I was never more proud of my family than shortly before Thanksgiving, 2009. I had just asked them to accept something that was highly unusual, certainly uncomfortable, and maybe even risky. When they had a full 5 seconds to think about it, the answer was a unanumous, "Yes." I had just asked my wife, daughters, grandkids, son-in-law, and parents to welcome a fellow who had been released from prison just two months earlier into our home for Thanksgiving dinner. He had no family and no one to share the day with. Nobody else in our family had met him except me. But, they welcomed him with open arms and made him feel like a part of our family from that day forward.
I relate this story as a way to continue the narrative begun a few posts ago. Pushing Back Against the Box generated as many comments as anything I have written. I sensed a real interest in what I had done and why. There were requests for more information on what the experience has been like. I am happy to oblidge. It would be great if someone decided to get involved with prison or jail ministry as a result. But, I will be satisfied if these two posts help convince you to try something out of your comfort zone. The potential for personal satisfaction and growth are limitless. If you also help make our world just a bit brighter in the process we all benefit.
I volunteer for Along Side Ministry of Arizona. Started by a man and his wife 12 years ago, ASM has grown into an amazing organization. It sponsors Bible studies and mentor relationships inside county and state jails and prisons. It owns multiple houses, apartments, and condos that house men and women upon release from state prisons. The most recent addition to their facilities was a home for women and their children. In most cases these families had been separated or estranged for years while mom was locked up. You can only imagine the emotions that are present when a mother and her kids meet again after years of separation. It will reduce the strongest person to tears.
What does a mentor do? My experiences with the two guys I have worked with is probably typical. Both the just-released prisoner and the mentor sign a contract that commits us to be together for at least six months. Along Side Ministry has such a tremendous track record of success that the participants are allowed a much more lienient involvement with the parole system. But, one serious mistake and the offender must move out of the ministry's housing and into a much stricter halfway house envirenoment.
Most men and women get out of prison with little or no money, no job, no transportation, and few social skills. I learned rather early in my work with these folks that the idea of "paying your debt to society" isn't reality. They face a society that expects them to fail and does what it can to fulfill that expectation. They face obstacles every way they turn. Apartments won't rent to them, employers won't hire them, and the state makes it difficult to get medical help. When an inmate is released from prison he is given $50 and a bus ticket. You can imagine how desperate you would feel in a similar situation.
Because of those attitudes and because the odds of slipping back into harmful behavior are high during the first few months on the outside, the convict and his mentor are expected to talk on the phone daily. There is a requirement of a face-to-face meeting weekly for the first four months. Budgets are developed together. The mentor drives his mentee to buy food and clothing, get to a doctor appointment, meet with the parole officer, and attend church services together. Though not part of the program, it is not unusal for the mentor to help with grocery and medical bills until some type of job can be found.
Two of the comments left after the original post are worth repeating and expanding upon. One reader said:
"I [find] myself making excuses even before I had finished your piece, I have no time, I already do this and that, to just name a few of the many thoughts that entered my head as I read. How do you become the person that does? It's so easy to be the person who tries or the person who will do... but to actually put yourself out there completely selflessly and blindly and just take that leap of faith Life is so much safer when you stay inside your box of safety... I can only imagine how rewarding it might be to actually step outside of that box."
The justifications expressed are the same ones I felt. In addition there was the fear of the entire prison culture and the stereotype of what all the inmates are like. But, the rewards of putting all of those negatives aside long enough to actually experience the realities, made the trepidation worth every worried moment and every antacid tablet I swallowed.
Another reader asked a bit about the process involved in going inside a prison. I had no idea what to expect. It was every bit as nerve-wracking as you might think:
You must apply to be added to the inmates approved visitor list. Various police organizations look into your background , a process that takes about 30 days. The inmate cannot have had any infractions for an extended period of time before a visit.
I boarded a bus driven by an inmate after leaving my car in the parking lot and going behind the barbed wire fence. As a visitor you are not allowed to bring in a cell phone, your wallet, or wear any brown or orange-colored clothing. Your shoes and belt must be removed and all your pockets emptied to pass through a metal detector. You are permitted $20 in quarters in a clear plastic bag to buy food from the vending machines for the person you are there to see. There is a line on the floor about 3 feet from the vending machines that the inmate is not allowed to cross. Since the inmates receive only two meals on weekend days, the junk food that comes from those machines is very much appreciated. Only the visitor may approach the machine. You must keep your hands in clear sight the entire time you are in the visiting room.
It is important to note that the guards I encountered were polite, couteous, and respectful. When I had a question it was answered promptly and completely. After 20 minutes or so I relaxed enough to focus on the man across from me who was soaking up conversation and the appearance of someone from the outside like a sponge.
As I noted in the previous post, the point of these articles is to inspire you to push back against self-imposed limits. You are capable of doing amazing and important things. You have the ability to profoundly improve someone else's life. While retirement is a perfect time to push against the box of self-imposed limitations, if you are still working don't wait. The world needs what you have to offer and you could use the jolt of passion and joy that awaits you on the other side of that wall.