This fall marks three years that I have been working in the jail system in Central Florida. And what a crazy three years it has been! About 18 months into jail ministry, I realized I was doing it all wrong. I went into the jail thinking I knew what the women there needed. I talked too much. I told them what I thought they needed to hear. Then, one fateful Wednesday night, I was schooled by a woman who had been tolerating my foolishness for months. She told me what’s what and educated me really quickly on how badly I was missing the mark.
I cried leaving the jail, on the way home, all night, and into the next day. How could I have been that naive and ignorant? At this point I figured I had two choices: give up, or learn from that night and do things differently. I didn’t give up, but I did shut up and just start listening. I stopped myself any time I was tempted to say something that was not completely necessary. I took notes, soaked up all of the words and interactions I was experiencing, and started becoming a student of the incarcerated woman I was privileged to spend time with each week.
Working in jail and being in jail are two totally different things. Working or volunteering in jail means you see some things, but at the end of the day you get to walk out of the doors, trade your badge for your driver’s license, get in your car, turn on any music you want, stop by any store you want, and go home to your own place and your own bed and your own life.
When you are in jail, there is no life. There are guards and locked doors and glass walls and public bathroom stalls. There are eery fluorescent lights and warm tap water and mandatory searches. No talking on the bunk. No touching. No peeing unless it’s permitted during that time. No freedom. No privacy. No dignity. No life.
In order to love the women in jail well, I needed to be a student of the culture in which they were living. I needed to hear what they heard, smell what they smelled, see what they saw, and taste what they tasted. Short of committing a crime to land myself in Orange County Female Detention Center, the only way I knew to do this was to listen, read, and listen some more. I read every book and memoir on prison and jail life that I could find. I continued to write letters back and forth with about 15 women spread across different detention facilities across the state. I asked to see pictures in jail and for the women to tell me their stories, when they wanted to do so. I started doing what I should have done from Day One: shut up and learn.
I recently read a very raw memoir of a man who was incarcerated in various Detroit faculties for drug trafficking, violent crimes and, eventually, murder. Shaka Senghor is now an author, speaker and former MIT Director’s Fellow who remains one of the leading voices in the movement to bring about criminal justice reform in our country.
Writing My Wrongs: Life, death, and redemption in an American prison is a really hard book to read, but it’s worth it. While it contains graphic accounts of sexual and physical violence, as well has hard language, it is true and it is a story that needs to be told and heard over and over and over again.
It’s the true story of a man who fell into darkness because of his belief system, his family, his culture, his environment, his socio-economic status, his race, and his mental health. It’s the true story of a man who made fatal choices that ended the lives of others and nearly his own. It’s the true story of many men, women, and children who don’t know the truth. They don’t know that they matter. They don’t know that someone may care. And they need to know. Their lives depend on it. All of our lives depend on it.
When people ask me about working in the jail, I could talk for hours. What I most clearly want to communicate, though, is that mass incarceration is not just a government or political issue. It’s an everyone issue. We are all affected by, and have the power to impact, how our systems treat people. If a man or woman or child is incarcerated, it affects every aspect of our community. You don’t have to read every book on jail, or go to jail, or know someone in jail to become more aware of how our “justice system” impacts every aspect of your life. But I would encourage you to become educated on how the “corrections” process works (or doesn’t work) and look for ways to let the men and women in your communities know that they matter, so that we can all know the truth: every single person’s life touches every single person’s life in some way, shape or form. Every person matters. So let’s do some good with that truth.