Some things didn’t surprise me during my first visit to a state correctional facility in 2011. When I got involved with Partakers, a College Behind Bars mentoring program that pairs volunteers with incarcerated men and women working on a college degree, the program coordinator gave me plenty of advice: Leave your jewelry at home — you’re not going to like the look of the lockers. Wear a sports bra — the metal detectors are on steroids, and if they go off, you’re going home. And don’t make any plans for the rest of the day — the lines move at a snail’s pace.
Other aspects of my first visit defied expectations. Hollywood had led me to believe that I’d meet Tom, to whom I’d introduced myself via letter, in a visiting booth with a glass partition separating the two of us and that he’d be wearing an orange jumpsuit. Instead, all visitors gathered in a large, open room where we were met by men in blue jeans and white T-shirts. Tom greeted me with a warm, firm handshake, which was another surprise. I didn’t think that physical touch would be permitted, so I didn’t anticipate the messages silently conveyed in Tom’s confident, yet gentle, grip.
Though I don’t recall what exactly I expected of Tom, I clearly remember the sting of self-reproach as I was surprised by his handshake. Shame on me for having preconceived notions about a person I didn’t know merely because he was incarcerated. This was the first of many moments that I was stretched and grew through my relationship with Tom.
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Moments of encounter with another can be personally transformative, and that is one of the greatest blessings of putting the Corporal Works of Mercy — seven instructions based on the teachings of Jesus — into action. The works offer a clear path to honoring the dignity of all people, and they open us up to experiencing our shared humanity with our hungry, thirsty, sick, marginalized, vulnerable, and incarcerated brothers and sisters.
Like all the works of mercy, there are many ways to put visiting the imprisoned into action. Here are just a few:
Visit someone in prison
Numerous organizations coordinate relationships between volunteers and people behind bars. Pen America and Prison Fellowship are two examples, but a quick Google search will uncover other nonprofits in your area. Or find out if your church or diocese has a prison ministry. Alternatively, consider your own social networks: Do you know anyone, or do you know anyone who knows anyone, who is in jail or prison? If you worry that your visit may be unwelcome, send a letter of inquiry first.
Become a pen pal
If visiting isn’t possible, consider developing a pen pal relationship. Many people in prison, especially those on death row, have minimal contact with the outside world, and letters provide both longed-for news and human connection. Like visiting, you might start by writing to someone from your social network, or you can use a program like the Death Row Support Project to get connected. Before writing, visit the prison or jail’s website to read their rules and procedures, and also check out Mary Catherine Johnson’s tip sheet for letter writing. Although Johnson writes about her experience corresponding with someone on Georgia’s death row, she includes excellent general advice that is universally helpful.
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Be part of criminal justice reform
You can also get involved with one of the many nonprofits working to reform our country’s broken criminal justice system through programming and advocacy. This could mean anything from offering financial support to filling numerous volunteer needs to getting the word out about the organization. Maybe you decide to host a book drive at your church for the Prison Book Program, knowing that education is proven to reduce recidivism rates. Or sign up to meet a newly released man or woman at the prison gates through the Ride Home Program with the knowledge that release can be an overwhelming and frightening time for the formerly incarcerated, and that they are at the highest risk for recidivism in their early days of freedom. Or answer hotline calls or fundraise for Freedom for Immigrants, an organization devoted to abolishing immigration detention. Any of these organizations would benefit from your time, talent, treasure, and dedication to honoring the humanity of people behind bars.
I’ve heard it said that charity and justice are the two feet of love in action: Charitable works respond to immediate needs and social justice addresses systemic, root causes of problems. I would contend that charity and justice are the caterpillar and butterfly of living out the Gospel message. Encounter with another through the Corporal Works of Mercy gives birth to personal transformation and a renewed hunger for justice. A desire to live charitably led me to Tom, and in turn, Tom led me to be challenged and changed. While I no longer visit Tom – he graduated from the program, and I moved away – I know that his graduation didn’t lead to his parole. My care for Tom and the 2.2 million others suffering under the weight of mass incarceration impacts my prayers, my decisions in the voting booth, how I talk about people behind bars, and my choices about charitable giving. Our encounter instilled in me a conviction that I must play a part in working for justice for all members of our shared humanity.