Friday, December 10, 2010

My Experience In Prison

Yes, you read that right. I went to prison... for a few hours. Don't worry, I haven't adopted a life of crime, but rather, I joined my sister and her classmates as they celebrated the graduation ceremony for the Inside-Out Program at the Charles Bass Correctional Facility in Nashville, Tennessee. I'm sorry it's so long, but it's a night I will always remember, so I hope you'll take a few minutes out of your day and read it. :)

The sun was descending quickly as darkness began to spread over the ominous scenery before me. In the middle of a secluded field, well past the train tracks and deserted warehouses on the north side of town stood barbed-wire fences, accented by pale streetlights, surrounding a large, square concrete building. As we kept driving towards the building my heart began to race more and more with every passing moment, knowing what was waiting inside. Then I saw it, a sign that read:

“Welcome to Charles Bass Correctional Facility.”

We pulled into the parking lot and turned off the music. “Jennifer,” I said with a hint of panic, “I’m a little nervous about this. Is that bad?” “No, I was nervous the first time too, but it will be fine. They’re very nice.” I took a deep breath, smiled and we walked into the security check point. I was comforted when I became surrounded by familiar faces of former Belmont classmates, friends and to meet parents of friends, but I still couldn’t stop thinking to myself, I cannot believe that I’m voluntarily walking into a prison.”

As we walked into the facility, men lined the walls and I nervously made conversation with a guy I barely knew to avoid eye contact with the prisoners. I felt guilty, but I was, to be very honest, trying to figure out what I’d do if a fight suddenly broke out. Jennifer assured me that these guys were in for non-violent crimes, but I couldn’t help but think of the images I’ve see TV and I felt frightened.

However, as the door to a large room at the end of the hall opened, my fear and anxiety quickly melted into excitement and relief as I quickly became surrounded by men in blue prison uniforms, all with HUGE smiles on their faces. One gentleman, I’m assuming the official greeter, was beaming, saying “Hello!” “Welcome!” “I’m so glad you could make it!” as he passed out cards which read “God Bless You.”

The room was large and rectangular with vending machines behind locked bars on the far end. There was no d├ęcor, but there was a small mural of Mickey and Minnie Mouse dancing together near the corner which seemed to liven it up. On the opposite side, there was a table with large, painted flowers on it. Jennifer explained to me that those were made by some of the prisoners in a class and they sell them to earn money for their families or to buy food.

We had a little time before the program started and Jennifer introduced me to a few of the inmates she’d been working with all semester. It was nice to put faces to names and I enjoyed the fact that EVERYONE said,"Let me guess. This must be your little sister!" While we are sisters, I am older, dangit, but all of the inmates said that we looked "exactly alike." (I love when people think we look alike because she is so beautiful.) But while the small talk wasn't too awkward, I was happy for the program to start.

Now, you should know, I am a crier. Sometimes stupid commercials make me cry, but the tears I cried during this ceremony came from the most sincere depths of my soul as I felt I was really seeing the souls and the most honest desires of the men who shared their experiences.

First, three men went up to the tiny corner “stage” where a small keyboard and a set of speakers stood waiting for them. One man explained that the songs they were about to sing, he had written while in prison as God had revealed to him that he has the ability to be a better man. This is where the river started running out of eyes. The men singing were all African American and I couldn’t believe the soul and beauty of the gospel-style songs they sang. The song lyrics covered their remorse for the crimes they committed, their longing to be better husbands, fathers, friends and citizens, their desire to love in all situations and their thankfulness for God’s grace and for the love that they learned only because He loved them. (See why I cried??)

