Mercy Me! I've got work to do.

Mercy Me — I've got work to do! making the world a better place – starting with me.

Florida State Prison

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An eye for an eye has been realized.

Every horror that has ever been wished on convicted felons by those of us in civilized society reveals itself in prison.

I saw it for myself on my visit to Florida State Prison in Raiford.  I heard it in the stories told by the Deacon who goes several times a week to minister to the imprisoned.

They have committed horrible crimes, and for that they are punished in a way that seems inhumane and unfathomable.

This may please you. This may comfort you.  This may somehow validate your righteousness or your sense of justice.

It did none of those things for me.003

I entered into a concrete world of razor wire, metal bars, shackles, bolts and locks.  There is a tower guard with a gun perched high at the entrance.  There are gates that open and close intuitively and imposingly.  I didn’t go very far without encountering another gate, making me ever aware that I am going farther and farther from the life I know into the cavernous depth of depravity.

In the vast oversized hallway, I felt conspicuous walking under the fluorescent lights, my dark clothes meant to make me look drab and androgynous popped like a gun against the monochromatic beige walls and floors.

I thought of how much time I had spent putting together that outfit.  My mom even went shopping to find me something appropriate.  Ah, but the tables had turned, what she picked showed a thin horizontal line of flesh that I refused to reveal.  Instead, I chose a gray linen shirt in the shape of a box from her closet. I wore another shirt under it and a sweater on top.photo

I thought, irrationally, of how those soft layers of cotton were designed to shield me like armor from prying eyes.  I tied my hair haphazardly in a bun.  I wore no jewelry, except my wedding band and no makeup.  I looked perfectly hideous, like some homely girl living in a commune, the dubious choice of her polygamous husband.

On the hour-long drive that morning, the Deacon told stories of redemption, forgiveness, and God’s love that he had witnessed ministering to inmates.

He also shared horrors that made me lurch in my seat and grab his arm, surprising us both with my grip — my desperate attempt to stop the cruel reality of his words.

The Deacon told me of one prison fight with a head rolling into the prison hallway.

He told me about one inmate who had surgery for a brain tumor and was back in his cell the following day.   The prisoner was in extraordinary pain, and wasn’t given any painkillers until he intervened with officials.

Oh, and all those jokes about prison rapes, I think maybe it’s not funny to the prisoner who is now HIV positive from the repeated brutality of forced sex.

Men exist in 6 by 9 foot cells.   They shower every other day and only go outside a few times a week.  When they do, they remain completely fenced in a sort of dog run.

These are adult men sustained on 1,500 calories of food, which is justified by their sedentary existence.

These are men who can’t flush their own toilets.

These are men who are at the mercy of the guards who decide if and when the lights will turn on or turn off within their individual cell.

These are men who live without air-conditioning or heat.

I can’t compare it to anything because I’ve never seen anything like it. After all, these are humans seemingly no different from us, but living in cages.

Intellectually, I knew that going in.  Conversely seeing it made it somehow unbelievable.

Maybe it’s not as bad in jails or other correctional facilities, but prison and my walk on death row were sobering.

I never aspired to go to death row either – that wasn’t part of my plan.  Yet there I was trying to be inconspicuous, when the Deacon suddenly shouted FEMALE WALKING, down the quiet hall.  I snapped in a whisper, “why did you do that?” The Deacon explained it was to make sure the prisoners were all decent.  Perhaps, I am not the only with a sense of modesty, as I assumed.

Most of the inmates were sleeping or otherwise in the dark except for the broken light the jalousie windows mercifully permitted.  They were snug in their cell and we were separated by another row of bars more than an arms-length beyond that.  I walked face-forward with my eyes straining sideways to catch glimpses.  Most of them seemed disinterested in being part of the freak show and ignored us.

At the very end of the row, the last two cells had their lights on and we stopped to talk.  The Deacon introduced them as his friends.  One of them had been in prison 32 years, the other 20 years.  I had to wonder if they were completely different people now that a generation had passed.

I hoped so.

The inmate spoke about the letters he writes to pen pals and the marriage proposals they initiate.  He told us how his oldest son has disowned him.  We talked briefly about God.  The guard stood behind us looking a little impatient with all our do-gooding and niceties.

Mostly, I liked the prisoner.  He was socially appropriate, engaging, and seemed sincere.

Later, I learned he drowned a 10-year-old girl.

So began my vacillating between feeling incredibly compassionate for their incomprehensible lack of freedom and dignity, to conflicting and valid justifications for their punishment.

No doubt, these life-takers have to be restrained from society.  Even within the confines of prison, there occasionally was need for further constraints.

