelle Bremer.
In this day of detachment, crude discourse and self-absorption, let’s briefly consider an inspiring life right here among us, a life dedicated to those described in the Bible as “…the least of Mine.”
The daughter of a hero in the USN submarine service who almost never returned from WWII, Michelle Bremer took vows as a nun while a teenager in 1964, a calling she first remembers at age 7, in the order of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. She became part of the “prison ministry” at the Suffolk Correctional Facility in 1993, after teaching in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, the mountains of Peru and the tropics of the Philippines.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on some of what jail is about to understand what Sister Michelle encounters each day. The words from the 1800s of Oscar Wilde come to mind: “The vilest deeds, like poison weeds, bloom well in prison air; it is only what is good in Man that wastes and withers there.”
Thrown into an environment where you are “cut off from your life,” is how one former inmate describes it, who now accepts that he deserved his punishment. “There’s no one you can trust — you always feel that way.” But then he said, “When I met Sister Michelle, and saw her in her nun’s habit,” all lingering distrust “was gone.”
Then there’s the retired Suffolk corrections officer (CO) who shared this: “Working in a correctional facility has its dark days — hostility from the inmates, and the depressing and malodorous surroundings would affect anyone.” But he went on, “On one such dark day, I visited Sister Michelle on my [time] allotted for travel from my work station. She counsels as many employees and staff as she does inmates. She has a wonderful, positive attitude. That is why so many depend on her.”
If Oscar Wilde were here to see Sister’s work, as well as its impact, surely his earlier observation would change considerably.
The Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead once suffered endless overcrowding, but the once-average population of 1,700 or more has dropped to about 1,000. Still, many inmates have backgrounds of poverty, or mental illness, lack of education, lengthy homelessness, and most prevalent of all, drug/alcohol addiction. Prior to their being jailed, for most of their lives, or for just one terrible event, they are living proof that the devil’s boots don’t creak, to borrow from a Scottish proverb.
The Suffolk County Correctional Facility’s “prison ministry” is somewhat of a misnomer. A prison, different from a jail, technically is for “prisoners” sentenced to more than a year of incarceration. There are no prisons on L.I. — all in NY are upstate. For its part, the SCCF, or jail, is for those “inmates” sentenced to a year or less. Many, however, will be housed at the SCCF awaiting trial, thereafter to serve “prison” sentences upstate or in a federal facility. These pre-trial detainees are often housed at Riverhead’s SCCF for great lengths of time, even more than a year in many cases.
The chaplains in the prison ministry here include Sister Michelle, stationed permanently at Riverhead (and Yaphank) along with a committed group of rotating priests, deacons, rabbis, ministers, Muslim clerics and others, and volunteers. Their work centers around “presence and hope” in this place of isolation, where inmates feel as alone and forgotten as their victims on the outside, in those cases where there are victims.
For the ministry at the jail, beginning a new life is the goal, to end this cycle of victims. Inmates are gradually led to a different way of thinking – a spiritual state, if you will – to open to the good within them, no matter how close it has come to disappearing. Many come to empathize with those they have caused to suffer, especially their victims and their families. Yet, a vast segment of the jail population is made up of inmates whose only real victims were themselves and their own families.
In either case, “Beginning A New Life” is actually the title of one vital program of prison ministry. It is another means for Sr. Michelle to pursue what at first seems an impossible task: supporting former inmates, men and women, in adjusting to a truly new life on the “outside.” She commented that she cannot “change their past choices,” but she strives always to give them a “sense of hope,” impressing upon them that jail is not all that there is, that change is possible for today and tomorrow.
In her effort to let them see their potential at a time when they cannot, Sister Michelle’s tasks vary from individual counseling, to translating Spanish, coordinating volunteers, to corresponding with inmates upstate, visiting inmates in hospital, to leading Bible study groups, and interceding for such needs as GED or English language classes, medical attention, clothing for use at release, even arranging haircuts. She has mastered the bureaucracy that all correctional facilities by law have become.
Many inmates she encounters can be described as threatening, and an increasing number of these are members of notorious gangs. But Sister Michelle has shared with this writer that she has never been afraid.
“God made us good,” she added, “There’s always good there that gets crusted over.”
There has been an ongoing drop in Suffolk’s inmate population, as well as in the current rate of most crimes committed in L.I.’s communities owing to many factors. There’s no doubt that the dedicated years of work of Sister Michelle and the prison ministry contribute in part to this welcome trend.
As our retired corrections officer put it, “Sister Michelle is available to all — COs, staff and inmates. Her positive attitude is contagious. The world is a better place with her in it. She is truly a gift.”
What could possibly explain our unique Sr. Michelle? Others have commented that her faith is her driving force. This brings to mind what Thomas Aquinas tells us from centuries ago: “To those who have faith, no explanation is necessary. To those without faith, no explanation is possible.”
Upon meeting her, one finds an enduring lesson in how to interact with others, along with a paradox of a dignity that is at the same time unassuming and of colossal proportion. She is far too humble to accept any praise, and was ill at ease with the thought of a column’s being written about her. But even in that respect, Sister Michelle finds comfort by anticipating it this way in an e-mail: “I can only pray that the outcome be for God’s own praise, and the good of our sisters and brothers in Him.”
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