An Evening in Jail

All of the jumpsuits are the same drab bluish grey.  The tables are stainless steel, polished to a spit shine so that the overhead lighting is reflected painfully up even when you bow your head to avoid it from above.  The sturdy stainless steel seats that jut out from beneath the tables are designed specifically to make sitting an immensely unpleasant prospect after just a few moments.  When we arrive the small room off of the main cell block is filled with the blaring noise of the television on the wall.  A guard comes in and uses a special key to turn off the television so we can hear one another.  

The women trickle in gradually.  Who knows what the relative trade-offs are in an incarceration environmentof sitting in on a Christian service for an hour?  How one manages the web of complex relationships of both power and need in that environment must be fascinating, and these women have not only the time but the necessity of learning those ropes very quickly.  My host – one of my parishioners and our congregation’s designated chaplain to the county jail facility – calls out to the women that she sees several times a week in various capacities, encouraging them to come in.  Tonight there is the added incentive of sitting in – there’s a man here!  I somehow doubt that I’m much in terms of bait in that respect.  I assume that the 20 or so women who crowd around the two small tables in the room are there for a variety of reasons other than myself – or that I’m of far more value as a curiosity than a source of sexual curiosity, even for a group of women cut off with contact with men other than prison guards for weeks or months.
Still, that tension fills the air initially.  These are women who for perhaps a disproportionate amount of their life have relied on their sexuality for all manner of things – a master key of sorts to access emotional and physical needs ranging from food for their children or a roof over their heads or temporary comfort in the storm that is their life.  There are comments that float through the air initially, testing, probing, seeking reaction or acknowledgment.  The innuendos are sometimes as simple as the eyes that make contact and then dart away furtively with a small grin.  There is no offense taken – and after a few moments of not reacting adversely or responding positively, the tension subsides a bit and there is something else for them to focus on.  
These particular medium-security prisoners are being housed for the next two months in the basement of the jail facility, a particularly harsh environment because until recently they were enjoying a much more comfortable surface-level life replete with windows and exercise facilities and a small library.  For the next two months at least, as work is done on their former residence areas, they will breathe nothing but recycled air, see no light other than the fluorescent harshness overhead, and have no way of accurately gauging the day or the time.  It makes for unhappy people, which is saying a lot in a place as unhappy as a jail facility.
There is the eagerness that always surprises me when I’m with prisoners for a few moments.  There is an eagerness to interact:  to read, to sing, to answer questions, even to share relevant life experiences.  In the free world, people are rarely so quick to jump in with both feet.  The act of jumping is itself fascinating, regardless of the promptings to it.  The break this time of worship and teaching offers in their daily and weekly schedule is probably in itself enough of an incentive for half of them to be there and to play along with whatever their leader has in store for them.  Learn a new song?  No problem – sing loud.  Look up Bible verses?  They’re on it with a ferocity.  They defer to one another in amazingly humble ways.  If two women begin to read at the same time they both quickly back down and attempt to encourage the other to read.  One woman gets up from the other table to bring over a Bible because she sees two of the ladies next to me don’t have one.  Are they this considerate of one another all the time?  What beauty that might create even in such a dismal and foreboding place if they are!
Some of them are so sincere it hurts.  Your heart leaps out to them, praying that next time will be different, that this really was just a bump in the road, that maybe they can make better decisions next time.  Maybe their husbands will agree to make changes in their lives together.  Maybe they won’t have to be separated from their children again because of drug abuse.  Maybe, just maybe.  
You have to have that hope.  You have to have that confidence that whatever these women need is not to be found in themselves, under the hardscrabble exteriors and fading hair dyes.  You have to have confidence that the Jesus they speak about so easily and the Holy Spirit they invoke so willingly are not just bedtime stories but real and true and capable and willing to do what they promise.  You have to have confidence that the process of breaking hearts hardened by abuse and indifference and neglect and addiction really does occur, and that despite the pain and suffering that accompanies it, there is new life waiting in the here and now as well as the there and then when and where the blood begins to flow again.  
I get to leave after an hour, winding my way back up through the warren of tunnels and locking doors and elevators.  I get to breathe in the sea-salt laden air and stare over the valley to the ocean beyond in the lackadaisical dwindling light of the coastal evening.  I get to scrub off the germs with hand sanitizer and, once home again, a more thorough scrubbing.  And I pray that what was left behind with those women in that one hour will be enough to help them hold on.  That it will give them not just peace and comfort but also the painful clarity that one only gets when the Word cuts through our excuses and pretenses and facades.  Much of that cutting has been done courtesy of the county taxpayers through this facility.  But the most important cuts are the deepest, and I pray that in the harshness of the concrete and steel and fluorescence, they will find not just their own blood, but the blood of their Creator already mingling with and flowing within their own hearts.  

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