Known as the “Prison Angel,” Sister of St. Joseph Elaine Roulet anticipated Pope Francis’ special attention to prisoners by decades when she began as a prison family liaison in 1971. For more than 35 years she rose at 4 a.m., prayed from 4 to 5, went to Mass, swam at a local pool and then, prior to moving closer, drove two hours to the prison. On her arrival at 8:30 she was locked up all day with female inmates and their children.
Eighty percent of incarcerated women have children. At the women’s prison in Bedford Hills, New York, some women are permitted to keep babies born there until they are 12 to 18 months old. Roulet says there is nothing sad about having a nursery in prison. The babies don’t know they are in prison, but they do know they are with their mothers in a loving environment. The “saddest thing in the world,” Roulet said, is separating women from their babies when it is time for the babies to leave.
After eight years in the prison nursery, Roulet founded the Children’s Center to strengthen the bond between mother and child. It includes a parenting center, children’s playroom, nursery, infant center, prenatal center, child advocacy office, summer program and taping room.
Between visits, prisoners make tapes of children’s books so the child can hear mommy read a book at bedtime.
During the school year, Roulet and other sisters drove large numbers of children from all over New York City up to the prison for visiting days. During the summer, the families of up – scale Bedford Hills served as hosts to children who stayed with them for “camp” — being with their mothers from 9 to 3 for one week in the Children’s Center.
Roulet is an outspoken advocate for prison reform. She speaks of women wrongly incarcerated, women serving long sentences as a result of being victims in domestic violence, women buying cigarettes who are caught in a drug sweep, women addicted to drugs. She talks about social class and poverty influencing whether or not one goes to prison: “A rich boy’s prank is a poor boy’s felony.”
Saying that some of the finest people she knows are inmates, Roulet gave as an example a young woman working in the nursery who had an encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture. “Think of that,” Roulet said. “That young woman goes back to her cell year in and year out, night after night, and studies her Bible.”
For many years, Roulet not only worked with inmates, but also lived with ex-offenders and their children in one of many Providence Houses she and other sisters established as residences for ex-offenders, battered women and their children.
Providence Houses took the women and their children in regardless of their faith or backgrounds, she said, because “God is in each one of us and that’s what really counts.”
After Sr. Roulet retired from her role as chaplain at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in 2005, at age 75, she and four women who were formerly incarcerated at the prison started Our Journey. Sr. Elaine saw the need for a spiritual thrust in their lives, and contacted Brother Tom Grady and Dr. Frank Macchiarola (then-President of St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, New York) to ask if Our Journey, Inc. could use space at the College to provide a spiritual renewal for formerly incarcerated women. Our Journey, Inc. has been going strong there for more than 10 years.
Sr. Roulet was admitted to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1993 and has, at last count, three honorary doctorates, but her greatest award may be seen in a coincidence that occurred in 1979.
At the time, the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood, New York, were trying to decide what to call their proposed residences for newly released offenders and their children. At Roulet’s suggestion, one of the nuns closed her eyes, opened the Bible and pointed to a line. When she opened her eyes, at her fingertip were the words “God will provide.” The sisters decided to call the residences “Providence Houses.”
A visiting nun who belonged to the French order from which the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood sprang congratulated Roulet. “Providence House!” she said. “You really did your research.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Don’t you know?” said the other. “The Sisters of St. Joseph opened Providence Houses for women coming out of prison in the 16th century…”