Visiting the prisoner — or just writing him

Two days ago, on the ninth day of Christmas, I returned to work. I came in an hour early to take advantage of the quiet before anyone else arrived. It turned out also to be before the building’s heat was turned on, I discovered to my chilly surprise. Completely ignoring the fact that I’d really like to be less of a whiner during the Year of Faith, I immediately whined. It took me a bit to remember the antidote of gratitude: I’m not on the street, I have a coat I can wear to stay warm, I can buy coffee or tea to heat up my insides. Sigh. Only Day Two of my Year of Faith and I already felt like a failure. But wait – it got worse!

A couple of hours into the workday, a colleague read to me a post card from someone requesting detailed printed material on our courses and professors because, the person had written, he would like to study at our School “in the future.” My first question, of course, was: Who the heck writes post-cards anymore? My second question was: Didn’t this person know how to use a computer and search the Internet? There, in the glories of website wonder, lives the fabulousness that is the School of Journalism, making the need to send printed materials unnecessary.

Then my coworker made it more interesting: The postcard, she explained, was from the Arizona Department of Corrections. She left it with me, with a bit of a chuckle. I’m the academic advisor and, thus, the one who answers all such requests. I could decide how to proceed. I put the postcard it at the bottom of my day’s to-do pile, but, after just a few minutes, it was calling out to me, so I set it by my phone.

The truth is, as much as I’d like to think I’m a loving and kind person – or even a person who does my job without judging whether a request is worthy or not – I’m not. I stared at the faded ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS stamp on the postcard and looked at the name on the return address. It was followed by a prisoner number, much like students at the university have an ID. Or like all of us have a social security number, or many of us have an employee ID at our jobs. Except, not really.

While university and employee IDs and social security numbers carry positive weight – I’m in college! I have a job! I can get retirement benefits! – the prisoner number carries negative weight. It makes it almost impossible to get on with life – especially in terms of employment – after leaving prison. It communicates distance and difference: It separates them – the people behind bars – from us, we who enjoy the land of freedom. Mostly, one could argue, for good reason. Maybe. Sometimes.

I didn’t know what this prisoner did to land himself in the Gila Unit of the ADC so I did what any journalist would do – I pulled up the ADC website and, lo and behold (who knew?) discovered that one can search for an inmate via the prisoner number. I did, and saw that he’d had been arrested a number of times for the same charge, a crime that was interpreted for me in general terms by a ADC official as “either forging checks or maybe stealing from his employer.” The online data base also showed that he received excellent marks for working in the prison, but that he’d had more than a few instances of insubordination. It also said he was due for parole a year from now.

It wasn’t murder, it wasn’t rape, but it was a string of crimes, a habit of bad choices. Why had he made those choices? Would he make them again? Does a pattern predict the rest of a life? Don’t people remake themselves all the time? Wouldn’t we all want a second chance if we had made a bad choice? Don’t we, in our daily relationships, accept these second chances when offered and offer them when asked? And, taken in strictly Christian terms, isn’t a new start what the faith hangs its hat on? Aren’t we a repentance, forgiveness, redemption people? Don’t we profess metanoia?

We are, and we do. Except when the mug shot looking out from us from a prison website makes us fearful, or mistrustful, or – dare I say it? – judgmental. We have to use good judgment; we were given brains and critical thought for a reason, and protecting ourselves and others is not a bad thing. But we are also called to love our enemies, pray for those who hurt us, welcome the outcast and the stranger, not judge someone as unworthy or unable simply because of his or her past (or present). We are called to see hope in all, potential in all. Jesus at the bus stop … or in the prison.

So, I made a packet for the ADC inmate, and I mailed it today. Using good judgement – and on the advice of the ADC official – I did not include, as the inmate had requested, the names of the professors. But not judging a man by his past choices, I did not presume that he couldn’t enter the university or meet the prerequisites for entrance into the journalism major. I included our curriculum, a sample syllabus, a degree plan and entrance requirements. I addressed him by his surname, and I wrote to him as I would anyone asking about the program – focusing on the standards of the school and the stress of the curriculum. It is not a degree for the faint-hearted or anyone with distractions, as one too many of our students have discovered the hard way.

In Matthew 25:36, Jesus says God will judge people by their actions, one of which is visiting those in prison. I did that once, but it was for an article I was writing so I don’t think it counts. Sending this packet to an inmate isn’t the same as visiting either, and it is, after all, part of my job. That said, it made me confront some of my biases, and that seems like a step in the right direction.

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