Corresponding by mail through letters, one on one visits and correcting bible studies of inmates all over the world has taught me how to love far beyond what Iíd ever expect.
I wasnít able to comprehend how a note of encouragement could keep a human spirit alive. That is, until I was told by my friends also referred to as Pen-Pals. I learned that a small act of kindness goes a long way. I canít imagine having to serve a life sentence in prison, but for most of my friends, itís the reality they wake to each day.
Before I got involved in the ministry, I thought that prison was a place of hopelessness, a sanctuary where evil dwelled. A dark dungeon surrounded with dark and mean spirited people. And for some it may be. But as for my friends, hope is all they have. And hope is what keeps them going. Healing and freedom is their focus. Itís a choice they make to manifest the good in what so many believe to be the end. Sure, they have down days as we. But for the most part they have a spirit of life, looking at what they can do instead of what they cannot. And if I can encourage them to press on, then itís a privilege.
A few of my friends help by mentoring and being a mother figure to girls as young as sixteen. They hold jobs, listen and pray for one another. Some have been in prison for over thirty five years. And the inmates around them are their only family.
What I took for granted before I met my new friends: Going to bed when I choose, using the bathroom and showering in private, getting in my car and driving, kissing my children each day, choosing what I will eat and drink, and looking in the mirror. Appreciation has been heightened in many ways. And this may not have been possible if I had not these friends.
Reaching out to those in prison is like a revolving door. Itís not me doing something extraordinary; instead, itís a friendship doing for one another. Sometimes I talk sometimes I listen. We may laugh. And we may cry. But each time I go in and come out, only one thing remains. Humbleness follows. A since of gratitude overwhelms my being and I know Iím exactly where I need to be. A place that seemed so dark slowly transforms. I found that when I opened my eyes a little wider, the picture in my mind of prison had changed. I see good people that got tangled in bad circumstances. But I see good people.
Most canít understand how I can befriend people in prison. And I canít understand how people can judge something they may know nothing about. For me itís easy. A childhood cut short due to sexual and emotional abuse led me to grow up in survival mode, protecting myself from further pain. Anger, bitterness, and multiple addictions kept me in bondage. Many of my friends lived in similar ways. Some were physically and sexually abused, mentally tortured, emotionally neglected or all four. Many had caregivers who modeled crime. And they followed. A few were kicked out on the streets at a young age to fend for themselves or were sold for drugs. And then there are those who started using drugs at an early age, getting high became a normal part of life. Many got high with their own parent(s). Most crimes are committed while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Tools to live right may not have been available or were too far to grasp. But I believe that itís never too late to heal and learn. Iíve overcome many adversities that may have sent me to prison, but only because I acknowledged and dealt with them. Prison may be the only place for some to have that chance.
Healing programs are available in prison. Many have to fight to get in, but if they do, it helps to clear out the anger, bitterness, and pain that theyíve carried for many years. It takes work, but Iíve seen how these programs have changed my friendís lives. They may be in prison, but they are living in peace instead of turmoil. Some have been through months of recovery that deal with their past. Through these classes, it uncovers what they have tried to hide for years. Instead of masking their problems with unhealthy coping skills it allows them to acknowledge their pain that had been destroying them. And it teaches them healthy coping skills, a way to love themselves.
A few of my friends have been paroled back into society, one after six years and another after twenty-nine. I watched as a life sentence was overturned and my seventy two year old friend was reunited with her family. I was able to write recommendation letters to the parole board. I joyfully explained the recovery process that I had witnessed over the years of knowing my friends. The miraculous transformation is like a trickle effect, it gives other inmates something to embrace, and itís as beautiful to watch as a baby being born.
Iím not naÔve to the fact that some of the people in prison are dangerous and need to be there. I donít condone any type of crime. I do know that most of the friends that Iíve met have never been loved and are strong candidates for rehabilitation. Sometimes I meet inmates that havenít had a visitor in over twenty years. A piece of mail means the world to most. Itís more than a note; itís a small token of love. The few minutes it takes to show someone that they are lovable and worthy to be loved is priceless. It may be the note that sparks a positive change in that personís life. And it may be the start of a beautiful friendship.