When I began considering prison ministry possibilities the seed for this book was sown. Prison. It was an entity with which I was unfamiliar. An only child, sheltered and protected, my parents sent me to a Catholic school. I followed the rules and hung out with friends who also followed the rules. To me, prisoners just weren’t a part of my vocabulary. They didn’t exist in my frame of reference. I only knew what I saw on television and in the movies. I just never thought about them.
When I couldn’t shake off thoughts about prison ministry, I volunteered. Following the application process, I was allowed to go into a high security prison, to meet men who had committed very serious crimes, and to worship with them. My sheltered life now the backdrop, I
was extremely moved by what I encountered. While these men didn’t understand why I would give up part of my Saturday afternoon for them, they were starved for human contact, and hungry for a listening ear.
As time went on, I watched men who didn’t read well eagerly volunteer to read Scripture. I saw them stumble over words, and I wondered if they understood what they were reading. I also began writing to a couple of men who were transferred to other prisons.
Gradually I was led toward writing simple prayers that I thought might be easier for them to read, as well as understand. I tried to capture some of the language with which they would be more familiar. I attempted to reflect settings they would recognize. I met a man whose mission was to advocate for fair and decent treatment of prisoners. He supplied me with many ideas for additional subject matter and the result has become The Prisoner’s Prayer Book.
At the prison I didn’t see men who had committed horrific crimes, though they most likely had. I saw men who were lonely and who longed to be heard. I saw men who had needs. They had talent. Some could draw. Some wrote poetry. Some were seriously committed to taking correspondence classes. I saw souls who longed to know they hadn’t been forgotten.
Throughout this experience I met individuals as human as you and me. They were lonely. They hurt. They wanted affirmation just as much as you and I do. They had talent and potential (though it’s quite possible nobody had ever told them so).
Unfortunately, the prison system doesn’t seem to care about those things. The prison system is punitive, often Draconian in its treatment of individuals who have other needs which should be addressed before change can occur.
Prison populations are exploding. The general public is learning more, but for those who have no first or second hand experience, there is little understanding of what it is really like for men and women behind bars. I hope that further public education will occur. I pray that more compassion will be extended toward the imprisoned. I hope and I pray that “the system” will – sooner, rather than later – come to realize that rehabilitation and positive encouragement are critical to stopping this epidemic. I long to see the day when the support of loved ones may come to be recognized as equally important, even vital, to realizing change in individuals. To slightly alter the words of poet Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep.
To those who have allowed me inside their lives – even just a little – I thank you so very much.