Dominican Sister Mary Sean Hodges of Mission San Jose spent over 40 years teaching in Catholic schools across California before starting a second career aged 60, setting up the Partnership for Re-Entry Programme in the prison ministry, which offers both practical and emotional support for lifer prisoners on parole.
“I grew up here in LA and there were nine of us children. We were all very involved with school and the Sisters there. I think it was their influence that made me want to become religious, even at an early age. My mother wasn’t actually a Catholic until she married my Dad but she really lived her faith and I feel very blessed to have picked that up. When I went on to high school, we were taught by the Dominican Sisters – they were so friendly and outgoing that I decided I wanted to follow in their footsteps and teach as a Sister. I stayed in education, teaching math and religion for 39 years. After that, I took a sabbatical and met another sister in New York who had a prison ministry and it struck a chord.
I am very close to my brother, who is an alcoholic, and I think visiting him in prison and witnessing his continuing problems there influenced my desire to change things. I often thought about why he went back to alcohol after he’d got out and I realized it had to do the law of insanity: you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect it to work. I do believe that many people in prisons should actually be in treatment centres instead and that given the chance, they may not return to crime.
Perfect happiness for me is knowing who I am and being happy with that.
Lifers have to go to a parole board in order to get out and so we’ve developed a whole series of life lessons and skills to help them demonstrate how they’ve changed their lives. I receive a lot of letters from the inmates and we shape the lessons from the themes that come up. We had one prisoner that wrote a ‘hole in the heart’ lesson, for example, which examines what is missing in a person that keeps bringing them back into prison. It’s an important lesson because we all have a hole in our heart somewhere – we just need to learn how to deal with it.
Another lesson is about whether it’s possible to change your life in the negative environment of a prison. That’s important too, because your environment is really what you choose to make of it. Even lifers who never get out can grow within the prison. To see the change in a person over years of exchanging letters is exciting, but it can’t be forced – and that applies to everyone. If it’s not our time, we’re not capable of doing it as we’re not there yet. When it’s your time, it will happen.
I don’t feel my age is a setback – actually I feel it’s a blessing really because of the wisdom that comes with it.
Perfect happiness for me is knowing who I am and being happy with that. Although it comes naturally for lots of people, it’s something I’ve had to strive for. I think family life is key to everything. I had a very strict father who was an alcoholic. Now that I am older, I can admit that his drinking caused a lot of anger in our family, and also recognize that I picked up a lot of that anger. It is important to know that, and learn how to work with it.
I don’t feel my age is a setback – actually I feel it’s a blessing really because of the wisdom that comes with it and fortunately I also have plenty of energy. I don’t want to slow down. Having said that, I don’t like the creaks that come with the ageing of the body, I think my marathons caught up with me! I haven’t done one is eight years but I did 33 all together, including 23 consecutive marathons here in LA. I wish I still had time to get out and exercise every morning. I think it’s more important at my age – I am going to pay for it!
My dad worked constantly for his whole life, but when he was 65, he retired and he just sat in a chair and I thought ‘I never want to do that’. The thought of it scares me. I’ve always loved my work and I appreciate that. And I am a great believer that if you’re going to do something, do it right! I’m critical on the men [all ex lifer prisoners] who work with me and I get stinky with them because I’m demanding! But we represent all the lifers, so if we do our best, they can do their best and achieve freedom.
My life motto? Have enormous passion for what you do.