When I decided to work with Lou and Fr. Chris in Prison Ministry for the Diocese of Belleville, IL for the summer, I did not really know what to expect. I wanted to learn more about the criminal justice system in the US and I wanted the opportunity to meet some of the people it affected. My plan was to show up and listen. I hoped somehow I could contribute to their work through my energetic caring.
In two short months, I got more than I could have ever expected. Through a wide variety of experiences (county jail, state prison, community organizing meetings, start-up of non-profit), I grew in my understanding about the criminal justice system. Through the people I met (women in anger management and Narcotics Anonymous classes, men in bible studies and Mass, many social workers and ministers and volunteers), my heart broke open. I saw their pain and suffering and I felt frustrated, angry, and soul wrenching compassion. I heard their resilience and determination and I felt inspired, hopeful, and in absolute awe. I could tell stories for hours of the many faces that will forever be pressed in my memory; however for this brief time I will share some of my ‘take-aways’ from lessons learned.
1. The criminal justice system in the US is insane.
I use this word in the academic sense. It is a system that continues to function in “a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction.” Also I consider the classic Einstein definition of “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” We take people who are not making the best decisions. Then we put up about 10 or more roadblocks to the path of good decisions. Then we do not understand why they are still making poor decisions. For example, in the jail upon entry often medications are stopped until they are able to have a detainee evaluation by a nurse/doctor/psychiatrist. Then they are placed in a cell with about 10 other people, who also might be detoxing or off their medications. This environment often reinforces negative behavior. This is all BEFORE their trial. This is how we treat people that are “innocent before proven guilty.” Well this is not how we treat ALL people. These are just the people that cannot pay their bail, bail which could be set as low as $500. So many times the criminal justice system labels people who are poor, uneducated, and struggling with addiction as criminals. Insane, right? The system needs reform now.
2. We are teaching people while they are incarcerated. They learn through their experiences every day. So what would we like to be teaching them?
Yes some people are taking GED classes; although they cannot take the required GED test, which is only available online, because of internet security issues. Yes some have access to Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous classes. Yes some can attend a bible study once a week or faith services once a month. But these are very few of the hours they spend while behind bars. In a jail of 300+ people, they had less than 25 hours of mental health resources a week. Many have not completed high school. We are teaching them about themselves (They are bad. They are worthless. They are failures. They do not matter.) These are not lessons that are empowering or enabling them to be productive members of society. We could be teaching them better values, various coping behaviors, and giving them skills for gainful employment.
3. We are all holy. We are all broken. We are all human.
This is something that is easy to forget the moment we place people behind bars. Jails and prisons are set up to be scary and intimidating places not just for visitors, but for those inside as well. They are places that fuel fear. They do not spark healing, forgiveness, or love. We see the people in prison uniforms as less holy, more broken, and different than the rest of us. It doesn’t take long after meeting a person who is incarcerated and hearing some of their story to realize they are just people. People like you and I and these are their lives. They are not monsters. And through our common human dignity, we are all connected.
4. Change happens through small actions. Conversion is at the heart of the Christian life.
Change is hard for people and it takes a great amount of courage. It’s scary to step out of what has been comfortable and brave the unknown. It means not asking if the change will be worth it, but rather trusting the person you will start to become because of it. It means not trying to solve the big problems, but address the small ones daily. It means not asking if your work has done enough, but rather hoping that the good you do is enough for those it affects. It often requires asking for help and believing in what we have yet to see. It’s learning to have faith in God and in the Spirit within you. It is the desire to be converted by God every day. This is not a small task; however it is made manifest in tiny actions. It’s the young woman who just got released from jail working hard to make it to an AA meeting on her first night of renewed freedom. The important thing is to start somewhere.
5. Community is key. Networking matters. Collaboration is power.
Helen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” The women and men in the jail supported one another; praying for each other’s court dates, sharing wisdom about how to be sober, and returning to speak to groups once they got released. They shared stories of hope. The same happened in among the ministers and social workers. They shared tales of success, resources to better their work, and goals for the future. And when a new idea came up, like Teen Court or Our Brother’s Keepers Reentry House, they called to others to join in. They did not wait for someone else to form an organization or group they could then join. Rather, they had the courage to start something new. They did not wait to have all the planning done, the money together, and the people on-board. Rather, they just began to lay one brick at a time and trusted others would come. For when one person speaks of their passions or their needs and another grabs onto their hand, strength and empowerment ignite the flames to the fire of making a difference in the world.
I learned so much this summer. I want to thank Lou for his generosity, patience, and beautiful tender heart. I want to thank Fr. Chris for his endurance, insights, and strong convictions. I am very grateful for the many people I met and the many ways they are witnessing to the Gospel with their lives. I will always remember we are in this together and we are in this with Christ.
This article was written by Rachelle Simon, a 2015 Summer Prison Ministry Intern for the Diocese of Belleville, IL.