Razor wire has a brightness made equally cruel by sunlight and by floodlights. Prison buildings are fortress-like, the concrete blocks, the narrow windows. The perimeters carry warnings alerting passing motorists not to stop. How can prisons and prisoners not be, to use that overused term, “other”?
The poet and essayist Christian Wiman, in one of the meditations on faith in My Bright Abyss, reminded me of a Hopkins verse that has figured largely in my understanding of life: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, / To the father through the features of men’s faces.” Wiman uses the quotation to assert that our faith means “believing in a God who is not apart from matter (or not merely that) but part of it, a God who does not simply enjoin us to participate fully in life, and specifically in the relationships within our lives, but a God who inheres wholly within those relationships.”
The men’s faces I have in mind are those of prison inmates. Presumptuous as it sometimes seems to me to apply Hopkins’s vision (and Wiman’s explication) to my experience, it strikes me that this vision is the core of Christian belief. My experience with prison ministry has caused the injunction, “Love thy neighbor,” to sound to that core in ways that humble and at times confuse me. Perforce I face that change in heart so often mentioned in the gospels.
I was retired, convalescing from a five-month hospital stay, and needed a focus for my free time. A good friend involved in prison ministry suggested that I join him for a visit. I attended a worship service and a session of an introduction-to-Christianity course, and I found myself committed. Soon I—a former high-school English teacher and long-ago Jesuit seminarian—was involved in a biweekly writing seminar for GED students, then a book discussion club, and finally a life-skills course sponsored by the state university’s extension division.
In this capacity I continue to meet regularly with perhaps forty of the seven hundred men interned at a mid-level security facility. This is a self-selecting group, and those enrolled often see their faith and their lives in the clearest terms of salvation and the Christian call to a renewal. To them the biblical struggle with Satan is an everyday affair, expressed in just those terms. For many, the King James Version’s stately cadences convey the solemnity of their state: they fell and lost the earlier battle; they accept their rebirth and are well aware that they experience the wiles and snares of the Enemy. They look for release, for the “hedge of protection” in their lives. They are confronted daily with their sins in ways that make the supplication of the psalms and admonitions of St. Paul live in the moment.
There is a remarkable sense of fellowship, Christian fellowship, that is part of this ministry. The prison separates the men into dormitories, so when they congregate for worship or study they are seeing one another after considerable breaks in time. Barriers of age and experience are not evident. The inmates are almost all men of color, and as a white man whose life has intersected infrequently with African-American and Hispanic adults, I find my acceptance by them remarkable. Then again, for them it is welcome human contact in a world that daily denies it.
I understand that I need to be careful about inmates’ manipulation of me. They have little overt power, but good behavior opens up privileges: attending the book group, for instance, might offer them two hours to watch a video of a book we are reading. They know that they have to work with authority through the careful cultivation of attitude and request. Many are serving time for non-violent drug offenses, but others are felons in the proper sense of the word. I must remind myself: This is a prison.
That said, the men I meet with are remarkably responsive to learning. Perhaps because of the general “negativity,” as they call it, of their prison lives, they seem hungry for knowledge—a hunger I have observed in writing classes, book groups, a life-skills course, and in scripture study. They have been willing, after a time, to reflect on their lives: on what prison forces them to face daily and on their fears and hopes after “re-entry.” In their reflections they are frequently self-hating and fearful. Many readily see the pattern of their lives, the cause and effect of their history and their imprisonment. They also see the likelihood of returning to prison. (In my state, four out of ten do.) Some are resigned to the “contamination” of imprisonment: they know themselves to be tainted, and feel stigmatized. Others insist that the past is over, that they have “paid their debt,” and that new beginnings await.
Prison forces a break in men’s lives. The term they serve, their “bid,” is time on hold. The men have television; they are spectators to the world they left. Those who have been “inside” for more than twenty years struggle to envision a world that has technologically shifted. One young offender, incarcerated on the day of his high-school graduation, mused out loud that he had never written a check, used a credit card, or breathed an independent breath as an adult. How was he going to cope after ten or more years in jail?
BUT I SHOULD really try to give a sense of what happens in the work of prison ministry. Consider these occurrences.
I sat with X at a group discussion in an introduction-to-Christianity course. A small group of just five men, we had met for three sessions, consecutively, on the matter of the Holy Spirit. I admitted to X that I had never felt that “inrush” of the spirit as found in many scriptural passages. He turned to me and said, “Let me see if I can help you with that.” He proceeded to describe a hypothetical situation in which one might succeed in restraining a hostile reaction to being threatened or taunted by another man. “That,” he said, “is the movement of the Spirit.”
Later, in a Sunday service of testimony, where the inmates offer stories of how God has acted in their lives, X explained that he had been in a notorious gang and had had to order the assassination of a rival gang member. He commissioned men to do this, but their target had been tipped off and got away—much to his relief, he said now, since he never wanted to take another’s life. God had saved him from doing so. Somehow he left the gang but in the end wound up serving twelve years—another “blessing” that he attributed to the workings of the Spirit.
On another occasion, our book group read The Catcher in the Rye. All the participants had high-school diplomas, and some had taken college courses; all were committed readers. Many had heard of the book, knew it was considered a classic, and described feeling “amped up” to read it. We spent an easy hour, soliciting reactions to Holden Caulfield (“I liked him, the way he talked”) and his problems. The discussion fed into the more general topic of not really knowing others—of who in the novel is unable to understand Holden and misinterprets his boorish, loud behavior. Then the men talked about prisoners who had committed grave crimes: Would they talk to such men, murderers, rapists? When, if ever, should they refuse? One man talked about what sort of friendship he would have to form before he revealed what he had done, or what he hoped for. Silence fell upon revelation: “I killed a man. Don’t you all know that I did time for murder?” The nods followed.
