I am trying to go to prison. Said no one EVER! Except that I have said it a lot over the past few weeks while researching ways to go to the big house that don’t involve handcuffs and embarrassing frisks.
I hear myself saying these words ever sincerely, and yet they sound so strange. When I think about really going, I can’t imagine anything more hellish. The accommodations alone seem dismal.
A few years ago, I went with my son and his Cub Scout pack to the U.S.S. Yorktown in Charleston, South Carolina. We stayed 2 nights on the ship. The women slept in the officers’ quarters where there were four bunks to a room. Everything was gray and not a West Elm hip gray, but a biting cold battleship gray that never saw the hope of sunlight. It was like sleeping in a room of gloom. I couldn’t imagine being confined to it for any length of time.
That’s just the start of what I think of when I imagine going to prison. Of course there is far, far worse things that happen in prison, maybe the worst of which is being forgotten altogether.
But really, who among us cares?
I read the paper and am astounded at the terror in our world wrought not by monsters, but mankind. They bring to the light of day our worst nightmares. Sometimes by committing acts that are so despicable that we never could have imagined such horror and brutality.
It scares the hell out of us.
So we say things like “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key, take them out back and shoot ‘em and let ‘em fry.” I am sure there is even far worse that is said.
And I get it. I have said some of those same things. I have been so full of anger, hurt and fear that I no longer see the perpetrator’s humanity. All I see is justice, which is easily confused with retribution.
I no longer see the face of God in these people. I throw stones with my thoughts and words; cast judgments without a second thought. Instead of turning my cheek, I turn a blind eye to underlying tenants of my faith like compassion and mercy. I toss these people with my newspaper; they are disposable and forgotten. Sure, I may remember their crime, but I don’t remember them because I never saw them as anything but their crime.
More than anything, what I forget is that God loves them as much as He does me.
Try wrapping your mind around that. Suddenly I feel like the jealous brother in the prodigal son. Really, God? You love the ax murderer as much as you love me? Don’t you love me just a tiny bit more?
It’s too much to comprehend. And I don’t think I would be considering it all if it were not for my mid-life quest to do works of mercy.
So here I am, a 41-year-old woman trying to go to prison. No, not as an inmate, but as a fallible human trying to get past my own prejudices, discomfort and fears to that place of mercy and compassion which God in his constancy has always shown me.
I am not sure the prison system knows that it’s a work of mercy to visit there either, or if they just don’t get many people from the outside clamoring to go in. They have not been too receptive to my phone calls explaining that I need to visit a prisoner. I guess not everyone understands my version of a mid-life crisis.
Through alternative efforts, I did speak to two very nice men who share not only the name Bill, but an incredibly compassionate perspective of prisoners. The first Bill was shot while being robbed at an ATM. “He found himself in his own prison of anger, hatred, and resentment.” That is a quote from his website http://restoredlifejourneys.org
You see, Bill’s journey took him out of his spiritual prison and into the one with concrete, barb wire and fences. He started a program “connecting victims of violence with inmates in ways that foster healing, rehabilitation, and reconciliation.”
In short, there is a dialogue between the forgotten and the ones who wish they could forget. By talking to victims, offenders begin to understand the profound impact of their crimes. They learn to think beyond themselves and there is a shared healing.
Unfortunately, I have been a victim of crime. Bill listened with compassion as I told him not only what happened, but how it affected me. He invited me to share my story with the imprisoned. As much as I believe in his work and this program, the thought of being enclosed in a room with convicted felons to relive what I try to forget…well, I just don’t think I am there yet. I told him I would think about it. So I do.
The other Bill’s story is not as dramatic, but his compassion is certainly as remarkable. During his career he worked with juveniles in detention centers. He told me many of these young people were there for stuff that he did as a kid but was never arrested “either because I wasn’t caught or because in ‘ancient times’ …people didn’t call the law on us.” He said even when “borrowing” cars and leaving them a block away he figured people “were probably more annoyed that the gas tank was empty.”
His candor struck me. It also forced me to consider beyond ways which I have breached God’s law to those statutes I have violated that have consequences beyond prayers of penance. No, I’m not so innocent either.
Bill has been visiting the state prison for 10 years now. When he said he would go with me to prison, I must have repeated his words back to him five times confirming that he would indeed go with me. This was a huge comfort because really, I know nothing of proper prison etiquette.
Is it okay to smile? Do you shake their hand? Do you acknowledge their circumstances? Ask them about their lives? Treat them like you would anyone you just meet?
It really is a lot to consider and by doing so, I realize how different my perspective of these people are from those who are discreetly shackled by sin and irreverence to God’s laws.
I gave Bill #2 enough personal information to successfully steal my identity (how do you not trust a guy who hangs out with prisoners!), and he is working with a Deacon to fill out all the necessary paperwork to get me into the state prison.
It would be a lie if I told you I wasn’t scared. Yet, there is also a part of me that is excited to have the chance to see in color something that I have always seen in black and white.
I shared that enthusiasm recently in an email to Bill #2 and when he wrote back it started with “You are the exception, Lara.”
For days, these words played over in my mind. However kind they were, they bothered me.
So I want to clarify that I am not the exception.
I wish that I were. I wish I understood how God could love some of “those” people. I wish I could understand the depth of God’s mercy. I wish I could say that I am not afraid to visit prisoners or that the next time I read a horror in the paper that I will pray not only for the victim, but the perpetrator.
But Bill said something else too. He said he has seen miracles behind those prison walls. As I listen to the tone of hope in his voice when we talk about those imprisoned, I can’t help but soften.
In fact, it makes me think that perhaps the greater miracle would be a more compassionate perspective from those of us on the outside of the prison walls who think of these sinners as monsters not as men.
Now, that would be a miracle.
It seems contradictory to have compassion for prisoners considering the heartache they cause. I guess ultimately it comes back to forgiveness. As a society could we be more forgiving of those who perpetrate such considerable pain? Should we leave the consequences to the courts and approach prisoners with the compassion that God shows us?
To be clear, I am not, nor have any of the advocates I have spoken to, suggested that those convicted not be punished for their crime. But should we as private citizens consider them unworthy of human compassion, companionship and dignity?
Mother Teresa said “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.” Just what if she is right?
Please share a comment, I would love to know what you think.