As I have said before — here and here — there’s almost always something worth sharing after we’ve spent an evening in prison. Just the fact of having been in prison is worth talking about repeatedly, given that the US incarcerates more of its population, per capita, than any other country in the world.
Last night I was at a table with two women, K and B. Here are some vignettes from our 90 minutes together.
K: Did you get picked for that program to meet with kids and scare them about what it’s like to be in jail?
B: Yeah. You?
K: Nah. I guess I’m too nice.
B: [laughs] Yeah, you are! You can’t say that about me!
K: [to me] Ah, she’s a softie underneath.
B: A softie who won’t hesitate to punch you out if you look at me the wrong way! But I guess they won’t let me punch the kids, which is probably a good thing.
K: Well, yeah! Just pretend they looked at you the wrong way, and then act like you would normally act, except for the punching part. That’ll scare them good.
B: Good idea!
K and B were talking about the “shout-outs” that a particular DJ for a local radio station does for many of the inmates. The inmates call the station to dedicate a song to someone, and then they’ll listen to the DJ’s show for their shout-out. B was talking about how upset she got when she heard a shout-out from a guy named Carlos (which is her husband’s name) to someone who wasn’t B.
B: Of course, there gotta be a bunch of Carloses in this place, so I really shouldn’t be jealous. But it did make me a little crazy there for awhile.
K: He wouldn’t have done a shout-out for anyone but you.
B: I know. But just thinking about the possibility made me feel crazy. [turns to me] I got a question for you. Why is jealousy one of the seven deadly sins if it’s so easy to commit?
Me: Well, in my experience, ALL the seven deadly sins are easy to commit. So maybe that’s why they’re deadly, because they’re so hard to resist.
B: Yeah, maybe. There’s jealousy and envy, right? What’s the difference?
K: Jealousy is what you feel when you hear a shout-out from any dude named Carlos to any woman who ain’t you. Envy is when you see somebody has something and you want it.
B: When you’re as poor as I am, everybody has something that I want.
K: That’s why it’s a deadly sin.
B: [to me] I’m making all these cards for my husband!
Me: That’s great!
B: Want to see the card he sent me?
Me: Of course I do!
B shows me the card. It’s ornate and detailed. On the inside, there’s a hand-drawn picture of a teddy bear holding a heart that’s split down the middle. On the side of the card facing the bear is a tiny photo of her husband that he cut out of his prison ID card. It’s what I’ve come to know as the standard jail ID photo: a face of someone whose expression appears both blank and scowling, with a white cinderblock wall behind.
Me: How long have you been married?
B: Six months. But we’ve been together for four years. And you want to know the best part? He’s in here, too! So I don’t have to send my cards to him through the program office. I just put them in the jail mail slot, and they go right to him! How great is that?!
Me: I can’t think of any other benefits for both of you being in here, but I guess that seems like a good thing for you both.
B: It’s awesome! We put the cards in the jail mail and BOOM, they get there right away. No waiting!
A little later in the evening, I remembered that we hadn’t passed out the folders that we keep for the women to store cards they haven’t finished — they’re not allowed to take any of our materials back to their cells. I found the folders and looked at the names on them. After passing out folders to the women whose names I knew, I still had a stack of five or six to hand out.
I really wanted to be able to walk up to the women and address them by name and hand them their folders. I always feel embarrassed when I can’t remember their names. Then I had what seemed like a brilliant idea. I took the folders over to the program officer’s table, where the women’s IDs were spread out. I started matching up folders with IDs, thinking that I’d be able to match the women in the room with their ID photos.
The first folder was of a woman I’ll call Mary. I found her ID, looked at the scowling/blank and disheveled face in the ID picture, then looked around the room. I had a sinking feeling that the photo wasn’t going to help me at all. I showed the program officer the ID and quietly asked, “Do you know where Mary is sitting?” He looked at the ID and then scanned the room. “No, sorry.”
I looked around the room again. A woman dressed in the blue coveralls from Mary’s unit turned so that I could see her face better, and I thought, “There she is!” I walked over to her and said brightly, “Hi Mary, here’s your folder!”
The woman looked up at me, pointed across the room, and said, “Mary’s sitting over there.”
We ended the evening in the usual way, with one of the prayers from the Evensong or Compline service in The Book of Common Prayer. When PW is at prison, she leads us in chanting it. But she was home sick with a stomach virus, and my voice is still pretty gravelly from the cold I’m recovering from, so I led us in speaking this prayer:
Keep watch, dear God, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, oh God; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
I guess because I was still carrying some of the shame of having my folder distribution plan turn out so badly, I heard that prayer completely differently last night. In the eight years that I’ve been hearing, chanting, or saying that prayer during our weekly prison visits, it has always felt like a roll call of all the people I know in each of the categories (afflicted, dying, suffering, joyous, weary, etc.) Last night was the first time I heard it as an inwardly-focused prayer for all of those parts within me, within each of us, that feel afflicted, dying, suffering, joyous, weeping, working, watching, weary, sleeping, and sick. By the time we got to the end of the prayer, I felt so overwhelmed I could hardly speak.
I’ve never been big on explicitly urging people to go to church. There’s so much baggage to navigate (both my own and other people’s). But as I sat down to write this piece this morning, I felt such a deep desire to urge anyone who reads this to find some way to get into prison and perform the simple ministry of showing up on a regular basis. Whether it’s through AA, NA, or one of the other 12-step programs that are frequent visitors to prison, or through a church-sponsored program, or just make one up like PW did.
The poet Rumi wrote “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Going to prison is by far the most difficult, rewarding, and transformative one for me.