WHAT CONVICTED ME TO GET INVOLVED IN PRISON MINISTRY?

My involvement in prison work came after having been through over a decade of experiences that, as of today, completely re-oriented my priorities and aspirations. In a nutshell this was primarily due to a series of deaths in my immediate family and the resulting gradual decline into clinical depression, which precipitated resignation from 5 years of ministry employment (in an area I was very passionate about), the slow disintegration of our once thriving business and finances to almost bankruptcy, the emergence of chronic health problems (diabetes, neuropathy, severe sleep apnea among others), failures in my personal judgment as a church elder, in my marriage and family life. While these years profoundly affected and changed me, the pain of them has been sublimated by a revitalized and completely new passion for more genuine faith, for unveiling widespread social injustice, and for living purposefully…not narcissistically as our self entertainment obsessed culture and manipulative advertising industries are increasingly…and exponentially…promoting.

Inspired afresh by Matthew 25:36, where Jesus likens Himself to the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned…I pro-actively sought out those who reside at the heart of our society’s undefined category of untouchables. It’s not the poor, the sick, or the starving…advocacy for them seems to evoke compassion (or at least a kind of ‘survivors guilt’) among the advantaged and privileged, largely because no fault or fairness is attributed to them in causing their plight.

Receptivity to the prisoner’s need, however, is nuanced by the almost universal assumption that they are somehow inherently ‘bad people’, or at the very least people who made a needlessly ‘bad choice’.

This social ostracization and prejudice is an image harbored by even the most well meaning and open minded people. While it is true that congenitally or environmentally induced psychopathic and sociopathic personalities are frequently among them, very little consideration is given to the fact that the vast majority of offenders have been subject…often since birth…to a family or environment of either poverty, mental illness, crime, substance abuse, or physical / sexual abuse (usually some combination of two or more of these).

Less than 5% of those currently incarcerated in Canada today have committed violence or are considered violent. Most have resorted to non-violent crime as a way of coping with addiction or some other desperate need precipitated by no longer being able to continue surviving…in a way that is legal…after too many years of no opportunity or atrophied personal growth.

All this, of course, has the opposite effect that the atmospheres of love, security, financial stability, and healthy communication (that most of us enjoy throughout our childhood and formative years) has had on those of us who nonetheless (at least unconsciously) consider ourselves organically ‘stronger’, more ‘responsible’, of ‘better character’ or ‘moral aptitude’ etc….as if we somehow chose to be born into blessing, advantage, or affluence!

The truth is today’s runaway living on the street and selling their body to survive is tomorrow’s addict committing increasingly heinous crimes to support a drug habit, and disdained by their communities. Understanding, compassion, and support in turning around the effects of their disadvantages seems to expire around the age of 19 to 21…as if the maturity, character, and wisdom that has solidified for most people by that age happens by some magical process or osmosis.

This is precisely why 60 to 70 percent of all released offenders in Canada are back in prison for similar or worse crimes within 12 to 18 months of their initial incarceration. This is why the majority of children of incarcerated individuals end up trapped in the same cycle as adults. This is why prisons are overcrowded, funding to adequately rehabilitate offenders is misallocated if not decimated, and the safety of our communities is exponentially worsening.

Add to that the decreasing funding for policing and, despite the excellent and dedicated work of…and snowballing strain upon…these fewer and fewer RCMP and local police, the problem continues to worsen (despite the self promoting, shallow or ill informed claims of campaigning federal and local politicians).

Revisiting Angola 15 months later…with 87 teens and 18 chaperones

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of being one of 18 adults chaperoning 87 teens, ranging from Gr.9 through 12, for a band, choir, and jazz band tour of New Orleans. My almost 16 year old daughter Emily is a member of both the band and the choir.

I also had the privilege of arranging a performance for the inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary, which was a blessing for those fellows as well  as for the kids and chaperones. During this time I was able to sit and catch up a bit…though nowhere near as much as I’d hoped… with two of several friends I made at Angola in January 2015.

Despite my assurances that they’d be pleasantly surprised, there were a lot of ‘deer in the headlights’ expressions on the way in during security clearance (dog sniff, metal detector etc.).

By the time we left there were tears of compassion…perhaps some of conviction…and a lot of big grins. They knew they’d had a huge impact, and they also knew that their perception of the world, reality, and their own spirit had been forever changed.

Mental disorder: illness or crime?

