Sister unlocks hope for women in jail


By Deb Litman  

Reprinted with permission from “Good News,” which is published by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia 

Entering the Baltimore City Women’s Detention Center as an inmate can be an intimidating experience. Once a woman is arrested, she is taken by the police to Central Booking for processing. She is searched, stripped of all personal belongings, finger-printed, and issued a uniform. Then she is sent to the detention center where she is placed in quarantine to be assessed medically, psychologically, and for security level. After a week or two, she is moved into the general population where she is housed in a dormitory containing rows of metal bunk beds furnished with thin mattresses.

Even for people coming to the detention center on other business, the place can be daunting with its maze of concrete-block buildings surrounded by chain link fences. Sister Kathy Dougherty recalls clearly the apprehension she felt on her first visit to the facility 30 years ago. At that time, Sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia Sister Elena Goulding was chaplain of the facility and Sister Kathy, then a high school teacher, was delivering a box of toiletries that her students had collected for the women detained at the center. “I remember it being so depressing,” said Sister Kathy. “I thought to myself that I could never do what Sister Elena was doing.”

Then about three years ago, Sister Kathy returned from a year of renewal and began searching for her next ministry. While exploring a website dedicated to ministry openings, she saw that there was an opening for a chaplain at the detention center. “Despite my earlier impressions, I couldn’t get that out of my head. Every time I sat down to pray it was there. When I finally visited the center again, it seemed to me that that was where I needed to be.”

Today Sister Kathy serves as chaplain at the women’s detention center and her ministry brings her into daily contact with women who have hit rock bottom. Many suffer from addiction which has led them to illegal activity. It is not unusual for them to suffer from mental health issues and serious medical problems or to have been victims of physical and sexual abuse. Some women who have been detained are not guilty of any crime but, because of their economic status, they cannot produce bail and sit for months in detention awaiting their day in court.


Each day Sister Kathy meets with an average of 25 women in a series of one-on-one meetings. She listens to their stories, prays with them, and assesses their needs. For many women the most immediate needs they present are practical, external ones. In response Sister Kathy provides toiletry bags much like the ones she delivered from her students thirty years ago. This seemingly small offering—a bag containing a travel size tube of toothpaste, soap, deodorant, and a few other items—can mean the world to a woman at the detention center. “I’ve had women cry when I give them a bar of soap,” said Sister Kathy. “It is very humbling.”

According to Sister Kathy, this is a piece of her ministry that she couldn’t accomplish on her own. Individuals, parish groups, school children, Sisters of St. Francis, and even former inmates supply her with donations of toiletries to assist the women. In addition to toiletries, the women often need undergarments as well as clothing to wear when they are released.

Former inmate Kelly* remembers what a big deal it was to be on the receiving end of those donations. “Something like real toothpaste is such a luxury in there,” she said. Now that she is out on her own, Kelly gives back by making up bags for “the girls” and bringing them to Sister Kathy.


For many inmates like Kelly, what starts as a practical relationship—Sister Kathy as the supplier of material items—develops into a personal one—Sister Kathy as the sounding board, the advocate, the supporter. “Once they realize I am here to help them, many of the women become more open to sharing their stories,” said Sister Kathy. “I don’t preach to them; I just take them where they are. I ask them, ‘what do you think would help you?’ and draw them out when they are ready.”

Kelly says finding Sister Kathy was a blessing for which she is extremely grateful. “I couldn’t confide in other inmates because when they got mad, they would use the information against me,” said Kelly. “I went to see Sister Kathy whenever I could. If I had a problem, I could always talk to her and I never felt like I was being judged. There were times I wanted to give up or lash out but with Sister Kathy I felt like I had my mom there to listen to me and keep me in line.”

“The women understand that I’m an ally,” said Sister Kathy. “I treat them like people. I call them by name rather than number. I keep their confidences.” And, when they are ready, Sister Kathy facilitates reflection on a desire to change. Some want to do better but are not ready to do the work that goes with it. Others have the motivation they need, whether it is a yearning to get their children back or the weariness of living a life ruled by drugs and crime.

