Who wants to go to prison? No one.
As I headed towards Texas City, I prayed, “Lord, clearly You have a plan. Help me to give what you need of me and to receive what I need of You.”
I was not heading into the prison as an inmate, rather to help lead a prison ministry retreat for 35 inmates. For privacy sake I won’t give much specific information about the facility or the people, rather I will give generalities and no specifics.
Getting through the multi-barbwire gates to the main building was cause for trepidation but then walking through the ‘yard’, past the dorms, and into the day room was an added level of uncertainty. The bathroom stall was a concrete block right in the middle of the room. No lock on the stall door, so if we needed to go, everyone knew about it! Also, here it isn’t ‘orange is the new black’ in this prison they wear white. All white. Starched, scratchy cotton pants, oversized V-neck tops and from what they shared once we were fast friends, scratchy white undergarments too.
I wasn’t sure how we’d be able to do a retreat in prison, but it was amazing to see these ladies come together and work from the inside alongside our team from the ‘outside’ to make this happen for about 35 inmates. The ‘inside’ team had already been on the retreat so this gave them the privilege of helping put together this retreat for their friends.
We were there all day Thursday, Friday, Saturday and then they finished Sunday at Noon. Because of another obligation I had to leave Saturday, so for me it was three days. I was the first to speak and share a part of my story with these women on Friday morning and once I sat down within my personal small group they all began to take turns sharing what it felt to hear about my own trauma and healing journey.
These are some women who have been in this prison for over 20+ years; one I believe was on her way to 34 years in. The offenses could have been anywhere from drug possession/distribution to murder. Most will say they are innocent… but many were owning up to their actions and what caused them to get into this predicament. When they stood to share I was brought to tears with the willingness they gave to open up their own stories because I was courageous enough to give mine. Another common thread that went about the room was acknowledging that we all have a story. They were shocked to learn what I’d been through but it was helpful to know I understood how easy it could be for me to be on the other side of that fence with them.
It didn’t take long to ignore the obvious distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’… those in white vs our plain clothes. What I found to be the most eye-opening and refreshing was how generous they were when they had absolutely nothing to give. We were able to give them big bags of snacks that they could keep in that room for the retreat. They all got the same things so there was no argument for one item over another…and immediately they began to exchange items with one another and at our table they insisted they share with us. This was like they were giving us their gold. On more than one occasion it brought tears to my eyes.
By Saturday my heart was full of care and appreciation for these women. At one point I had to fight an anxiety attack just thinking about how easy it could be to make that one mistake, or worse, have someone say you did when you didn’t and end up in this facility that took your entire identity away.
When I left them Saturday night I was thinking about how many of us on the ‘outside’ might feel like we are in our own prison…whether it be in simple everyday occurrences, work, marriage, care-giving, etc… and how important it is to have that support system, those that know exactly what you are going through, who are on the same journey. This offers hope.
After the prison retreat I left for Austin to go through training for Certified Peer Support. In this class of 20 we had a wide variety of survivors. Men and women who had lived through and are living out their own ‘prison’ in many ways …Veterans who witnessed and suffer a great amount of loss, past prison inmates who have reclaimed their life and are helping the addicted and homeless, past homeless who are also helping out their peers, those who have been determined to have various mental diagnosis’ who have found a way to thrive through peer support. And then those like me who have suffered a great deal of trauma in their lives.
The same scenario took place…we all began to relate with our stories and gave one another HOPE. I learned a great deal having been in the prison and then with a room full of survivors/ thrivers like me.
Most important is knowing we understood one another, regardless of the age, or how long their particular journey of healing had been taking place. I learned a lot about myself personally as well. That even though at times I do feel I am in my own ‘prison’ I have the capability to make that change, and if it’s not a change that is needed then I also have the power to make my life what I long for it to be.
Life will never stop having twists, dips and turns but when we turn to God in faith, when we begin to listen to Him rather than listen to the ‘other’ He gives us what and who we need to make a hopeless situation hopeful. God shows up – always.