Tag Archives: human decency

Why Jack Goes to Prison Every Month

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.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, VA

The Sweetest Moments

A lady walked into the bookstore the other day, cane in hand, adult daughter at her side, and announced, “My name is ‘Mary Elizabeth Mullins’ and I have $190 in credit.”

Jack hauled out our big blue ledger and thumbed through ‘M’. “Indeed you do, Ms. Mullins. Would you like a box for your selections?”

She smiled a regal smile. “Yes, please. And point me to your Christian fiction.”

Ms. Mullins picked out the life-among-the-Amish novels she wanted, chatting all the while with Jack. A retired teacher born, schooled, married and widowed in Big Stone Gap, she’d recently celebrated her 90th birthday, and was moving in with her daughter’s family. The family home had been sold, the wagon packed. The only task Ms. Mullins had left was to blow her rather hefty, three-year-old credit with us. Then they were getting into the car and drivingĀ  straight to Michigan.

“I saved this for last. I knew I had credit,” she said, “but I wanted to wait until we were actually leaving. I knew I’d want some reading to get me settled in, take my mind off the old home place, not drown in memories.” Her voice was firm and brisk as they selected titles, but her daughter glanced over at the “drown in memories” line, and a look of affection passed between them.

“No,” Mother Mullins continued, “no point in ruing what can’t be helped. Besides–” she rolled her eyes toward the woman at her side. “My daughter’s a lot of fun.”

The younger woman snorted. “By the look of this haul, Mom, you won’t come out of your room for the first month. Just don’t expect breakfast in bed.”

Mom patted her on the shoulder. “Only the first week.”

An hour and two boxes later, our entire collection of Amish romances, along with several other literary selections, were headed out the door. Jack and the daughter had their arms full, so Ms. Mullins with her four-point cane stared at the porch steps a moment, then raised her voice to the pest control men working in the bookstore yard.

“Excuse me, could one of you young men assist me?”

Immediately a flurry of activity ensued; one gave her his arm, one waited at the bottom of the steps, and the third ran for the car door. Ms. Mullins was soon enthroned in the passenger seat, the books shoehorned between sacks and suitcases in the back.

As Jack prepared to close the door, Ms. Mullins reached out and grabbed his hand. Tears brimmed in her eyes.

“I won’t forget you, or this place,” she said, voice shaking.

Jack bent his head and kissed her hand. “Nor will any of us forget you, madam.”

She looked forward and dropped his hand. “Now close the door.”

And away they drove.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, small town USA