When Tagerin* arrived at the detention center after being arrested on drug and gun possession charges, she said she was “devastated but happy not to run any more.” After a few days of feeling low, she said she surrendered to God and decided to become “a new person.” When she met Sister Kathy a week or so later, she felt Sister Kathy was someone she could trust. “She was real sweet and kind and caring to people,” said Tagerin. “I started to feel real connected to Sister Kathy. I talked to her, cried, and told her the truth about myself.”


In addition to being there to listen to and support women in their daily struggles, Sister Kathy works to provide for their spiritual needs. She conducts a weekly Catholic Communion service as well as observances for holy days. On Friday afternoons she leads a class on prayer and spirituality which incorporates everything from Scripture readings and discussion to centering prayer, meditation, and journaling. She also brings in volunteers from various religions to provide worship services for women of other traditions.

“This is a place of awakenings,” said Sister Kathy. “Once the women are here for a while and they start to think more clearly, it is not unusual for them to come to a service and find their hearts somehow touched. They find a challenge to a more moral way of living and see that ‘When I do these things, life seems better.’”

Often groups from the Archdiocese of Baltimore will come to the detention center to conduct a service or lead a reflection. On one such day, a volunteer did a reading on forgiveness. “There was one inmate for whom it was just like a light bulb had gone off in her head,” said Sister Kathy. “She began sharing with the group, telling them that on the streets she felt in control of everything—in this case, the dealers and the pimps. However, she had also prostituted herself and at one point was raped and brutalized to the point where she was in a coma for three months. Seven years had passed since that time and at this moment she sensed that God was asking her to imagine how bad the life of the man who hurt her must have been to lead him to do something like that. She felt there had to be a reason that she survived and used that as inspiration to try to move from what she had been to the person she knew she could be.”

Sister Kathy also remembered Carolyn*, an inmate who became particularly emotional during a Good Friday service during which there was a reflection on Mary’s suffering in seeing her son crucified. Sister Kathy looked over and saw Carolyn’s eyes filling with tears and remembered that Carolyn’s own son had been murdered. She knew that suffering and related deeply to Jesus’ mother’s pain.

“Being with these women and seeing the suffering in their lives has been a very meaningful spiritual experience for me,” said Sister Kathy. “What I hope I can provide for them is the knowledge that someone chooses to be with them in the midst of their suffering to share their burden and that someone sees the person of Christ in them.”


As the women at the detention center do the internal work of the heart and the spirit, they must also begin to face the challenge of transitioning to life after the detention center. For some, the move will be to prison. For others, the joy of release will be tempered by the reality of a return to the same set of circumstances that led them to the choices that landed them in jail in the first place.

“A lot of the women go back into the same environment and pick up the same habits,” said Sister Kathy. “They have been in the cycle for so long—their whole lives in many cases—that it is extremely difficult to break that. Many women are in jail five or six times before they say, ‘I’m tired of this. I’m ready to change.’ Some never get to that point. For them my role is just being present.”

For those ready to do the hard work required for change, Sister Kathy is their biggest champion. She encourages them and helps them to find support on the outside. In Tagerin’s case that meant help getting into Marion House, a program that provides housing, counseling and case management, addiction treatment, education, employment assistance, and life skills training. “Sister Kathy was there with me in court. She told me about the program at Marion House, got me an interview, and went with me to the interview. She had a big part in getting me to where I am today.”

Today Tagerin is doing well at Marion House. She knows she still has a long way to go but feels she is on the right track. And her relationship with Sister Kathy still serves as a support for her to lean on. “I have Sister Kathy listed in my phone as ‘Guardian Angel,’” said Tagerin. “She was there for me when no one else was and she is still there whenever I need her.”

As Tagerin begins this bright new chapter of her life, another group of women are just facing their first night in quarantine. Fortunately Sister Kathy will be there for them, too—providing, listening, caring, and helping them on their way.

* Last names have been removed to protect the person’s privacy.

Published Jan. 5, 2012 on 

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.