Fraser Valley Institute for Women: awaiting my group’s turn to meet with the next three of the inmates, as per security protocols. After learning from the guard escorting us that the majority of women incarcerated here had serious mental illnesses, I then asked where they would be had they not committed a crime while exhibiting something merely symptomatic of their illness?

She responded without flinching…suggesting a personal frustration with the double standard disregard for these ladies she genuinely cared about (contrary to the tiresome depictions popularized by Hollywood):  “They would be under the care of a supervising psychiatrist and receiving medical treatment, intensive evaluation, and appropriate medications for their illness, and for their sleep if needed“.

What staffing do you have here for a unit that has probably 10 times the population of your typical hospital ward?

“One psych nurse” who is (she was very careful to make clear) very caring and committed, but is so busy preparing and distributing daily medications that he has barely a minute for any of the interaction / listening so many need (and he is neither properly trained to provide in the first place, doing so only out of caring and compassion with their unmet needs).

The three women I subsequently met and conversed with did nothing to suggest the guard’s depiction was anything less than totally accurate, but nonetheless exhibited humanity and deeply felt emotion (primarily despair and remorse).

So it would appear that our society differentiates between whether mental illness is crime or a sickness on the basis of how it eventually reveals itself to a witness (?).

A weekend on death row at Angola (Part 1)

Louisiana State Penitentiary: It had been many years….at least 20…since I had been to the deep south. I’d been to most of the southernmost states doing hi tech pulp mill inspections throughout the early 1990s and had ample opportunity to become familiar with the climate, landscape, culture and people.

Flying over many states for four hours, then driving another few through the swamp surrounded highway from Baton Rouge to Louisiana State Penitentiary (otherwise known as ‘Angola’, after the African country where the slaves deposited there had been kidnapped up to over two hundred years earlier).

The compound was over 18,000 acres of combined, former slavery era plantations, surrounded by the winding Mississippi on three sides and the mountains on the fourth. In the wake of the confederacy’s fall, the land was bought up by the government for relative peanuts and began accumulating the most notoriously violent and bloody history of any prison in U.S. history…right up to the 1990s.

My first night there I sat for dinner with a young man, 25, who had been at Angola since he was 17 for drug related offenses. As he spoke zealously about the faith he had discovered  since being there, I had the thought “The poor kid…he’s in a fool’s paradise of naive faith that has blinded him to the implications of the life sentence he was only 8 years in to”.

Man was I completely wrong, and he was just the tip of a huge iceberg that lay just beneath the surface of my understanding. Check back on February 28 for ‘My weekend on death row at Angola – Part 2’.

My first visit to a corrections facility

Mountain Correctional Facility – Agassiz, BC: It was with a sense of the same morbid curiosity that most people have that I drove through the dark, foggy, back country roads of Agassiz waiting for the next hazy light to be that of a large security gate rather than that of another dilapidated, turn of the century farm house.

As a 6’3″, 225 pound former rugby player I’m not exactly a hobbit myself, but I confess that the presence of 5 CFL football players in my van (who were going to share their stories with the inmates) gave me an added sense of security going in to the large, medium security lock up.

I felt like I was on a movie set as I went through each layer of barb wired security gates, and it underscored the preconceived expectations I had (which were little more than a mosaic of ‘The Longest Yard’, ‘Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, and ‘Papillon’…with a dash of ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’).

To my surprise and delight, the first moments of intermingling with inmates of all stripes had an immediate, undeniable atmosphere of humanity no different…in fact significantly warmer…than many other garden variety gatherings. “Why?” I asked myself. The immediately obvious conclusion was that there are no pretenses or misunderstandings: they know that you know why they are there.

But there was more to it than that.

As I got into deeper conversations, I found the level of transparency quite disarming. In one case the inmate was trying to repress emotions so we sat in a chaplain’s office, talked and prayed together. I felt compelled to share with him things about my own past and character (that I was not proud of) because I believed that it would make him feel less self deprecating…less alone. That he and I were not so different as he assumed.

The more relevant realization, that surfaced as I drove home, was that what I experienced had less to do with how he was (they were) no different than me, but that I was no different from them.

(Feb.14, 2016: As an important addendum to this entry, NuLinks board member Henk Smidstra…who has 20 years experience with the sort of scenario I describe above…reminded me that, no matter how much I misbehaved as a teenager (or humbled myself) I am still quite different from them in that they 1.) have experienced depths of fear, danger, despair and self loathing during incarceration that I cannot begin to imagine, and 2.) were more than likely subjected to significantly more numerous and intense disadvantages during their youth than most people I know have.)