Note: Described below is a typical jail visit; “Peter” is fictional.
I hurry down the sidewalk in the cold, my face numb in the two-block walk from my car. The jail’s high brick wall towers over me to my right. As I approach the gate and the other people gathered there, I reach into my pocket for my ID. Mine is the only white face.
In the US, African-Americans are incarcerated at a rate of about 2,306 per 100,000; Latinx individuals at a rate of 831 per 100,000; Caucasians at a rate of 450 per 100,000. (https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/rates.html). It’s difficult to get accurate statistics on LGBTQ+ people on the inside, because many choose not to self-identify—the probability of abuse, from other prisoners and staff, is too great, even in so-called “protective custody.”
One by one our IDs are scrutinized by the impassive guard, and we are allowed inside the heavy metal gate. We walk to a massive brick building a few steps away under the gaze of another guard. Inside, I write Peter’s name on a slip of paper, handing it and my ID to yet another guard. I remove my coat and wait. Eventually my name is called, and I go through security. It’s much like an airport security checkpoint, except the guards keep my coat and ID. I set off through quiet painted cinder block corridors to a tiny steel elevator that smells of sweat and despair. It creaks upward and stops with a lurch. Random banging, metallic crashes, and buzzers startle me. I draw a deep breath, reminding myself that I’m only here for a few moments; Peter and the others must endure this for months and years. There are no audible voices, but I can sense the emotions soaked into these walls—anger, shame, grief, loneliness, terror. Down another tomb-like hall to the visitation room. A button and a buzzer let me in through the heavy door. Peter is waiting on the other side of the Plexiglass barrier, smiling broadly; I’m his only visitor, apart from his attorney.
In many US facilities, visits by family and friends are by video and frequently either the visitor or the person who is incarcerated are charged for it. This limits the frequency and length of visits by those with low incomes.
We talk—about the weather, events at my church, the books I sent, a drawing he sent me, the quality of the jail food, the story he’s writing, questions from a Bible study—and share a prayer. He’d like more books and some art supplies.
Pretty much anything a person on the inside might need or want they are charged for, and they are often forbidden to receive such items from family and friends—snacks, toothpaste, socks.
The conversation is difficult, not because the topics are painful, but because a tiny grate is the only opening in the thick Plexiglas; sometimes we must shout to be heard, especially when there are others in the three-stall visitation room. Have you ever yelled a prayer? Too soon, our time is up, and we rise to go. I place my hand on the Plexiglas, and he matches it with his—a jail blessing. I promise to be present at his next court date and push the button to be let out. Five minutes later, I’m out of the jail, walking out into the freezing air. I don’t know when Peter will be able to get out.
The overarching goal of the US Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is profit, period. Mandatory minimum sentences force longer sentences and higher prison populations and therefore higher profits; longer sentences also result in individuals returning to the outside to poor prospects of employment and housing and a higher likelihood of returning to prison—a win-win for the PIC.
As Christ-followers, we remember these words of Jesus:
“I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him…When did we see you… in prison and go to visit you?’
“The Holy One will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25: 36, 39, 40)
We serve our fellow human beings, not to earn stars in a heavenly crown, but because they are our sisters and brothers, and they need us to walk with them.
Jesus also said this:
“The Spirit of our God is on me,
because the Holy One has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of God’s favor.” (Luke 18-20)
Until we are all free.
Rev. Martha Daniels is pastor of Holy Covenant Metropolitan Community Church in Brookfield, IL. She blogs at RainbowPastor.blogspot.com (which she promises to revive any day now) and her piece, “Masks,” (on the lighter side of pastoring) is included in the RevGal book “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit! Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor.”
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