Tag Archives: prison

Update from Prison: Prayer as Pep Rally

UPDATE: PW had a clarification to the first bullet of holiday advice near the end of this post. 3:47 pm Eastern time, 12/23/14.

The two months at the end of the year are the most emotionally charged among the women who are incarcerated at the jail where we do our card-making project every Monday night. This is as reliable as the tide, and has been for each of the 17 years that PW has been leading this program. This year, these past few weeks have featured:

  • A loud woman who seemed almost boastful about her proclivity for stealing. One night she crowed about having stolen an ornament off the Christmas tree during chapel, “because I’m outta here on Wednesday and I liked the ornament and I wanted to give it to my mom!” The guard who accompanied us that night said, “You’re outta here Wednesday? See you on Thursday!” We haven’t seen her since that night. Yet.
  • Several silent, weeping women, painstakingly making cards for their infant children.
  • A table full of ebullient women who sang “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” loudly, complete with shout-outs:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (reindeer)
Had a very shiny nose (like a light bulb!)
And if you ever saw it (saw it)
You would even say it glows (like a flash light!)

All of the other reindeer (reindeer)
Used to laugh and call him names (like Pinocchio!)
They never let poor Rudolph (Rudolph)
Join in any reindeer-games (like Monopoly)!

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say,
“Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Then how the reindeer loved him (loved him)
As they shouted out with glee, (with glee!)
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, (reindeer)
“You’ll go down in history!” (like George Washington!)

Last night there were five women, one of whom was chomping at the bit to get started.

“I have a lot to do and I don’t have a lot of time! Come on! Let’s go!”

We hadn’t even gathered for our opening circle and her energy was spiraling out of control. PW responded by leading our usual opening prayer as though we were a football team, huddling in the locker room for a rousing pep talk before taking the field. There we were, five volunteers and five incarcerated women, holding hands in a circle, bouncing up and down to this chant:

Everyone: POWER!!













All: GOD!!


I don’t know whether PW’s ingenious Prayer-As-Pep-Rally approach was what calmed the women down, but the rest of the night was mostly quiet. Toward the end, I stood at a table counting supplies while three women complained about a particular guard who writes them up for things that they suspect aren’t against the rules.

“She says to me, ‘What’s in your hair?’ I say, ‘A floss loop I bought at canteen.’ She says, ‘That ain’t for your hair. Take it out.’ Damn. I’m pretty sure once you buy stuff at canteen, you can do whatever you want with it. If I wanna decorate my hair with a floss loop, I can! Pretty sure that’s not in the rule book. Why she gotta be so angry?!”

They went on to describe this guard in more colorful language. I didn’t say anything. Finally, one of the women looked up at me and smiled and said to the other two, “I know why she’s so angry. Her pants are too tight!”

Then they all, and I, fell out laughing.

Based on my Monday evenings in jail over the past month, here’s my advice for enjoying the rest of the holiday season:

  • When you sing a song that is intended to be joyful, don’t hold back. PW’s embellishment on this advice: If you smile when you sing “Alleluia,” it will look AND sound like an “Alleluia!” UPDATE:    PW clarified: “What I say about smiling when one sings ‘Alleluia!’ is that it makes the resurrection seem more plausible. (:”
  • Some of your prayers might work well as pep talks, complete with a huddle, shouting, and jumping up and down.
  • If you need to cry, but can’t let your guard down, start coloring something to give to someone else.
  • If you want to decorate your hair with floss, gitchyer floss on. But don’t use it before. Or after.
  • If you’re going to wear pants, make sure they’re not too tight.
  • Savor your freedom.

May your holiday season bring you some measure of joy, even if it’s fleeting and hard-won.

Another dispatch from prison

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.

Worldwide incarceration rates as of 2009

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.

Weekly dispatch from prison

Twitchy the Squirrel

Sorry for the protracted absence. I’ve been in a full-court press to finish the book proposal I’m working on. I feel kind of frantic and twitchy when I don’t post something here every few days, all blurry at the edges.


When we were in prison this past Monday night for our weekly greeting-card-making gig, there were a couple of conversational threads that feel worth sharing outside The Big House, mostly for their clarity.

