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Encounters at the Local Jail

December 30, 2014 by

sleeping baby

My Saturdays are usually a flurry of cleaning, cooking and child care, interspersed with the seemingly endless list of other tasks that didn’t get accomplished during the week. Nonetheless, almost every Saturday afternoon I try and make time to go with several others from my community for a weekly visit to the women at the local jail.

The Female Housing Unit at the jail is a revolving door for women waiting for trial or sentencing, to be released or transferred to prison. Most suffer from the effects of long-term substance abuse, withdrawal symptoms, depression or mental illness. Many are mothers, some are grandmothers.

Our arrival each week is met with anticipation, a welcome break from the monotony of the jail routine. We bring basic art supplies that the women use to make cards or crafts to send to their children or brighten up their cells; the bright hues of colored paper, markers, and glitter contrast vividly with the white and orange color palette of the jail.

Over time, between conversations about fall colors, gardening or cooking, their stories emerge. There is always the pain of separation from children and loved ones and the uncertainty of the future. Sarah’s mother and daughter are both confined to psychiatric hospitals. Brittany, who will be transferred to prison in a week, was just diagnosed with cancer. Laura was arrested while driving to the hospital to visit her baby who was born prematurely and addicted to drugs. She has been informed that he is in critical condition.

We listen. We offer encouragement and prayer. We tell them about events outside the jail, about people we know who are sick or struggling and ask for their prayers. We distribute books, bible verses and inspirational stories. At Christmas we hand out cookies and sing carols. At Easter, we talk about the Easter story and remember that Jesus was a prisoner on death row.

Jenna was six months pregnant when she arrived in the jail, so we looked forward with her to the birth of her child. Because she was nearing the end of her sentence, she would be allowed to keep her baby with her in the jail. Two weeks before her due date, she was moved to the jail’s Medical Unit. Hearing of the baby’s arrival, we stopped by the Medical Unit to see them. A guard escorted us through two locked doors to a cell furnished with a hospital bed and a bassinette. There, Jenna handed me her five day old baby, Emily. Jenna had spent two weeks alone in her cell before her baby was born and would remain there with her for the next three months. We sang a lullaby for Emily and said a prayer for her and her mother.

The following Sunday, the members of my church gathered to welcome a new baby. The child lay peacefully in his father’s arms, surrounded by his mother and family and was welcomed with flowers, songs and a special blessing. I walked home in tears, wondering what determined that one child would be born into such a loving environment while another would spend the first three months of her life in a jail cell.

Only God knows. Although our efforts seem like a grain of sand in the ocean of misery and despair that we encounter in the jail, I almost always leave uplifted by the gratefulness the women express for our simple efforts. Jesus tells us that whatever we do for “the least of these,” including prisoners, we do for Him. When we visit the incarcerated, we meet Jesus. It must make a difference, if only by giving one soul a spark of hope.

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