The unit is still on a more restricted schedule so they are only allowing out 1/4th of a tier at a time, and the men have to choose between Bible Study, or recreation time – shooting baskets and other physical activity. Because they spend so much time in their cells I completely understand why they would opt for physical exercise rather than sitting in a study.
They also had us run two different groups. We had one man for the first group, and one man for the second group. In Matthew 18:20 it records Jesus saying, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” That was definitely true. The other volunteer and I got to talk to each man for an extended period of time. We got to hear each man’s story.
That is why it has taken me longer to prepare this blog entry. I want to preserve the confidentially of each man. What I will share are certain themes that come up time and time again as I’ve walked alongside the incarcerated over the past 16 years.
I was recently at a weekend retreat with Father Greg Boyle so I’ll preface what I’m about to write with one of his quotes: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”
Father Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart
Many of the men have addiction issues. Contrary to what you may have seen in Breaking Bad, most of the dealers I’ve met were also users. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has a number of statistics regarding the percentage of people who committed crimes to get money for their addiction and/or were under the influence when they committed their crime. It is not uncommon to hear a new inmate indicate that they know their addiction is destroying their life AND that if they were released today they know they would immediately go back to using. The first step of many 12 step programs reads
”We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Every man I have ever gotten to know who was I jail or prison has one or (usually) more incidents of profound trauma in their past. I have met weekly with men in prison for years at a time. There would be certain stories of trauma that would come up periodically and repeatedly. These are stories that will break your heart. I’ve found myself simultaneously astounded that one human being could do something so horrific to another, and that someone could even survive such experiences.
I recall a lawyer to observed that many of his clients were self-medicating as a coping mechanism for past trauma. This ties back to the addiction issue.
Trauma and Self Identify is currently a topic of academic research. But consider in your own life, what traumatic events in your past have shaped you into the person you are now? Even the Pixar film Inside Out showed how significant events shaped the main character’s sense of identity.
Consider the impact on a child’s sense of identity who remembers:
- being abandoned by a father
- being sold by his mother to a drug dealer to pay for her habit
- being rejected by an adopting family a month after the placement
- discovering the suicide of a parent or sibling
There are many others examples that I find far too disturbing to relay.
A sizable number of men I’ve met have had someone significant in their life with mental illness and/or may have it themselves. Some had a mentally ill caregiver and may have experienced trauma as a result of that. Others had mental illness and used drugs or alcohol. I’ve met several people with schizophrenia who were also meth users. (It’s not a good combination)
Several of the men I visited in prison had schizophrenia. For one man it was well controlled with medication, for another it was not.
In the forward to Jarvis Jay Masters’ book Finding Freedom: Writings From Death Row, Melody Chavis writes:
On the bottom tier of the security housing is a row of cells where the most problematic prisoners are kept. There, Jarvis’s neighbors yell all day and all night, and some have hallucinations in which insects are crawling on their bodies or other people are in their cells. Some do not clean themselves or refuse to eat for fear of being poisoned. If inmates in this condition don’t improve, they are eventually sent to hospital prisons and officially designated as mentally ill. But in the meantime, they can be segregated, as they are in security housing.
I am concerned that, where I live, the largest mental health facility in the county is the jail.
A man’s family can be his biggest obstacle and/or his greatest asset in his desire to change his life.
Some of the men have parents or grandparents who were involved in criminal activity and even as children taught them how to perform certain illegal activities.
Father Boyle tells about one man who had turned his life around and been clean, sober, and gainfully employed for 5 years. He decided to call his mother because, “she’s the only mother I got.” When he called she told him he was garbage. Father Greg asked how he responded. The man said, “I forgave her.”
On the other side, a man’s children can be his greatest incentive for change. Many of these men earnestly desire to be a good father. They genuinely love their children and want to be there for them as much as possible.
The guys who get regular visits, or calls or letters from supportive family members have a much greater chance of transforming their life.
The most consistent pray request form the men is, “pray for my family”.
Another observation is how each man deals with choices. Does he even believe he has a choice? This is where the transformative power of God’s love come in. It opens up the idea that we are not defined by the worse thing we have ever done. Redemption. Reconciliation. Mercy. Love. Watching others who have already seen their lives transformed and hearing their stories give these men hope for today.
Sometimes this is demonstrated tangibly by basic things such as improving reading skills or even learning how to read. One man said he had never read a book before he was incarcerated. He read 40 books within the first year.
Another sign of making a choice is pursuit of education. Some guys get their GEDs. Some programs offer certificates for completion. When we would do Prison Fellowship weekends at a prison we would always had out certificates to each man who participated.
People without hope don’t look for ways to improve themselves.
We are in This Together
What I continue to learn is there is no We vs. They. I don’t bring Jesus to the inmates. Jesus is already there among them.
“Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate,’ means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.”
― Gregory J. Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion