Tag Archives: illegal immigrants

Got Postcards?

Every once in awhile I ask blog readers for something. I try not to do it often, but it seems like a good reason this time; it’s for Jack.

So…. got postcards?

Jack and my friend Elizabeth (she’s in Little Bookstore) do prison visits, along with a few other Friends from the Quaker meeting at our bookstore. Each month they sit chatting with two or three federal prisoners who don’t have visitors for some reason. The prisoners have requested someone through the Prison Visiting Service, an ecumenical group.

Jack and E go out at 8 a.m. and return home about 1 p.m., drained. It’s hard to make these visits; I don’t go; I know my limits. Two weeks in and I’d be contacting lawyers and media, mounting campaigns to improve food, ensure funeral visits, all that stuff. I’m an empathic listener, internalizing everything.

Jack is not; he’s a smart, sympathetic listener with common sense. One man Jack visits was brought to America illegally as a seven-year-old, lived his life without papers and then, at the age of 32, was the passenger in a car stopped for running a red light. He’s doing six years. The other guy Jack visits has killed two people and stolen things. He’s doing life.

About ten days before their next visit, Elizabeth and Jack send prison-required postcards to their guys, telling them they’ll be there. The prisoners decorate their cells with these cards and trade duplicates with fellow inmates.

So…. if you have some cool postcards from your area, and it wouldn’t cost you much to slip half a dozen into an envelope, Jack and E and the other Quakers doing prison visits would get new views to send, and the guys would get cool cards to post on their wall. We’re running out of Wise County postcards.

We don’t know what it would cost those of you in Korea, Britain, and some other countries to mail six unused cards, so if it’s expensive, forget it and thanks anyway. American views from anyplace would be very appreciated, and if international posting can be done, yippee! Send them to 404 Clinton Ave E, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219. And thank you, on behalf of visitors and visitees alike.

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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.

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