We visited a wing referred to by the letter Q.  In it prisoners were held in a cell inside of another cell, an extra layer of concrete insulation between them and the other inmates.

A large dry erase board hung on the wall with prisoner names and the corresponding reasons for their relegation to such extreme confines.  It was a checkerboard of violations that zigzagged between attacks on guards, to murdering other inmates.

Clearly, these people needed caging. That’s not a judgment. That is a brutal reality.

I don’t forget for a second what got them in there either.  To be sure, when I went home I went on-line and looked up some of the death row inmates that are warehoused at Florida State Prison.  I read news articles about their senseless crimes.  I sat quietly and thought about their victims and their families.

I compared it to the misery I saw in prison.  There was no mercy on either side, no matter how many ways I looked.

The injustice of murder, the depravity of torture, the senseless disregard for life, the endless grieving of victims’ families, these were not things I could forget.

Undoubtedly, these people don’t deserve to live in our society.  They made that choice through their actions.  I can’t own that for them.  That can’t be risked for everyone else.

Yet as someone who values life, dignity and decency, as someone who spoke with these men, shared the Eucharist with them, prayed with them, shook their hands, listened and laughed with them, I can’t celebrate the fact that they live in a state-manifested hell.

Why would a Christian celebrate hell?

Maybe prison can be best described as purgatory – a holding place suspended between the choices of good and evil.  The incarcerated are the only ones who can choose the salvation that God offers all of us.

The experience forces me to acknowledge that evil exists and as badly as I want to have hope for every single person incarcerated, as much as I want to believe that when given the choice of forgiveness that God offers, which even the state cannot take away, they would pick the generous gift of redemption every time.

But even I am not that naïve.

By far, the saddest part of my experience was seeing an elderly lady waiting in the prison foyer who best emulated God’s unconditional love.

She looked far prettier than I did.

She had carefully applied bright pink lips and a rosy shade of blush dusting both sides of her cheeks as if she was somehow applying the dew of happiness to her face instead of merely drugstore makeup.  She wore dainty jeweled barrettes, which held back parts of her soft grey hair.

Even though I looked as asexual as an amoeba that day, I recognized the effort she put into her appearance for her visit.

The Deacon knew her and began talking to her about her incarcerated son, and remarked kindly that he was a good boy.  As I watched her face twist in uncertainty and gratitude, all those shades of pink contorting until tears filled her eyes, my heart sank as the message of the Deacon’s words contrasted sharply with the reality of his imprisonment.

She nodded affirmatively despite the circumstances. Of course, her son was good because she knew him with a mother’s love.  How crushing it must be for her to know how different the world sees him, to know the child she gave life unmercifully took it from someone else.

Later when we were in the visiting area, I saw her with her son. He seemed like a shell of a person.  His eyes were gray and glossed over.  I wasn’t quite sure if they ever focused.

When we talked to them, I learned that she drives 300 miles each way every week just to visit him.

Whatever he did, she still loves him.

In one of the news articles about the death row inmates that I read, another mother had just learned her daughter’s killer was sentenced to death.  She commented that her daughter would be dancing in heaven at the verdict.

While I would never begrudge anyone the joy of a dance, when I think of these two mothers and the loss they both endure, I feel nothing but sorrow.

004I remind myself though that as impenetrable as all those prison bars, locks and razor wires are, the hope of God’s love can always find a way in.

Maybe they won’t all be saved, but the same can be said of people on the outside.

So, I remember the old lady and her pink cheeks.  I picture her in a matching pink dress, cocooned in layers of tulle dancing in heaven with her son not as the world knew him, but as she did — not as a murderer, but a child of God redeemed by salvation.

May their dance last for eternity.

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Author: Lara Patangan

Mercy me, I’ve got work to do… is a blog I started on my 40th birthday to chronicle my experiences spending the year doing corporal and spiritual works of mercy. No longer on the cusp of a new decade, I am still here finding that much work remains – in the world, my community, my relationship with God and perhaps most challenging, within myself. Please sign up and join me as we share the work that matters most – being better people. In hopes that when the decades cease to pass the world will still whisper of the graces left in our wake.

16 thoughts on “Florida State Prison

  1. I sit here now with mascara-ed tears running down my face. Doggone it, Lara, I’m at work! Thank you for sharing your experience and the final message of a mother’s love and God’s salvation for us all.

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    • LOL! I am sorry for the tears. I was fighting like crazy not to cry when I was watching her. Of course, I thought of my own boys and never say never…It’s a chilling thought. While writing about it, it made me realize more than ever that salvation is a choice – my choice. So that was kind of an aha moment for me. It was tough though and I had my first prison-related nightmare last night- wonder if the PTSD is kicking in!

