Author: mainjail4a

A Whisper Across My Heart

I was a substitute Bible Study leader in the mental health unit at the county jail. I knew some of the guys, and some of the staff too, from my time in the maximum-security unit. The guys in the mental health unit have a lot more latitude to enter and leave the room where we are holding the study. Therefore, the group size ranged from 7 to 13 people.

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My opening question was, “can you describe a time when you were afraid, and running for your life?” Those that shared said that is exactly what was happening just before they got locked up.

We read a passage about a man who was wanted by the government, who was afraid, and running for his life.

1 Kings 19:3-13 (NIV)

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

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Reflections from a Mental Health Unit

The scripture opens with, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” Every man in that room had a visceral memory of what it was like to be afraid and running for his life. They could pull up that memory instantly.

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Next we read “he left his servant there.” He was alone. Perhaps he felt he could no longer trust those closest to him. These men understood that feeling.

And then, “while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness.” Alone and in an unfamiliar place – perhaps a dangerous place – and certainly lacking the comforts of home. That could well describe being in jail.

“… and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life…’“ Again, the scripture moves from an intellectual exercise to a deep memory of times of hopelessness. But even in this there is comfort because this powerful prophet of God wrestled with the same feelings of despair that these men felt.

“Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” The guys thought this might mean he came from a family with generations of despair, abuse, violence, or even addictions. Certainly that was the case for some of these men.

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But God doesn’t abandon him there. What the group saw was that his very basic needs were being taken care of. The first being sleep.

“Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.”

He was exhausted. I’ve known people who have been on Crystal Meth binges where they have neither eaten nor slept for 3 straight days. One of their most critical needs was sleep.

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All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

Elijah also needed food and water. Many of these men in the past have been released from jail but did not have a place to sleep, or food to eat. Even access to safe drinking water can be a challenge if you have no home and no money. They agreed that people make poor decisions when they were tired, hungry, and thirsty.

Open questions: Who baked the bread, and who brought the jug of water, and why?

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank.

This time, while dealing with the basic needs, encouragement grounded in reality begins. There is a tough journey ahead. Several of the men in the group were waiting for an opening in a drug rehab program – there is a tough journey ahead of them.

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And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

For each of the men in the unit there is this direct question: “What are you doing here?” or perhaps, “Why are you here in jail?” This might seem a shaming question, but we see that even in Elijah fear and running, God is still speaking to him. In the deepest wilderness he is not abandoned by God.

There is nowhere that God is not. He is present even in times or terror, or despair, when we are otherwise all alone.

He is there

The questions, “what are you doing here?” also has an existential aspect to it. What are we doing here on this earth? What are we doing with this life, with this time that has been granted up?

Elijah gives a well-rehearsed response which doesn’t really answer either the direct nor the existential question.

10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The structure of his answer is “I, they, I, they”, but the question was “what are you doing here?”

Yet God takes Elijah where he is at, and God gives him a gift. Perhaps Elijah was expecting another big Hollywood production like fire coming down from heaven.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

Power that exceeded winds, earthquakes, and fires, was in the whisper.

What does the voice of God sound like?

It’s

like

a

whisper

across

my

heart.

 

 

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Man of the Tombs

From time to time I’ve met with men in jail or prison who have had struggles with mental illness — depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia. Probably six years of my weekly visits were with men who heard voices. Some chose medication to help them deal with it, others did not.

At times I’ve met with men who were having  a major mental health crisis. In those times I am keenly aware of my own inadequacy.

  • I can listen
  • I can speak words of comfort
  • I can pray
  • I can let the staff know if someone is expressing thoughts of harming themselves

Psychotic

But ultimately my own abilities are quite limited. These interactions can be quite unsettling. At times like that I take comfort in the song lyrics written by Bob Bennett.

I invite you to read through the lyrics and think of the men and women who are incarcerated and struggle with mental illness.

MAN OF THE TOMBS

Words & Music: Bob Bennett, © 1989 Matters Of The Heart Music (ASCAP)
Man of the tombs
He lives in a place where no one goes
And he tears at himself
And lives with a pain that no one knows
He counts himself dead among the living
He knows no mercy and no forgiving
Deep in the night he’s driven to cry out loud
Can you hear him cry out loud?
Man of the tombs
Possessed by an unseen enemy
He breaks every chain
And mistakes his freedom for being free
Shame and shamelessness equally there
Like a random toss of a coin in the air
Man of the tombs, he’s driven to cry out loud
Underneath this thing that I’ve become
A fading memory of flesh and blood
I curse the womb, I bless the grave
I’ve lost my heart, I cannot be saved
Like those who fear me, I’m afraid
Like those I’ve hurt, I can feel pain
Naked now before my sin
And these stones that cut against my skin
Some try to touch me, but no one can
For man of the tombs I am
Down at the shoreline
Two sets of footprints meet
One voice is screaming
Other voice begins to speak
In only a moment and only a word
The evil departs like a thundering herd
Man of the tombs, he hears this cry out loud
Underneath this thing that you’ve become
I see a man of flesh and blood
I give you life beyond the grave
I heal your heart, I come to save
No need to fear, be not afraid
This Man of Sorrows knows your pain
I come to take away your sin
And bear it’s marks upon My skin
When no one can touch you, still I can
For Son of God I am
Dressed now and seated
Clean in spirit and healthy of mind
Man of the tombs
He begs to follow, but must stay behind
He’ll return to has family with stories to tell
Of mercy and madness, of heaven and hell
Man of the tombs, soon he will cry out loud
Underneath this thing that I once was
Now I’m a man of flesh and blood
I have a life beyond the grave
I found my heart, I can now be saved
No need to fear, I am not afraid
This Man of sorrows took my pain
He comes to take away our sin
And bear it’s marks upon His skin
I’m telling you this story because
Man of the tombs I was

Bring You Back from Captivity

As I mentioned earlier, the format has changed in maximum security. I now meet with the men one-on-one instead of in groups. Even in this setting the men will be in handcuffs locked to a waist-chain.

