reflection
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I get questions…

As I have continued my spiritual advocacy for LGBQ+ people on the inside (aka prison ministry to incarcerated LGBTQ+ people), I have discovered how little is known about life on the inside, including by clergy. So, here’s a bit of summary.

Note: All of these aspects will vary, depending on whether a person is in jail (intended to be short-term, pre-trial or with sentences less than 90 days or so), or in prison (longer term), what state they are in,  if it is a federal facility, their race and age and medical condition. I can’t speak to specifics—what exactly it’s like in your local jail or state prison—but there are some universal experiences, and these apply internationally.

First and foremost is ISOLATION. People on the inside are separated from family, friends, their work, their education, their community, their culture. Because most prisons are located in isolated areas, visitation can be difficult or impossible. Everything that strengthens human connection is regulated—conversations with life partners, family members, and friends is through a partition, time-limited (often to 15 – 30 minutes per week), overseen by prison personnel, and/or monitored (letters and phone calls). Phone calls are charged exorbitant rates. Contact visits—when people  can actually touch each other—are rare, and generally permitted only in special circumstances. Birthdays and anniversaries are not recognized; secular holidays (Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, etc.), may be marked by a special meal, depending on local discretion. Recognition of religious holidays depends on the chaplains and the facility. People on the inside are generally aware of the news and current events—many have access to TV news or magazines—but may not be able to judge its veracity or real importance. Punishment for rule violations is usually further isolation—no phone calls, withholding mail, no TV, or “administrative isolation—“ aka solitary confinement, which the United Nations has ruled “cruel and unusual punishment.” People must purchase items such as soap, shampoo, socks; these cannot be sent to them. Prison pay is minimal, and in some locations must also cover medical and dental care.

This isolation and the stigmatization of having been on the inside feed on one another. On release, people frequently find that their connections to community, family, and friends have been weakened or destroyed. This makes it more difficult for them to find living space and employment, and to socialize—these may be limited by the terms of their parole or probation: distance from schools or parks, restrictions on employment or who they can associate with, loss of professional certificates or licenses, and so on. This can (and does) lead to recidivism (return to incarceration).

How can we support people on the inside and work for justice?

  • On a personal level, correspond with someone on the inside. Visit them if possible. Work with an established group to do so, if this is new to you—they’ll help you find a compatible correspondent and offer support and advice along the way.
  • Don’t assume you don’t know anyone who has been on the inside. This is another closet for many people and their family members. You may be surprised at who has been on the inside. Offer a non-judgemental space for them in your faith communities, your circle of friends, remembering that there are many reasons people have been imprisoned, many of them unjust.
  • Learn about the legal justice system in your country/state/province/county/city. Learn about the systemic racism, homophobia, misogyny, and classism endemic in incarceration. Learn which judges are fair and which are not—support the just ones and work to remove the unjust ones. Support public defenders and legal aid organizations; they strive for justice for these who cannot pay for a private attorney, and are usually over-worked and under-funded. Stay informed on legislative changes that may help or harm people on the inside and communicate with your elected representatives.
  • Pray without ceasing for justice, for those on the inside and their families, and for those supporting and helping them.

Remember that Jesus was imprisoned, given a mock trial and executed by the state. Many early Christians were imprisoned and several of the founders of our present-day denominations—George Fox (Quakers), the Wesleys (Methodists), the Anabaptists, and others.

The foundational faith of Christians is of Divine love for all human beings; no one is unworthy of our care, our justice. It can be a challenge to our human understanding, but we cannot draw a circle to shut anyone out of that love—God will re-draw our circle to include those we would exclude.

Until we are all free.


Martha Daniels is pastor of Holy Covenant MCC in Brookfield, IL. She is a recent recipient of a Louisville Institute Pastoral Study Project grant to work with LGBTQ+ people on the inside to create materials to communicate their needs to outside faith communities. Rev. Martha occasionally blogs at rainbowpastor.blogspot.com.


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6 thoughts on “Life “On the Inside”

  1. What a powerful, important, and insightful post about how things are like “on the inside.”

    What do you think are some of the biggest misunderstandings you run into about your work, or prisons in general? Just curious.

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    1. Probably the two misconceptions I meet most often are 1) that people on the inside are “different” from people in the free world, and therefore “deserving” of whatever treatment they get; and 2) that the work I do is somehow dangerous to me.

      People on the inside are just people–some good, some struggling, some generous, some angry, etc. No matter why they are on the inside (setting aside the question of unjust arrests, trials, and sentencing, which is a huge issue), people inside deserve to be treated as human beings.

      I am in far less danger than the people I am working with. Prison is a dangerous place for people who have to stay there. My friends should worry more about them than me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for sharing. I admit to having both misconceptions.

        I, too, struggle with the stereotype that people in prison are “bad people” and that people who minister to prisoners are dangerous. On both counts, the reality seems to be different from the perception. Thanks for answering.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m not dangerous–at least not usually. Truly, my friends on the inside tell me to be careful “out there;” they are as concerned for my safety in the free world as I am for theirs on the inside.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I think I made a typo. I meant to say that there’s a stereotype that prisoners are dangerous. (Blasted autocorrect)

            Anyway, I find it interesting that some of the people you meet inside tell you to be safe “out there,” as if the outside is a scary world.

            Like

  2. Wonderful post. I have worked for decades with folks on the inside and isolation is truly the worst of many bad things. And, indeed, facilities are so widely different, but that is always the same.

    Liked by 1 person

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