Yesterday was a hard day. When I walked through the gates of the Women’s Correctional Facility for our 10th Sunday afternoon in the jail, I was crazy excited and hopeful. I had already listened to the sermon and could not wait to share it with the women on the inside. Zach van Dyke of Summit Church preached a beautiful message to women who have been abandoned, abused, and devalued in life and what it means to be beloved, beautiful, precious, and whole. I so wanted the women in jail to connect with their own dignity and worth.
What I didn’t expect to happen was an emotionally charged verbal brawl between the inmates during the service. The sermon must of touched some pretty deep places in them, because I heard them express so many things I have never heard from them before. One woman opened up about an ongoing conflict between her and another inmate, and that set off everyone in the room. They all felt hurt, betrayed, angry, sad, scared, and very, very alone.
One woman shared that it takes everything she has not to go crazy at night because she can’t stand one more minute in that place. Several described how degrading it is to have to sleep, shower, eat, poop, and live together with no privacy and no ability to trust anyone. They talked about how they can’t even talk about their cases because informants are everywhere and they don’t know who is out to get them and who really wants to help.
When I tried to take control of the room, one very brave woman turned on me expressing her frustration that I get to walk in there by choice and then go home to my own life. She told me I have no idea what it is like to live in their shoes. And she is right. I don’t. I don’t know what it is like to wonder if I will ever get to go home. I don’t know what it is like to sleep on a metal slab in the same clothes day in and day out, to have to pee and shower in front of everyone else, to have my “fitness” time be limited to walking around a concrete square covered in barbed wire, to be felt up and down by a total stranger every time there is a “routine search”, to have every word and every movement watched by a man or woman in uniform armed with a gun.
Another woman said she needed to be able to express her anger so she doesn’t go insane. The lady behind her said, “Why you wanna throw stones when we live in a glass house? We got no where to go!”
Do you know what happens when someone loses their temper in jail? They get put in an isolation cell. The worst thing you can do to a person who is angry is to force them to be alone with their demons. Anger in isolation becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that eats away at the soul.
My heart broke over and over and over again with every word and every tear. I felt completely useless because nothing I could say or do would change their reality. I don’t know what most of them did or didn’t do to land in jail, and I really don’t care. I don’t see them for their charges. I see them as very broken, hurt women who are desperate to love and be loved. I wish I could sit down with each of them individually and just repeat over and over and over, “You are not worthless. You are not your past. You are worthy of love and you are loved.”
In so many ways I wish I could take the hits of their stones for them. I know we have correctional facilities for a reason, but it is bad enough to be isolated. It’s quite another to be constantly degraded, betrayed, and to live in fear every moment of the day.
Ever since I walked out of the gates yesterday afternoon, I have just wanted to cry. I didn’t try to put a pretty bow on the situation at the end of the service. That would just be a a cruel way to ignore their pain. Now I sit with grief, anger, confusion, sadness, and a prayer in my heart. I want more than their freedom from a cell. I want freedom for their hearts.