If you are interested in the issues surrounding incarceration, join us on campus to hear from Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ about his ministry, Homeboy Industries, in LA. He will be speaking at Bellarmine Chapel on Thursday, October 2nd at 2:30 and 7:30 pm.
Despite my developing interest, bringing up prison social justice issues in casual conversation is not something I do very often. I simultaneously feel too aggressive, not aggressive enough and like I’m bringing up that cousin nobody talks about anymore at a family reunion. Like everyone is looking at me with eyes saying: “We know, but lets just try to have a nice time. Okay?”
I have to add qualifiers when talking about it. Yes, violence is scary and I want to feel safe, but I don’t believe a person’s single act of violence automatically classifies them as a violent person. Yes, it’s easier not to think about this growing demographic, but I’ve never operated well within a clean and easy social bubble. And yes, I’m sure many inmates lie, but that’s not a reason to universally dismiss them.
Chris, Minnesota inmate #214176, and I were matched together by a Minnesota non-profit called Amicus. It matches inmates with volunteers who visit the prison once a month and write the occasional letter. Amicus recognizes that inmates who have regular visitors are less likely to reoffend and reenter prison than those who don’t. Additionally, Amicus works with inmates after they’ve been released to help them be successful in society.
I’ll admit, I was nervous the first time I sat across from Chris in the prison visitor room. Thanks to the media, I had a lot of violent images in my head about inmates and prisons. Those images, though, didn’t match up to the kind face meeting me for the first time. Chris teaches art classes on the education wing of the prison, and participates in whatever art, writing or religious seminars are offered to inmates through various non-profit organizations. He is hardly the stone faced killer Oz had prepared me to expect.
Nor had Oz prepared me for the sad eyed parents, children and wives also visiting inmates. When we enter, guards scrutinize us to make sure we’re wearing appropriate attire and our clothes aren’t too short, tight or hiding drugs. We shuffle through metal detectors that sometimes go off because of the wire in bras. A troublesome paradox forms for women, because they can’t go in if they set off the metal detectors and they can’t go in without a bra. Some travel hours only to be turned around and told to go shopping at the nearby Wal-Mart and find more appropriate underwear.
After this awkward process, we enter a room that’s essentially equal to a giant waiting area found in a hospital. Inmates are allowed to touch their visitors (handshake, brief hug, or kiss on the cheek) only in closely monitored areas, which is usually heartbreaking. Imagine seeing your son for the first time in months and being told when to stop hugging him, or visiting your husband without kissing him on the mouth. Children, thank God, are allowed to crawl all over their dads while they visit.
At that first meeting, Chris and I made small talk (we’re both transplants to Minnesota), we both like to write (he’s better at it than I am) and we both acknowledge how strange it is to essentially be on a blind date. Toward the end of the conversation he asked me why I volunteer with Amicus. I don’t remember my
answer, but I remember his when I asked him about his involvement with so many intra-prison organizations.
“My time here isn’t going to be a blip in my life and then I’m out,” he told me. “It’s going to be my life. I want it to mean something.” I don’t think I’ve ever come close to saying something with that much grace, humility or honesty. Chris’s character and emotional depth left me speechless.
Minnesota, for what it’s worth, is a great place to go to prison. There are educational programs, restorative justice opportunities and other ways inmates can use their time in productive manners. Still, it’s a pretty terrible place. The argument that prisons are too “easy” in America holds no weight with me. Everything about a prison dehumanizes people. Inmates are told where to go and what to do every minute of every day. There is no privacy, even on the toilet, and they can be strip searched by any guard for any reason.
And that’s not mentioning how our society dehumanizes inmates. We slap labels on them, forget they’re real people and make rape jokes for our own amusement. We question if prison is too easy and nice and never question how we can expect people to act humanely if they’ve been treated inhumanely for decades.
Now, I’m not so naïve to think everyone in prison needs a friendly face to visit and everything will be okay. I know that rules, even unfair rules, are there for safety reasons. People do terrible things to end up in prison, and I have no problem separating them from the larger society as a consequence. However, making a mistake when you’re 19 shouldn’t void your life of compassion and educational opportunities.
Chris knew he loved art and he thrived in the prison art classes. When a nonprofit provided a creative writing seminar he discovered a new passion. Writing helps him express himself and feel human in a place that stifles acts of kindness and humanity. (In fact, check out some writing the The Missouri Review recently published online.) Chris shares his humanity with me through his writing, and that humanity overcomes any obstacle the incomparable content of our lives might present.
Some of my favorite stories from the Bible are when Jesus, to the dismay of his followers, sits with sinners. I imagine him rolling his eyes and reiterating, again and again, that these aren’t sinners. They’re people. People with feelings who deserve to be treated like people, no matter what choices they’ve made in their lives. In 4 years, Chris and I have shared grief over the deaths of loved ones. We’ve talked about faith and our joys and struggles with prayer. We’ve talked about our lives and how small choices and decisions have affected our paths. Through all of this, the thing Chris and I do most is laugh. We tell jokes and stories and appreciate the opportunity to sit as friends.