Praying with my Eyes Open

I won't miss the jail facilities, their cold hardness, the sight of razor wire, steel and concrete, the pain that permeates the walls, the punishment that separation from loved ones brings, the restrictions on just about everything that would bring some comfort and healing, the smell of warehoused bodies, the way the facilities add to trauma and suffering, the inhumanity and callousness that is perpetuated, and the list goes on and on. The day I retired, an inmate I've known for 25 years wanted to hug me goodbye and the deputy could not allow it. Sad... for us both.

But I will remember some of the poignant and goofy things that are peculiar to jail culture:

      • Learning to pray with my eyes open. It seems to be hard to do at first but the benefits are quickly "seen".
      • Watching chaplain volunteers devise innovative ways to touch inmates without actually touching. Touching elbows in a prayer circle, bumping fists, and volunteers teaching inmates to hug themselves as a virtual hug from the volunteer.
      • Holding up fingers to the camera in the elevator at Main Jail to get to the desired floor (There are no elevator buttons.)
      • Speaking between the cracks in the door of a cell, while trying to see the face behind the window and keeping one's ear against the crack to hear. Takes some contortions.
      • Testing the taste of a carrot for an inmate who was absolutely convinced it was poisoned. (She said, "My mind says it's ok but my stomach isn't convinced!")
      • Once I cut an inmate's hair because in her anxiety she had wound a comb into her thick hair and couldn't get it out. Deputies were glad for my rescue. I learned that day that scissors COULD be found in the jail in such situations.
      • Samples of homemade tamales from Fritos and leftovers from jail dinners, all heated on top of the unit coffeemaker (which works like a hotplate).
      • Artistic prisoners can be incredibly innovative in their art (often with religious themes): molded angels from toilet paper, crosses woven from the elastic in their jail-issue underwear (clean??), and carved sculptures from soap.
      • Jail terminology like: rolled up, locked down, locked up, shake down, tiered up, and cellie.
      • Clothing and underwear washed together till it's all just shades of grey (except the yellow and red), worn by hundreds of inmates over and over again.
      • Female inmates using feminine sanitary pads underneath a thin jail mattress for more cushion.
      • Pregnant inmates receiving a baby shower of gifts from their friends in their dorm: like crocheted mittens and baby caps, (the yarn and plastic crochet hooks purchased on commissary), cards, and journals of collected paper with drawings of angels, cartoons and lovely wishes for quick release for the expectant mother. (The mothers may get 2 days in the hospital before being sent back to jail, leaving their nursing babies to someone else's care. Fellow prisoners trying to comfort the grieving new mother when she returns to jail to finish her time.)
      • Seeing the jail finally provide a nursing chair, privacy screen and nursing supplies for mothers whose families bring their babies to the jail to nurse. This only began about 8 years ago.
      • Prisoners who tenderly care for sick and detoxing pod-mates and cell mates with the concern of a mother.

My best memories are acts of faith such as:

      • A Tongan inmate who taught a Chinese inmate how to speak English through reading the Bible even though they could not speak each other's language.
      • 10,000 requests a year for a Bible.
      • Thousands of requests for prayer.
      • Prisoners singing and dancing during worship services with complete abandon. (I'm not sure an outside church could fathom it!)

The best of poignant memories of all are the bright, strong and contagious faiths that encouraged and blessed me in unexpected ways. The faith, love and gratefulness found among prisoners that is freely shared with anyone who will take the time to listen, is the most addicting thing I've experienced in my life.

I'm forever changed by the evil and the good, the contrasts where love can still win over hate, and that God is found in jail. I'm so grateful to Dave Robinson and the CIC staff chaplains that have contributed to my education and changes of heart, and to the many incarcerated human-beings whose stories of survival, courageous vulnerabilities and testimonies of faith have taught me how to be a better Christian and better human-being. Thankfully, I now live and pray with my eyes open.

May God bless and keep you,

Rev. Louann Roberts,

Facility Chaplain, Correctional Center for Women (Retired)

Chaplain Rev. Louann Roberts and Chaplain Rev. Liz Milner with members of the CCW volunteer team.