Volunteering inside is a huge blessing. We’re often asked “What’s it like?”
So this is an “installment” in a series of posts that will paint a picture.
Scent 1 — An attempt to outline an evening with prisoners.
The scene: A rural county jail. This level of the justice system – is where prisoners begin their incarceration. Arrests are relatively fresh. Most don’t spend more than a few months here before they are paroled or sent to state prison.
The setting: Twenty men dressed entirely in orange smocks with hot pink plastic clogs on their feet. Green painted concrete floor, worn through in places. Cinderblock walls. Some books on plain painted wooden shelves: Paperback junk mostly, that wouldn’t sell at a thrift store. The vending machines are turned off. This is a rec. / visiting room. A couple of aged folding tables are at one side.
High celling with windows near the top that are Darkened — it’s 6:15PM Friday evening. A chill comes and goes as the heat cycles on and off. Four men, in street clothing sitting with them in a circle of blue plastic lawn chairs. Most have found a Gideon’s Bible to hold. These are the kind made with paper pages that aren’t enjoyable to smoke.
The crowd is a mix. Most are re-arrested for new infractions or on warrants. A few are inside for the first time. Of the latter some will be of middle age even elderly, usually in on DUI. Mostly the group of first-timers are young fellows.
First-timers are easy to spot — falling into one of two very divergent categories. The first of those groups is the “tough guy” who with bravado broadcasts his pride at receiving arrest street bonafides. Full of willful ignorance and blindness to the truth, he hasn’t yet experienced the spark of hopelessness. Covering fear with pride, anger and arrogance is all he knows. So far it’s worked in his life. Their story is often “it’s not my fault” and “they got the wrong guy.”
Some of the first-timers know how wrong they’ve been living. It might be only a day or two since their arrest. Shocked, stunned. Usually, they’re still suffering symptoms of withdrawal, often from multiple substances. They are broken, terrified, confused. Grasping for anything that might serve to provide an avenue of escape. Minds racing uncontrolled. Pitiful and wretched — the experienced inmates tend to take advantage of them shamelessly. A hierarchy exists and they are on a steep learning curve.
Everyone gathers, sitting together in a circle. The volunteers spread out among the inmates sometimes sitting between individuals as a pad reducing chit-chat. Mocking is unusual, disruptive behavior isn’t. At least they’ve come out of their cells — some for no other reason that relief from boredom. The fellows in street clothes call for calm — pray and then begin reading God’s Word. They discuss the Gospel. They are feeding milk to babies.
The first meeting hour passes in what seems like a few heartbeats. The bible study
encompasses Luke 6:1-11 where Jesus engages Pharisees over the Disciples harvesting grain on the sabbath, and then his healing of the withered hand the same day. The point being that love trumps the law, that Grace is to recieve mercifully, what you don’t deserve.
Near the end, an invocation is given, heads are bowed. Eyes meet — those in orange connect with a volunteer — several of the inmates commit or re-commit to Christ.
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Luke 15:4-7