Two of the women at my table started talking about a fight that had happened in their unit. Apparently it was a doozy of a brawl between two other women, one of whom was old enough to be the other’s mother. Some background information: any inmate who gets in a fight gets sent to “the hole” (solitary confinement); any inmate who tries to break up a fight also gets sent to “the hole.” For brevity and clarity, I’ll refer to the two women who were having the conversation as A and B.

A: What were you doing during that fight? I wanted to stop it but I didn’t want to go to the hole, so I was mostly screaming and crying.

B: That was one bad fight, man. I stayed out the way.

A: Can you imagine? Some girl young enough to be your daughter, whuppin’ your ass, right there in front of everybody? Over a woman…

B: …who don’t want either ONE of ’em!

A: Now they both in the hole. No fighting AND no love!

B: You got that right.

A: People think they gonna come to jail and find a relationship. In jail! Like they think any relationship IN JAIL gonna last on the outside. The whole reason they in jail in the first place is from bad relationships! When you come to jail…

B. …you just gotta do your time and get the hell OUT!


Some nights I leave prison with really clear ideas about why those women are in there and I’m not: the luck of where and to whom I was born; a blessed lack of exposure to physical, sexual, and/or substance abuse; life-long access to high quality education, food, and health (and mental health) care. This past Monday night, I left thinking that the razor thin line between the woman I’m calling A, and me, has mostly to do with impulse control.

A: My judge told me they ain’t no way someone stealin’ as much as I did ain’t supportin’ a habit.

B: Oh, you got a habit all right!

A: I said, I don’t do no drugs or alcohol. Flat out.

B: No, but shoppin’ too much is a habit, and you got it!

[This next part that A said sounded so much like a poem, I’m writing it out that way, and I’ll just let it stand on its own.]

I always thought if I gave
my children everything
they want
then they’d be happy
and I’d be a good mama.
I had to come to jail
to find out that
the only thing my children need
is me.

What we want and what we get

Given the intense quality of the comments to the previous post, I’m working on a follow-up post, in hopes of addressing some of the thought-provoking questions and statements. Thank you for being such wonderful, thoughtful, curious companions! I started to respond to each comment, but the responses seem better off woven together, so I’m working on that stitching. In the meantime, here’s a (relatively) short post for today.

20160704_prison1We began our prison volunteer program again last night, after a much-needed summer off. PW started this program 13 years ago. When she mentioned that in the car on the way over, I said, “Wow! Whodathunkit?” She replied, “Not me. I thought it would last a year.” Yet another proof of John Lennon’s great line, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

It was great to see our program officer, the guard who is assigned to accompany our program up to the unit. He is a quality human being, which I find so refreshing (and far too rare) in any big, oppressive institution, whether it’s a correctional facility or a corporation or a government agency or a church.

Once we got up into the cafeteria that sits between two women’s units, a mushrooming level of sound preceded the women’s arrival. There were many familiar faces and a few new ones. We had an extra-noisy reunion with one woman who has frequently participated in the program, having been in and out of this facility (and others) for most of the past 13 years (and probably longer). Another woman came up to me and said, “Do you remember me? I remember you.” I did remember her, but I had forgotten her name, and when she reminded me, her already beautiful face went into high-beam mode. In my limited experience, there’s not a whole lot of beauty in prison, so encountering it is a newsworthy event.

I’ll share more of my thoughts about our prison project as we continue walking along The Crooked Line together. For now, I want to leave you with our opening reflection, which we read at the beginning of the program, while we’re gathered in a circle holding hands (which I’m pretty sure is a violation of prison protocol). A few of years ago, we started reading it as a call and response. One of the incarcerated women reads the “What we want” lines, and the rest of us read or say the “What we get” lines.

One of the things I love about this project is knowing how many of these women have this poem in their heads. I don’t know if they ever draw on it, but just knowing that it’s there, nestled in the crevices of their often compromised brains and written onto their often shattered hearts, well, it reminds me of how much I have in common with them, and of how much I need them.

Reflections After Compline

by Sue Stock from “Prisms of the Soul”

What we want is power,
What we get is frailty;
What we want is certainty,
What we get is ambiguity;
What we want is answers,
What we get is questions;
What we want is self-sufficiency,
What we get is interdependence;
What we want is permanence,
What we get is transience;
What we want is clarity,
What we get is mystery;
What we want is fantasy –
What we get is God.