Soon the official ceremony began and class elected Belmont students and inmates spoke before the “diplomas” were handed out.  One inmate named Michael thanked the Belmont students for their time and shared that he never really thought about restorative justice and was so thankful to have the chance to learn that he based on his decisions and actions he could be restored to the man he used to be, or at least always wanted to be. He explained that he never felt like anyone believed in him and that he felt that very few people ever expected much of him. He said, “however, because of this class, I think I see now that God loves me enough and that there are people out there who believe in me enough –even if they don’t know me—that I can step up and be the man I’m supposed to me and rise above the label of being the man who got caught doing something stupid. I want to make my momma proud and I ain’t ever coming back here again!”

My dear friend Lindsey, also in the class, was also elected to speak and I think she hit it right on the head when she referenced Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, describing the scene where Jean Valjean (a convict) is dying and is welcomes into heaven by martyrs Fantine and Eponine who sing to him, “Come with me, where chains will never bind you.” She explained that that was the kind of hope she, as a Christian, always looks forward to, but learned that on earth, as it is in heaven, we have a hope of restoration of souls and relationships as well. Lindsey ended her speech with a quote from C.S. Lewis from The Great Divorce saying, “We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.”

After the graduation we sat down to a reception (provided by Belmont students) consisting of fried chicken, sandwiches, pizza, chips, pop, etc. It was interesting to me to watch the dynamic between students and inmates as well as the dynamic between the inmates and their guests—mostly parents and spouses. While some of them looked pretty rough, I do have to say that if most of them weren’t wearing prison uniforms, I never would have known they were convicts. I watched as one man, named Matt, served his elderly parents their dinner before they got his and tenderly brushed his mom’s hair out of her face for her.

While these guys may have been the “best of the worst,” as Jennifer put it, meaning none of them committed violent crimes (no rape, murder, domestic abuse, etc.) I struggled as I walked in thinking about the victims of their crimes. After all, I work hard to make sure that those who violate the rights of other humans in the form of labor or sex trafficking get put behind bars and are punished for their crimes.

However, I realized that while people commit crimes and do deserve to be punished for them, maybe in some cases it’s not worth labeling them and dismissing them as “bad guys.” I’m not suggesting that prison is a bad thing, in fact, most admitted that prison is the best thing that ever happened to them and gave them a chance to turn their lives around. What I learned that night, however, is that I want to be more open to loving a flawed person with a past in hopes that they would do their best to right the wrongs they have committed rather than eternally condemning them for the crime they committed when they want to change. After all, isn’t that what Grace is all about?


Chrissy said...

Wow, what an amazing experience!

Donna said...

That is exactly what grace is all about. I've always hated the labels we put on people. Recently my Mom and stepdad took in my cousins ex husband after he'd served four years in prison. He had no where else to go and if he'd gone back to his hometown, everything he'd gotten mixed up in to land him in prison would have been right there waiting for him when he returned.

Meeting him, he's one of the kindest most easy going people in the world. You'd never talk to him and label him felon. So many of the people who wind up in prison, despite deserving to be there to pay for crimes committed find that it's exactly what they needed to turn their lives around and end the cycles that in a lot of cases took them there to begin with.

Good for you for finding the courage and strength to go and enjoy the night!

<3 Donna

Jenni@Story of My Life said...

Beautiful commentary, thanks for sharing!!

Blogs said...

this sounds like a very good experience for y'all. First off...I'm a big fat cry baby too! I have a really hard time with accepting people in my extended family who've experienced the prison life, time and time again! I have a half brother (my father's son) who has known prison his entire life. He's handsome, looks just like my father and I would have loved to KNOW this man because more than anything in life I wanted a father and mine passed when I was five. He could have been my BIG brother and we could be sharing life but he chooses this for some reason. It hurts and more than that....I only know him as a person who chooses petty crime and prison life over me. It's hard to grasp.

I know there are many who come out and never go's a positive and is just that way!

Sorry I'm writing a book either case...WELCOME to For The Love of Blogs....glad your hanging with us!:) and thanks for sharing this experience!

Blogs said...

btw: crying while writing this:( i should name a blog: BIG FAT CRY BABY...LOL

Becka said...

you are amazing.