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  2. Wow. That is certainly a conflict between realizing what things these prisoners might have done and also realizing that they, too, have families who mourn for them. As you said some of these people have committed crimes that certainly warrant a lifetime behind bars. But to celebrate their demise certainly isn’t very Christian. I feel the same sort of conflict when a well known criminal or terrorist is killed. Rejoicing at death, torture, and an overall lack of respect for life must make the devil quite happy indeed. And as much as we might have a hard time understanding forgiveness or making sense of it all, thankfully we don’t have to. All we have to do is try to see these people as what they are…people created in God’s image who need God’s love in their lives…and leave the rest up to God. Wishing any less on them only means a victory for the devil. And that is one victory I sure don’t want to be a part of! If you are interested, I wrote a post a little while back along these lines…
    http://rosesnearrunningwaters.wordpress.com/2013/08/21/to-love-as-christ-loves/

    God bless you for all you do and for courageously following His call for you and sharing your journey with us!

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    • Rose,

      I am so comforted by your words because when I got home I felt more than anything that maybe those of us on the outside are the cruel ones wishing all kind of cruelty on these “monsters.” There is nothing to celebrate when people are tortured or raped in prison. Seriously, why would that ever be okay? It further degrades us all when we partake in the philosophy of hate and revenge. For me, it made me want to go back to the beginning — wherever that is, and implement change so people have better lives and make better choices than the things that get them into prison. That seems doable. Prison just overwhelmed me with loss. I don’t think I felt the joy in it that I was supposed to. But, no matter what, I don’t want to be part of the judgement that Jesus warned against. I think again of Mother Theresa’s words – Each one of them is Jesus in disguise. That sentence is too powerful to refute.

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      • Your post stayed with me all night and I prayed on this a lot. I was reminded of Jesus being beaten, tortured, and murdered. The very things these prisoners may be locked up for were done to Christ. They mocked Him, spit on Him, and killed Him for no reason in a cruel and humiliating manner. And yet, He did not wish punishment, torture, or death on them. Instead we read that He prayed “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Jn 23:34)
        We cannot justify their actions. We cannot condone their behavior or erase what happened. But we have to realize that they need forgiveness, not condemnation. And hopefully with our prayers and with people like yourself ministering to them, they will ask forgiveness for their sins and come home to Christ.

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      • So, true. We can forgive and maybe by doing so that will bring them closer to God — closer to asking forgiveness for themselves.

        I am glad you are praying for them. I am too. It somehow makes me feel better about the whole mess of it!

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  3. wow girl…….i cry at every one. you are such a beautiful writer even when writing about as something as ugly as prison. i will say again, i think you should take each of your entries and make a book!

    i am glad you were able to go with Deacon and not alone. thank you for sharing all your acts of mercy that we can learn from.

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    • Thank you, Julia Anna. Honestly, I didn’t know how to make it beautiful, it was sad to me. It’s like everyone loses when crimes are committed. EVERYONE. I think what else freaked me out at least when I looked up news articles was the amount of murders and death row sentences originating from right here in our county. Something is seriously wrong that these crimes are pervasive. I don’t know if the answer has to do with poverty, education, drugs or what but something needs to change. I am getting off my high horse now 🙂 I’ve never really been a horse girl anyway!

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  4. Beautiful! I was wondering when & if I would hear from you! I’m glad the experience was educational! God bless you! I’m sure all will never forget you! Bill

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    • Thanks Bill! I appreciate all your efforts to get me in there. It is an experience still resonating with me.

      While, I don’t think its my vocation. I think you have been called to serve in a profound way and I love that you do it with so much joy. You set a wonderful example of what it means to serve.

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  5.  http://testosterhome.net/2013/10/a-mothers-prayer-of-humility.html

    Lara,

    This is one of my favorite blogs!  This is a take off of the Litany of Humility.

    Annie

    ________________________________

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    • I am glad you liked it Annie and thank you for sharing that site with me! I saw your site too 🙂 it looks great! I may need to hire you – the tech stuff definitely keeps me humble!

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  6. Isn’t our God amazing that He holds everything in the palm of His hand! He redeems the unredeemable, the thief on the cross, even the murderer if they surrender and repent and follow after Jesus with all their heart, soul and mind. Thank you for going into such a dark place and shining His light, His grace and His redemption. You saw for a moment with His eyes.

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    • Thank you for your beautiful comment. It was an experience I will never forget and seeing through his eyes made me more compassionate to prisoners and their families despite what got them there. Still, is a tough, complicated mess. I guess that’s why God calls us to to simply visit those imprisoned – as always He can take care of the hard stuff.

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