Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Steel Bar Blues...and Blessings

            Few people know that I spent time behind bars some years ago. And not in my home country, but in the United States of America – ‘land of the free, home of the brave’.  I should tell you though, I never did anything wrong! I know, I know, that’s what they all say. But really, I didn’t… or I guess I should say we didn’t, as there were two of us.
            I was on an extended visit in Pennsylvania and one afternoon my friend and I were on our way to a local town. I remember most of the details to this day, including the weather. It was raining the whole time and in a way matched my mood, as I wasn’t really sure how I felt about this little excursion. Just a bit apprehensive, I suppose, as this was a completely new venture. In any case, I was willing to give it a whirl, even though I was not from the ‘home of the brave’. And I was free, or so I thought.
            Shortly after we reached town, we found ourselves in front of a jail. That’s right, it was a real, true to life jail with iron gates, guards, steel bars… the whole bit. We were ushered in by one of those guards. Not as friendly as a Walmart greeter, but one has to play the part for this place, I surmised. After a few doors and gates slammed shut behind us, it became as clear as the bricks and steel bars surrounding me, why they call it ‘the slammer’. I looked behind me each time and a stark realization settle on me like a dark cloud; this dreadful clanging is doing exactly what it’s meant to do - intimidate. Finally we were locked in a cell with four other women. They smiled a shy welcome, but it didn’t do much for my mood.
            As my eyes swept over my sombre surroundings, I wondered why we have repeat offenders. Everything about this place was cold and stark and bleak. The only furniture was a metal picnic table bolted to the floor. There was a TV just outside the cell, barely reachable to switch the channel, should someone desire to do so. Behind a wall stood a lonely row of low cots with thin sheets and tired pillows. An inmate slept in one of them. “She’s sick.” One of the others informed us. No wonder. I think I’ll be sick myself real soon, echoed in my brain as I noticed the washroom area, which offered little to no privacy. One of the women was pacing nervously, adding to my discomfort. We soon learned that she was being released that day. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t doing cart wheels or some little dance -- anything but this irritating, silent pace.
            Now that I’ve set the mood for this I-don’t-want-to-live-here place, I’m sure you’re wondering what in the world (or better said, what in the States) brought us here.

           The people I was staying with were doing weekly prison visits and that week, my friend, asked if I wanted to go with her. To be honest, I wasn’t terribly excited about it. However, because I’d never done anything like that before, I agreed. More importantly, I was touched by this outreach program and wanted to be a part of it, if only for this one day. It did feel eerie, stark and cold, but knowing we brightened the day for these four women, was well worth my discomfort.
We couldn’t bring scissors or anything that could be used to hurt someone, which made it challenging, as we had planned to do a plastic canvas project. Whatever materials we did bring worked well, though; when we were done, they each had a small piece that they had created. Before we left, my friend read a story and I was struck how much they enjoyed this simple activity. Except for the one who was sick, they were all quite friendly. Even the one who was pacing, smiled a few times.
            Did we make a huge impact in the lives of these inmates? Probably not. But I do know, for that one day we did make a difference – radiating from their faces was gratitude, that someone cared enough to come spend time with them.  I came away feeling blessed that I got this opportunity!
If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture,
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 
But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin,
and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
James 2:8-9


  1. Fascinating experience, Linda..thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks Nicole! It was definately a worthwhile experience!


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