Jack’s weekly guest blog, which he wrote before heading off to Scotland for the annual tour.
I am a member of the Prison Visiting Service (PVS) and I go, once a month, to visit two inmates at Lee Federal Prison. PVS is supported by a wide variety of faith groups as well as ex-prison staff and ex-prisoners. Four of us from the Quaker group that meets in the bookstore are on the PVS team visiting our ‘local’.
When I tell folk that I do this, reactions vary. Some say they couldn’t do it while others ask what it’s like; others don’t even know there is a Federal prison nearby. As for me, I admit I had some misgivings at first. There is rigorous vetting beforehand and a formidable folder of ‘dos and don’ts’ to be absorbed. The place itself is only ten years old and pretty intimidating at first sight, growing more so as you progress past security and deeper towards the visiting room, gates and doors clang-closing behind you.
Normally you visit with your inmates sitting across from each other at a table with little restriction, but sometimes he will be in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) AKA ‘the hole’. If he’s in the hole then you talk through a plate glass window via a crackly telephone and he’s in handcuffs and leg shackles.
“Why on earth do you do it, you ask?”
Initially because it seemed a charitable thing to do. But having done it for a year now, I’ve been able to think a good deal more about it. I am only now beginning to get a sense of what it’s like to live in that environment and I cannot imagine how I would deal with it. These guys are human beings just like you and me – no, really they are! Some are sad young men who are not violent, just ‘illegal immigrants’ brought here as children, now waiting out their 5 to 8 year sentences before being dumped on the border. Others are in for much longer for serious crimes. It would be easy to categorize them as not-so-bad or very bad, but I resist that, for they are all humans who should be listened to, and that’s why I go.
Let’s call the two I regularly visit ‘Bill and ‘Bob’. Bob has been in for 33 years and (theoretically) is due out in another 14. Bill has been in ten years and has ten to go. Like many Federal prisoners Bill and Bob have no family near enough to visit and would have no-one to talk to from outside if we didn’t go. Yes, they’ve done wrong. Yes, they need to be away from people they could harm. And yes, they need to be listened to, because they’re humans.
Between us we see 8 inmates each month, but there are 11 more on the waiting list and more asking all the time if someone will visit them. Bob and Bill tell me they look forward to the visits – “you’re not staff and you’re not prisoners – you’re just ordinary folks.”
Why do I do it? Because I’m human too.