A few years ago, my husband helped build two new prisons in our rural West Virginia town. During the Christmas holidays, my husband had to go to the construction site daily to put kerosene in heaters because the new drywall had to be kept at warm temperatures and on one occasion, gave me a mini tour of the still vacant prison. Stepping into one of the cells gave essence to one of the coldest feelings I could imagine. As a member of the faith community, I was drawn from that moment with a desire to reach out in some way to those who might spend their time in the cold concrete cells. A few weeks later my pastor forwarded a letter to me from Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS) searching for potential visitors for the new prisons coming to our area. I have now been visiting inmates since July 2008. Today, as a local PVS coordinator, I also coordinate and manage visits of about 11 other visitors at our local United States Penitentiary (USP) who are also bringing hope and compassion to these forgotten people.
Once per month I go to a local USP and visit with numerous inmates who never or rarely receive visits from anyone outside of the prison. My visits have allowed me to meet a diverse group, expand my knowledge of other faith communities and increase my awareness of how different life can be among the many communities across our nation. I have visited inmates who have only been incarcerated for a short time to those who have been incarcerated for many years and serving short sentences to life sentences. All of the visits have been met with sincere appreciation from the inmates. They are respectful, polite and come out for their visits after having taken the finest care to see that shoes are shined and their appearances are polished. Having a real conversation with these folks seems to be highly treasured by the inmates. I am repeatedly thanked for my time and concern. For many, I am the first visit they have had from anyone outside of the prison community in many months or even many years. One of my recent visits told me I was the first visit they had had in 24 years.
Volunteering for such an untraditional organization, I am often questioned about why I visit inmates. I am questioned by both the people in my surrounding community as well as those I visit within the local prison community. Family, friends, and neighbors do not always readily understand a need to visit those who have been incarcerated, particularly those housed in maximum security facilities because of the nature of their crimes. Prisoners do not always understand why I would take time away from my life of freedom and my family to come and visit them; especially given that even their own family members cannot or will not.
We realize they have made mistakes and that they are serving their time accordingly. We know they are not perfect. But we hope in some small way we can reach them; encourage them to become better citizens than their past has reflected and challenge them to self-growth. Many of them will be released back into our communities. Inmates who receive visits and have contact with others outside of the prison facility are often more cooperative with the prison officials, thereby making jobs safer within the prison complex. Contact with persons outside of the prison facility helps inmates better assimilate back into society upon their release. Having good role models can encourage them to find positive ways to spend their lives, advance their education and knowledge, and become better citizens and neighbors because of their enhanced desire to move beyond their poor choices of the past. Outside of the prison community I hope that I can help family, friends, and neighbors better understand how important positive role models are to our youth and how important it is for each of us to be more diligent at helping those who are sometimes ‘harder to love’, to know and to understand. That each of us would be more willing to help someone before their life turns the corner from independent rebellion to choices of crime.
Going forward, I hope to continue visiting with those who fight incredible loneliness even while surrounded by crowds within the prison walls. I hope to continue to encourage them to become the citizen they would most like to be, and to continue to know hope. I hope to find more citizens who are willing to exercise their freedom by taking an hour or more each month to invest in humanity; to help those who struggle to overcome their past choices and become better citizens of tomorrow. And I hope that my opportunities with each visited inmate will leave a positive impact beyond what I may ever know.
Sometimes it is hard to think about giving up a Friday evening or a Saturday to go sit and talk with strangers when there is so much other stuff going on in my world that is more exciting or beckoning, but always I come away from the visits knowing that it was time well spent. I have laughed and I have cried with the inmates. Sometimes I am the one who comes away inspired and lifted. The experiences I have shared have caused me to grow as an individual, and to learn about many other lifestyles, faiths, and cultures, and I am reminded how awesome it is to be a free citizen of this great country.