A Day in Prison
During my chaplaincy internship at a hospital, I had a moving interaction with a man that had recently been incarcerated. During our conversation, we both shed tears. Our exchange prompted me to investigate chaplaincy in corrections facilities.
I am the kind of person that has to try something on through experience - so I reached out to an acquaintance that serves as a chaplain in the Connecticut prison system. He arranged a day for me to shadow him. To prepare, I had to go through a background check. I had to follow strict rules during my visit - no cell phones, no revealing clothes, and pack a lunch.
The morning came - I drove to the corrections facility - past the barbed wire fences to the entrance. I parked my car, locked up my belongings in the glovebox, took a deep breath and walked to the main entrance. My mentor had instructed me to wait for him at the gate. I signed into the visitor log and sat in a small holding room next to the entrance.
The employees were coming and going at shift change. The barred metal gate clank clanking at every entry and exit of the staff. Each closure of the gate made my heart jump and claustrophobia creep in. Anxiety gripped me as the reality that I was about to enter prison sunk in.
What am I doing here?
It was a sunny day.
As I sat waiting for my mentor, I attempted to calm down. I focused on my breathing and looked out the window. Birds were flitting in and out of the fence freely. They chirped and perched on the chain link fence.
I found myself getting angry at the birds. How dare you flaunt your freedom in front of the prisoners!!! My mind jarred at the juxtaposition.
My mentor arrived. He helped me get settled in his office. He showed me some of the procedural paperwork he had to do. He brought up some of the prisoner profiles and the reasons for their incarceration.
Murder. Rape. Larceny.
Length of prison sentence.
Life. Twenty-five years. A few months. Time relieved from a sentence for good behavior.
He told me about room arrangements. Prisoners had to be matched evenly in size to lower the chances of rape.
He showed me offices and the mail room. Letters and packages needed to be thoroughly searched - even the places underneath the stamps.
He gave me a tour of most of the prison wards. More bars. More locks. Tight quarters and overcrowding.
In one section, the prisoners were allowed to paint a mural on the wall. Part of me was happy to see the joyful colors in an otherwise bland environment. The other part of me felt deep sadness. Yet, I was consoled at the opportunity for artistic expression and the simplicity and promise of holding a paintbrush in hand.
I was instructed to stay in close proximity to my mentor. As he continued to walk me through the different sections of the prison, I felt scared.
I was getting stared at.
I was unfamiliar.
I am a woman.
I am sure my fear was glaringly obvious and palpable.
My whole awareness screamed at me. THIS IS NOT FOR YOU!
As my time at the prison drew to a close, I felt guiltly that I would be leaving at shift’s end. And I would not be coming back.
I had to experience being in a prison for myself.
I am grateful for the opportunity to go inside a prison as a visitor.
I acknowledge my privilege.
I continue to hold all incarcerated people and their loved ones in my heart.
I pray that all beings are forgiven.
I pray that all beings forgive themselves.
I pray that all beings heal.
I pray that all beings know peace.
There are times I wonder about the man I encountered at the hospital.
And I think of the birds and their freedom.