I lead a writing group with men enrolled in a GED class. Some are undocumented Hispanics learning English in the course of getting their GED; they know they will be deported when they have finished serving their sentences. There are a few white men with varying histories, suburban, country, and city. And there are many who share the all-too-common background of the streets: hustling from their early teens; broken families or ones just getting by; easy drug money; gangs; sometimes armed robbery or assault. School for most ended in their mid-teens as they chose a path they viewed as necessary for survival. Their childhood left them with little sense of any other way of life.
The group does a free-writing exercise, and after five minutes I ask what they wrote about. “My life, how I got here.” “Why I am sitting here when I told myself I would never do the things that I saw going on around me.” “What my friends tell me when they write: the clubs they go to and the females.” Most have to be prodded to talk, but after a while the responses come more easily. They share knowing smiles. Someone recounts his first night in juvenile detention. “Did you cry?” someone asks. Another answers: “Everyone cries.”
Of the twenty-two men, only four or five are regular participants. Prison populations are transient, and the men can have conflicting assignments. Some just don’t come back: a man is transferred or is in another program, or he’s out, or he’s “in seg”—in solitary confinement for breaking some prison rule. At such moments the shutter comes down for me, and the gulf between me and the men in my class returns. In any case, for this ever-shifting group I have returned the week’s papers, written in the previous class, typed and corrected and with a comment on each. I try to chat for a bit with each man. The offer to the new men is the same. “If you want me to read your writing, I will. I will type the papers up in correct form. You can improve your English by comparing my version with your original. I’ll gladly talk with you about what you have written.” I collect the pieces that the men are willing to submit. And then we read a short story.
I often ask them to read out loud, and usually many are eager. I hear their surprise when they realize the strange spellings in a Richard Wright story are phonetic attempts to reproduce a Southern drawl; they struggle to read the dialogue, laughing as they do. For some reason, D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner” wows them. Their perceptions are acute. They ferret out motivation and judge accordingly: “The mother sold that kid for money.” The two hours pass quickly. “When you coming again, Mr. Wheeler?” I am asked when it is over. “I like this class.” I cannot resist the pull of that affirmation. So I keep coming, and so do they.
Again and again in the three years of my involvement I have learned that the men respond if they receive respect, if they are treated as individuals, if their voices are heard and acknowledged. A life-skills session I led focused on friendship, and turned out to be a means of facing the peer or gang pressure that almost inevitably brought the men to prison. We watched the football film Rudy, with its tough love, honest talk, and pain. I asked the group what their own experience of friendships had been. “You know what friendship is?” one man said. “It’s what got me shot at, it’s what got me drunk and drugged, it’s what got me fighting, and it’s what got me here. I don’t want no friendship!” Another spoke up to recall what his brother did: “As soon as I was sent here, he took my car, went to my apartment and took all my electronics. And he’s supposed to be family. But that’s my brother. Always snaking.”
Once in a Bible-study group I introduced John Donne’s Holy Sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Twenty-four mostly black and Hispanic men patiently parsed Donne’s invocations. I wondered if they might hear, in the poet’s plea for Divine correction and the violent change of heart necessary for true Christian life, any resonance in their own. The response was immediate and positive. How strange, they said, that this man four hundred years ago experienced the same need to be reformed, to be shaped, as in the hymn they regularly sing: “You are the potter, I am the clay.” The men did not need to have the spirituality of Jacobean England explained to them. These are issues of faith, correction, damnation, and salvation that they live daily. A plea for reform is an ongoing need, the correction of prayer a necessary aid.
I'M FAMILIAR with the damning critique of “mass incarceration” so powerfully propounded in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. And anyone who volunteers has to ask: What is prison for? Punishment or correction? There are over seven hundred men “on hold” in the prison where I volunteer. Their family life is disrupted, their future at risk. What are the social mechanisms for change? In January of last year, a report on mass incarceration, written by the Economic Policy Institute for Civil Rights, concluded that “crime and punishment are multidimensional problems that stem from racial prejudice justified by age-old perceptions and beliefs about African Americans.”
Prison ministry exists within a larger context of systemic problems in our society. The recent demonstrations throughout the country over the treatment of people of color by police have, one can hope, raised the fraught nature of the criminal-justice system and put it forward for greater public review and reform. But at the individual level, the need is great now. The stigma of imprisonment is real. The inmates have dignity as human beings, as Christ “through the features of men’s faces.” This is a fundamental Christian vision.
My work in a medium-security prison has made me re-see the men with whom I meet, as Hopkins wrote, “in eyes not his.” I find myself reaching for a Christological context to explain what I have deeply felt in coming to know these men, whose lives differ so markedly from my own. The rewards of prison volunteer work are not limited to one source, but in remarkable ways, brotherhood in Christ is unmistakably present. My volunteer effort has maintained a spiritual focus that has reshaped my life. The extraordinary exists by way of contrast; wonder is a break in the flat plain of expectation. For the men meanwhile there remains the continuing prospect, shorter or longer, of life on hold; and finally the future, that obscurely envisioned open door and, one hopes, a new beginning.