The Rev. Helen Tervo, the Diocese of New Westminster’s chaplain at the Pacific Institute, Regional Treatment Centre, in Abbotsford.

The Rev. Helen Tervo had never considered prison work early on in her career as an Anglican priest. She was out of a job and looking for a new congregation, when an opening came up at CSC in the Prairie Region. "Within two weeks of working at the institution," she says, "I knew this was where I was called to be.

She remembers the first day she was on her own in the institution. A young inmate walked into her office, just to talk. "And he said, 'There's somewhere in the Bible about this son, who takes all his money and goes and wastes it.'"

"I told him it was the story of the prodigal son and asked if he wanted me to read it to him. When I finished, he said 'That's my story.' It was like God had given me this moment to say 'You belong here.'"

Now based at the Pacific Institution / Regional Treatment Centre, in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Tervo, along with Father Joe Ostopowich, a Catholic chaplain, is part of a multidisciplinary team of psychiatric nurses, psychologists, psychotherapists and other health care professionals within the almost 400-bed facility, which includes a reception and assessment unit, a medical hospital, a psychiatric hospital and a rehabilitation unit.

As full-time institutional chaplains, dealing with diversity is a major consideration for Tervo and her Catholic counterpart. "We have people from all the major ethnic and religious communities. So you need to understand the cultural assumptions that different individuals have, and to work within that."

Other faith groups have their spiritual needs attended to by visiting Aboriginal Elders, as well as Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist and Wiccan chaplains.

A Day in the Institution

Tervo maintains there is no such thing as a typical day. After attending the team meeting, she spends most of her mornings going to where the men are, either in the hospitals or the rehabilitation unit, since many are unable to leave their unit.

"And if there's someone who wants to talk, I'll stop and talk to them. There's a huge range of conversations we can have, just at the drop of a hat, like 'How come God let me do such terrible things?' or 'Where can I find forgiveness?'"

Afternoons may be spent in one-on-one counseling, planning the weekly chapel service, talking to volunteers, acting as a go-between for the men, liaising with their family members, escorting offenders on temporary absences and ministering to the spiritual needs of staff members who may be going through a rough time.

"Whether someone is religious or not, the most important thing in all of this is that chaplains are about relationships. People with mental illness aren't any different from people without mental illness in terms of trying to connect or to find some meaning in their lives," she says.

Striking a Balance

Though she considers herself to be an integral part of the treatment team, Tervo tries to strike a balance between the demands of the correctional system and her role as spiritual advisor.

The chapel inside the Regional Treatment Centre

"As chaplains, we're in but not of Corrections," she emphasizes. "It's easy to begin to talk the language and get pulled in, but I've had to learn that I'm here for spiritual purposes. That's my place on the team - to raise some of those issues around forgiveness and compassion and meaning."

Maintaining the balance can be challenging, when offenders speak with Tervo in confidence. She often has to make a judgment call about sharing the information, especially where health and safety are concerned.

"Confidentiality is important, but my understanding of confidentiality is not secrecy," she says, "and I make this clear to the men." For example, if an offender discloses a past history of sexual abuse, her first reaction is to see whether he has tried to get professional help and, if not, to connect him with the right services.

"The same thing with suicide," she says. "Anytime someone talks to me about suicide, I say 'Who can we talk to about this, right now?' I don't leave the men with me being the only person they've spoken to."

Working with Families

As Tervo points out, inmates who are mentally ill are often estranged from their families, especially in cases where the family has been the victim, or simply because they are worn out from years spent on an emotional roller-coaster.

She has to tread carefully, to avoid working towards reconciliation before all parties are ready for it. "You want to build a solid relationship that may not be one of those Oprah Winfrey moments, but something that gets both sides involved," she says.

"Amazingly, there are families who do stay in contact," she adds. "In lots of ways, when someone is mentally ill and in prison, the family can finally relax and know they're safe. They don't have to worry about their brother, or son or father living on the street somewhere in downtown Vancouver."

The Frustrations

One of the biggest frustrations for Tervo is to work with an inmate for several months, to see him make progress, and then lapse back into familiar patterns.

"You can have a direct result in someone's life, but it can disappear very quickly, like a decision not to stay on their medication," she says. "With mental illness, it's not something that they can just think away. Just because they have an insight one day, it doesn't mean that's going to hold them six months down the road. One of the frustrations with chaplaincy and doing spiritual work in a place like Corrections is that we're eager to measure. But our job is to step back from measurements, to know that we can have an impact on somebody that may not show up right away."

The Rewards

For Tervo, it comes down to a question of faith and trust that broken lives can be rebuilt, that showing kindness and compassion to those who least expect it can make a big difference, even if the results aren't immediate.

"I can't tell you the number of men who sit in my office and tell me about a correctional officer who said something encouraging to them 20 years ago or gave them a break. They still remember these things. So, we have to trust that the good we do is good, that there are some people who are able to turn their lives around and leave prison to lead a rewarding life. But we don't see that every day," she adds. "It comes in moments, not in great plans."

She observes that being a chaplain isn't mainstream pastoral care. "This is going into people's lives at a very dark time, and reminding them that they are more than whatever dreadful things have been done to them or that they've done to others, that they are more than the mental illness they've got. They can then start to see themselves the way God would see them. And they can see some hope," she says. "When I get a chance to be part of that, it makes it all worthwhile."

This article was first published in Let's Talk, a publication of the Correctional Service of Canada, in an issue devoted to addressing the mental health needs of offenders. It is reprinted with permission. It is available on the Correctional Service's website, Helen Tervo also serves as an honourary assistant priest at St. Dunstan's, Aldergrove.