Saturday, December 02, 2006

the other side

This past Wednesday I went back to where it all started for my son-the county lock up. I both anticipated and dreaded it, driving up to that out-of-place, grey spectre of concrete that looks like a castle of doom in the middle of an average city. It really does have towers. It is a drab and cheerless place both inside and out, and it feels so like a body is entering a colorless world or hell's anteroom when entering the main gate. Even the men that staff the front desk are like cartoon characters and I have to keep pinching myself to remember, real people with real lives work here and are housed here. There is a feeling of an entirely separated reality in prison.

The reason I went back is that I want to volunteer in a mentoring program designed for short-termers, the object being to give spiritual support and a connection to the outside world, particularly when the inmate is released. The temptation to return to life as it was is so great. Chaplain Tom told me there are many inmates who have conversion experiences in prison, but no one to come alongside them to help them grow. Volunteers are so desperately needed. I got a tour of the facility, and it was strange being on the other side of the visitation glass. I remember coming twice a week for almost a year to visit my son, and how I resented those phones! We went up to the ladies' block so I could have an actual look at the cells and some familiarity with the living conditions. He told me one of the women's jobs is to wash the "plastic ware" for the kitchen-there were huge vats of it in the hallway on the block. He said most of the women were there due to involvement with drugs. We made our way to the elevator to go down, and by mistake it went up to the men's block and the doors opened. I immediately stepped behind the chaplain and admittedly felt a quick stab of fear. I'm sure I know some of the young men who are serving time, but at that moment the doors couldn't close fast enough.

I was interviewed and received materials to help me do my job. I did ask the chaplain for any resources he felt were indispensable to help me understand life in prison, and he gave me Lenny Spitale's book, Prison Ministry. I took it home and started to read. The author served time and is now involved in prison ministry, so he has the perspective of a person forcibly incarcerated and willingly behind bars to serve those people he was shared his life among. I found myself getting more and more agitated as I read the description of inmates' emotions. It's still so hard to separate myself from my son. I'm praying that because I do experience those emotions so personally I'll be an empathetic and wise volunteer. I can't help but feel I'll receive as much benefit to all of this as the person I'm assigned to. I think I'm ready for the other side.


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