This turned out to be a much longer post, so I am writing it in parts as I continue to process my experience. My hope in writing is not only to share my experience, but maybe to inspire someone else to get involved in jail ministry in another community. The need is great, and it is not as scary as you may think. In fact, the jail is a place that has become like a home to me.
I just spent three days in jail. No, I didn’t get a DUI or get arrested. I voluntarily spent my Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (going home to sleep) in the Female Detention Center at the Orange County Correctional Facility, commonly known as “33rd” because it is on 33rd Street in Orlando. 33rd is pretty much like a second home to me now. I go in every Sunday and sometimes during the week, but I usually go in for a few hours at a time. Over the 72 hours weekend, I spent some 30+ of those hours on the inside.
I was volunteering with an organization called REC, or Residents Encounter Christ. You may have heard of the prison equivalent, Chairos, or the non-incarcerated versions called Emmaus, Holy Spirit, or Chrysalis (for teens). All of these consist of a three-day weekend focused on spiritual growth and what it means to have a relationship with Christ, rather than just practicing religion. No one is forced to do anything, it’s more of an invitation to learn more.
Late in the planning process, we were moved from hosting the weekend in one of the regular women’s dorms to having it in the substance abuse and addiction dorm. The vast majority of the participants are all in recovery from addiction to hard drugs and alcohol while they are in jail. Many are also being treated for childhood and adult sexual abuse and trauma.
To set the stage, picture a large, open area with two levels and one door. Just inside the door, there is a station for the Corrections Officers to sit and see anything and everything that is occurring in the room. In the middle of the first level, there are 4×4′ tables bolted to the floor with four plastic chairs each. Against the walls are metal bunk beds, and in the center of the far wall are showers and toilets. On the second level are metal bunk beds, all numbered and marked for where the head and where the feet should be. On each bed is a thin, plastic mat, a wool blanket, and maybe one thing pillow. There are 63 beds total, but only half are filled for now. There is one way in, one way out, and it is through a thick, metal door that must be opened by someone operating a control panel or by someone who has the keys. That door is guarded at all times.
When we enter to set up, the women are instructed to stay on their bunks until called. We are divided into tables of 8, 6 residents and 2 volunteers, and we will sit with these same women for the next three days. Keep in mind that the tables are 4 feet by 4 feet square. And 8 of us have to fit around them. We also brought in 8 red folders, 6 Bibles, 8 pencils, and Kleenex, alcohol-free hand sanitizer, a Sharpie, and colored pencils for each table. At each break, we had to count these items to make sure everything we took in came back out with us. If we were one pencil short, nothing could proceed.
My friends in jail are given new “blues” (blue jumpsuits) twice a week. Their “whites” (underwear, undershirts, etc) are washed by a fellow resident, called a Trustee, throughout the week. While given the chance to shower every day, many don’t. Toiletries must be purchased (as do meals, clothes, pillows, etc) so they are not replenished often. That being said, hygiene is not at the level you and I are used to on a daily basis.
I instantly fell in sisterly love with the 6 residents who were assigned to my table. They ranged in age from early twenties to late fifties. One I already knew because she had been in church services before in another dorm. Only one woman at our table had a full set of teeth. All but one was an addict. They weren’t so sure about us at first, but they opened up by the end of the first day.
Everything from bathroom breaks to asking for a cup of water had to be done within the rule system of the jail. Jail residents can’t touch equipment, can’t move chairs, can’t go to the bathroom unless it is a scheduled break for everyone, and can’t keep anything we give them, other than the jail-approved Bibles.
As we started, I was not really sure what to expect. What would the women think? What would they be most excited about? Afraid of? Repulsed by?
What I didn’t foresee was the reaction these women would have to ice. Yup, ice. We were able to bring in a cooler full of ice and offer the women large cups of ice water throughout the day. Some of these women haven’t had ice in over a year! They were SO EXCITED about ice! They wanted it all day long. Some even poured out their water just to have a large cup of ice. If they had been able to take ice back to their bunks and store it somehow, they would have taken all of the ice we could bring in. When was the last time you or I got that excited about ANYTHING, much less ICE??? They thanked us over and over and over again. For frozen water. This blew my mind.
By the end of the first day, we had set the stage for the weekend, learned everyone’s names, eaten lunch in the jail diner (called the Dollar Diner, because a whole meal is a dollar). We were all a little tired, but mostly excited for the next two days.