Prison Fellowship's Jennifer Lowrey on why we are called to "remember the prisoner."
My job just got a little more real for me.
I have been into prison many times as a speaker, musician, volunteer. I have been a chaplain's assistant visiting in a prison hospital. Recently, though, I tried to visit someone I know on a personal level in jail. Someone close to me. A family member, someone the same age as my son, found himself in a bit of trouble and is spending some time in behind bars. He's a long way from home, and a work trip happened to bring me close to where he is being held.
I say tried to visit, because while I scheduled the visit, drove almost two hours to the facility after specifically adding a day to my trip to make it happen, and was cleared into the facility, I didn't actually get to see my loved one.
Just through the airport-type metal detector, there was a lobby that led to the visitation room. I walked in to see a room lined with booths along each wall—each one equipped with a video screen and phone.
Other visitors followed. One or two at a time—aunts, moms, girlfriends. One dad held a very little baby, not more than a few weeks old. They found their way to their assigned booth numbers so that they could talk with their loved ones, located in a room somewhere else in the facility. I wondered about their stories.
I sat down in front of booth No. 1. What I saw on the screen was a bare, white room with a blue chair and nothing else. Before long, I heard voices around me. In hushed tones to preserve a little privacy and not to disturb the others, visitors asked about their prisoners' welfare. If they needed anything. If they were doing okay. If they were feeling well.
But the chair on my monitor was empty. And it stayed empty. I kept hoping I would see G— walk in. Since you can't carry anything in except your ID and the key to the locker that costs a quarter, I was left with my thoughts while I waited. I remembered family trips with G—, my son and the other cousins, sword fighting at a cookout. Watching him grow up on Facebook and Shutterfly. Visiting with him at his grandparents' apartment in their retirement home. Living in another state our contacts were few and far between. It had been more than two years since I had seen him in person. I wondered what was taking so long. Why was his room empty? G—'s mom said maybe his lawyer was going to visit, so how would I know if something had come up? I felt helpless and insignificant. And lonely.
And then the screen flickered and reset to a home screen. I went back to the guard center to ask if there was a problem. I knew there were only 45 minutes allotted for our visit, and I didn't want to miss any time because I was flying home that afternoon. This was my only opportunity.
In the waiting area, I got the attention of the security officer on duty. I gave my name, whom I was there to visit, and which booth I was in. She graciously looked at her screen. Then she told me he had decided he did not want to see me and had canceled the visit.
Was there any chance he might change his mind? She said no as my eyes welled up with unwelcome tears. There I was, a professional woman crying in the middle of a visiting room in a jail in Virginia, heartbroken because a troubled kid, my 21-year-old cousin, didn't want to see me.
This happens more often than you might think, for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s embarrassment—the person behind bars not wanting loved ones to see where they've found themselves. Sometimes they do not want to open up to vulnerable emotions. Jail is a place that requires toughness to survive.
I was not so much upset that I spent a lot of time and didn't get to see him, although I really would have liked to. For his parents I wanted to get sense of how he was really doing. It's easier to pretend you are doing OK when people can't see you face to face. I was hoping I could reassure his mom and dad by getting "eyes on" their kiddo.
CALLED TO SHOW UP
People are complicated. I don't know why he changed his mind. That doesn't really matter. What matters is that as followers of Christ we are called to care. We are called to love. We are called to show up.
That's what I love about working with Prison Fellowship®. We get to be part of a greater conversation that acknowledges that everyone—including those behind bars—are human beings who have value to God and that there is always hope in Jesus. So, we show up.
Jennifer Lowrey is the senior director of programs and special events at Prison Fellowship.
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