Ten years ago, I sat around a table with a group of six girls, trying to teach them creative writing. We shared poetry, short stories, and personal memoirs. I wasn’t that much older than them, and yet our worlds were oceans apart. For we sat in the library of a local juvenile correctional facility, and those girls were locked in.
Meet Pam. Heavyset with dirty blonde hair, she experienced mental illness and had been bounced from foster home to foster home. She had a substance addiction and nowhere to call home.
Meet Liz. Tall and lanky, her brown hair was always pulled back in a fierce ponytail. She had been the victim of abuse and had a child somewhere, unknown.
Meet Shaniqua. Dark-skinned and alternatively outspoken and then sullen, her arms were crisscrossed with scars from where she cut herself repeatedly.
The world they came from was harsh and unforgiving; the state prison system was not much better. The facility they lived in faced official, substantiated allegations including sexual molestation by officers, excessive use of force, over-medication, and other abuses.
In that library, though, they were just six young girls. They wanted to laugh, to write about boys, and pop stars, and pet animals. They weren’t hardened criminals, but young women from extremely negative life circumstances.
I was there because of an irresistible pull I felt sure only the Lord could have put on my life. Raised as a child of the middle class, I didn’t have an obvious connection to prison. Yet imprisoned people have called to me–the darker the place, the more that I feel at home. Prisons are broken places, and the broken parts of me find a kinship with those inside them.
So despite difficulties, I kept returning. Prisons, as a general matter, do not make it easy for volunteers. This facility was 30 minutes outside the city. Each week I needed a visitor pass just to enter the facility, and there had to be correctional officers available to escort me through the halls. My first steps into the prison involved emptying out all my pockets and walking through a metal detector, as though I were the criminal.
Once inside the facility, however, it appeared much like a college campus: freshly cut lawns, separate buildings for education, dorms, the dining hall, and the administrative offices. The school library where I held class was cheery and filled with books; on the walls, various celebrities with milk moustaches asked if you “got milk?” With the exception of the officer constantly at my side and the many locked doors, I could have been walking through my own high school.
Each week my students and I shared our written works around a pasteboard table and plastic chairs in primary colors. The girls read stories that were like shifting slices of dark and light. One week a story about a trip to the mall, the next about a drug deal with a boyfriend, the next about a friend’s suicide. While I was inwardly horrified at many of the details, the girls never seemed fazed.
I wanted desperately to engage and connect with the girls. More than that, I hoped that by writing and sharing, I could help them heal their past. I wanted to be their savior.
I waited for Shaniqua to share about her cutting, but she never did. She showed up each week with fresh bandages, fresh marks that bore their own tales. One week she could not come because, the girls told me, she was on suicide watch. Then there she was the following week, smiling and laughing as though she’d never been away.
I felt deeply, woefully inadequate. How could I talk about appropriate use of a semicolon in the face of Shaniqua’s suffering? These girls had serious problems I could not solve. I was not a mental health professional, a social worker, or a trained teacher, I had nothing to offer.
Or so I thought.
When the time came for the group to end, the girls gave me drawings to thank me. I had thought that I had given little, but from what they shared, I had done more–I had given them friendship.
But as much as I hope I gave them something of value, I know I gained more. I gained the realization that these youth were more than the crimes that they committed. They were troubled, true, but they were still simply teenagers.
Further, the inadequacies that I felt—the feeling that I had to do more—pushed me to center my life around troubled and disadvantaged persons, particularly youth and those in the correctional system. I became a teacher and subsequently, director of a legislative committee in Ohio with oversight of both adult and juvenile correctional systems. Even though I felt inadequate, years ago, I see now that only through caring and committed volunteers can we catch youth who leave the juvenile system before they end up in the adult system.
As Jesus says, we are serving the King Himself when we serve those in prison. Take note: no matter how dark the prison or the circumstances, the Lord is with them all.
If you are interested in being involved in prison ministry, here are a couple steps to take:
- Check with your local churches to see if a group already is involved in prison ministry. You can learn more directly from the people doing it and join them in their work.
- Check out groups such as Prison Fellowship Ministries, Kairos, and Bill Glass. These are national ministries that should be able to plug you into ministry that is already ongoing.
- If the above fail, you can cold-call your local jail or prison and ask to speak with the Chaplain or volunteer coordinator. He or she should be to answer questions and help you find a way to serve.