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In order to protect their privacy I will do less blogging; and when I do write it will be composites of discussions over a period of time rather than weekly discussions with individuals.

 

This is the scripture I’ve been sharing recently, written to a people in captivity. Consider if you were incarcerated, what would it be like to read these words?

Jeremiah 29:11-14a (NIV)

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity….”

How would it be read by someone in jail who is getting released to a drug treatment program in a few weeks?

How would it be read by the man who has never been to prison, but has just now been sentenced?

How would it be read by the man is going back to prison, but this time as a lifer – life without parole?

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Scriptures and Shackles

Scriptures and Shackles

There have been some changes in the maximum-security unit. The population has now been split between two similar units.

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I went to the first unit and was glad to see two of the COs (correctional officers) that I’ve known since I first started volunteering at the jail. They know the processes for handling a population like the guys in max, and they understand that de-escalating a situation if far better than the alternatives. Early on I learned that the mother of one of the COs is also a volunteer leading a Bible Study in a federal prison. The COs are supportive of the work that I do because they have seen it make a difference for some of the men. We talked about best days and times for me to come to this unit.  It may be that I’ll just be doing one-on-one visits, which is fine since I’ve spent at least 10 years doing one-on-one visits in prison and jail settings. The COs checked with the men that were out for programming to see if anyone was interested in a visit, but there were no takers.

More about the new structure, these new units are run more like high-max units with the exception that there may be two men in a cell whereas high-max only has one man per cell. However, under the new structure there are fewer men out at a time, and greater security when the men are out of their cells. For example, the men are in handcuffs behind their backs when they move between their cells and the recreation area – which is essentially an oblong concrete and cinder block room with a basketball hoop. Once they are in the rec area each man will present his hands up to a slot in the door where the CO will remove the handcuffs. Then their hands are unencumbered when they are in the rec room. But when it is time to go back to the cells the process is reversed. Each man presents his hands to the slot where a CO will apply handcuffs. Only after everyone has been handcuffed will the door to the rec room be unlocked and the men are directed back to their cells.

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As it turns out, the guys who had been my regulars were all in the second unit. Again, I spoke to the COs in the second unit to get their input on how the process should work for the men who want Bible Study or a chaplain visit. I expect things to be in flux for the next few weeks until there is clarity on the new structure.

I had one man who wanted to meet with me for Bible Study. Under the new system it means he is handcuffed and shackled while he is meeting with me. But his hands are handcuffed in front rather than behind his back so he can still hold a Bible.

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It was so very humbling for me that he was willing to submit to handcuffs and shackles just to meet for Bible Study and prayer.

Would I be too proud to submit to that same treatment? This man’s hunger for the Word and for fellowship was greater than the “inconvenience” of handcuffs and shackles.

Our study was about the Transfiguration in Matthew 17.

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This man is preparing to transition to prison. He has never been to prison before. The words of the study that brought him hope and encouragement were:

 Matthew 17:6-8 (NIV)

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

 

 

 

Who cares for prisoners’ carees?

Sometimes Care Giving Stinks

A friend who visits prisoners shared this piece that crosses into both of our areas of concern.

state penitentiaryA view of the South Dakota State Penitentiary, Sioux Falls

Care giving tends to be accepted rather than sought out.  It lands on many of us more like a meteor than like Santa sliding gently down the chimney with gifts.

Spouses, grandparents, foster families and others care for the dependents of people in prison.  They accept difficulties that none of us would choose:

FINANCIAL IMPACT OF INCARCERATION ON CAREGIVERS

Financial problems are extremely common for caregivers. Consider these key factors:

  • Family income averaged over the years a father is incarcerated is 22 percent lower than family income was prior to the father’s incarceration. (Western and Petit)

  • Seventy percent of children’s caretakers are over the age of 50. About 55 percent of children live with a caregiver who doesn’t have a spouse. And 19 percent live…

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“Hospice program is extreamly rewarding, spending time and learning about life with Mr. Kelly” By Paul Stotts

Caregiving from behind the walls

Inmate Blogger

This is my second week working in the Hospice program here at Lansing max/med. security prison. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but mostly rewarding.
My Hospice patients name is Mr. Kelly. He is 68 and serving 40 months for possession of less than one gram of meth. Nonviolent offender, but does have past criminal history. He looks healthy, talks fine, but feels weak. He has stage four cancer of the liver. It has traveled throughout his body and at this point too troublesome to treat with his health.
I basically am going into this with little to no training. I’ve gained a “Human Services” certificate from Louisiana State University which consisted of taking 15 credit hours in service related classes, so I have that eduactional experence. (That was actually one of my first long term goals I accomplishes in prison. When I got that cerficicate, I was working as a…

View original post 700 more words