I've been training to work on a correspondence course called "Houses of Healing" by Lionheart foundation which is amazing. The title itself tells you what the premise is - that prison and jail should be houses of healing. They are not to be places to cast people out of society and seclude so as to not do any more harm and then the job is done. They are to be transformational and rehabilitative. This program has been going on for over 10 years with groups of people and for those in solitary, through letter writing. This allows people like me, who cannot travel to do groups in prisons because they are far away, to get involved. I'm excited!
For three years now, I've known a gentle man who has been in and out of jail his whole life. He has two great little kids and cares deeply about them. He has always had a really hard time finding a job because of his record. He is currently awaiting a potential 15 year sentence. He was not born in a zip code where kids who are born there often thrive. I was.
Over a year ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a man who was completing his 8 year sentence in a Federal Prison. I was his first visitor. He is a wonderful, kind and compassionate man. He happened to be born to parents who sold crack for a living. He allowed his experience in prison to transform him and he has been employed now for about a year and in a great relationship with his children, married, and thriving in society.
Hebrews 13:3 says "Regard prisoners as if you were in prison with them. Look on victims of abuse as if what happened to them happened to you." Now, I know God is wise, but this one is impressive. These are not two separate entities - those who are in prison and those who are victims of abuse. 80% of prisoners are victims of abuse. During my trauma course, I learned that jails would be emptied if abuse were eradicated. I also saw the truth of this while working in probation.
I've just completed reading "Slow Kingdom Coming", by Kent Annan. He reminded me of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.:
"Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated."
Then Annan went on to say, "We build bridges of respect by engaging with others deeply...". When we engage with others, we build bridges of communication, get to know someone else who is different from us, lose fear of them because we now know them and their story, and then start to love. As we enter the truth of people's lives, we see the world differently. Annan calls this "truthing". I had never heard that word before but I like it. As I got to know my friends mentioned above, I learned that how they grew up was vastly different from how I grew up. It made sense to me why they made some of the decisions they did.
My favorite part of being a probations officer was visiting the women in jail. They loved having someone else to talk to besides those they were living with, and didn't even care that it was a measly intern like myself, so I loved going. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was truthing with them. I was learning their stories, like how they become a heroin addict, and why they would prostitute themselves. It actually made sense. I learned to love them as bridges were built from this. That's pretty much why I stunk at being a probations officer.
As I learn from truthing on myself, I can understand why I have the biases and tendencies of protection (read addictions) that I do - and I am learning to acknowledge them, accept them, and then I can let go of them rather than letting them sap life from me. Thomas Merton explains why this works when he said; "The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own self-hood."
Regarding my relationship with prisoners, aboriginal Australian leader Lilla Watson has shown me why I love it so much; "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." Escaping the prison of my self-hood, as Merton terms it, is directly related to realizing that my own liberation comes from liberating others. I know I'm bound up. I know I'm not any better than you are. I know when I get in relationship with others who are also bound up, we can begin to untangle each other.
This is me and my friend who is in the middle of a 19 year sentence in Federal Prison. He has changed my life. Several years prior to his incarceration, he said in a speech, "What is the greatest joy? It is the happiness found in extending our truest talents upon those who stand in the deepest of darkness. Those we pretend not to notice. Those we are afraid to look in the eye because of what they might ask us." He lived this for a long time. What he didn't know was he was prepping the hearers for how he would one day want to be treated.