Hope and Value

Recently, blogs have begun to reflect on 2011 and are looking toward the new year. Certainly, my accomplishment this year has been having The Prisoner’s Prayer Book published. My life is otherwise pretty unremarkable. To the question “what do I want for 2012” I hope that the words in the prayers of this book will make a
difference in the lives of some prisoners. I pray that those who are lonely,
hopeless, even despairing, will pick up this book, read a few prayers, and be
moved. I want to instill hope.

I also want to create awareness within the general public. Before I volunteered for prison ministry, I knew absolutely nothing about this mysterious world behind bars. I didn’t know any prisoners. My “awareness” came only from what I may have seen on television or in the movies. Now I have a new awareness. I suspect there are many others out there for whom “prison” has never been a part of their vocabulary.

The size of a cell is approximately eight feet by ten feet. Sometimes, that space is shared. You are confined until the lock is released. You might be allowed only one hour out in the yard each day, and maybe time for a shower several times a week. Your food, shall we say, is not fine dining. If you are among those in a lower security level, you might be in a dormitory-like setting, but that will probably have more individuals housed there than the size for which the space was originally intended. You may be fortunate to have a “job” – if you can call it that. You work for pennies per hour. You try to save enough to pay for envelopes and stamps, personal hygiene products, maybe future phone calls. Yet, phone calls are expensive, as are the store items that you are allowed to buy.

From what I have learned, there is very little in the way of education or rehabilitation. These individuals are merely housed. When they have served their time, they may or may not be released on a timely basis. They will have been provided very little with which to change their lives for the better. They will return to the same locations from which they came.

I don’t mean to say that punishment for a crime is not warranted. I do, however, believe that these are men and women with souls, who have value. Often, they themselves do not know that. All too often, the crime was committed in a moment of passion. They never thought about, never knew what the consequences might be and what could lie ahead. We house these men and women in cages. Too often, they are treated worse than animals.

What I want for 2012, is greater awareness of what goes on beyond that barbed wire, those doors, and locking gates. I want education of the public, and I want education for prisoners. I want rehabilitation for prisoners. How else can we expect behaviors to change when they return to society? There are individuals with talent, skills, and possibilities who are being warehoused behind bars. Let’s harness that ability and talent! Let’s direct it for good. Let’s treat these, our fellow human beings, with dignity and respect, and give them hope for the future.

We are told to pray as though our prayers have already been answered. Envision it:  model men and women who have paid for their crime, who have learned respect for themselves and others, whose abilities and talents have been recognized. Now they have skills and self-worth and a desire to contribute to society. Yes, THIS is what I want for 2012. THIS is my prayer for the new year!

The Beginning

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.