Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Behind the Bars

I had my first prison meeting on Monday night.

The minimum-security dorm I was assigned to reminded me of the Navy, a cross between boot camp and my occupational training school.

My Al-Anon partner and I entered through a security checkpoint into an exercise yard. Inmates were walking or running in twos and threes around the concrete yard. In the center, a small group of women was doing abdominal crunches. Outside the building, a bank of pay phones lined the wall. An inmate stood at one.

Inside, the building was set up in a large bay. A correctional officer sat at the center, surrounded by a square service counter. More inmates sat at tables in the center of the room, playing cards. Bookcases stood along the walls. From a distance, I recognized a green leather-bound “Harvard Classics” series in one. Another bookcase appeared to be filled with romance novels.

Around the edges were open cubicles where the inmates slept. Each cubicle held a bunk and a desk. Some had small TVs. My partner told me the inmates who were “good” could have a TV. All the TVs were on, and a few inmates sat together on beds and talked.

We walked in to a classroom with a whiteboard, white plastic folding tables and red molded plastic chairs. Two women appeared to be studying together. When they saw us, they packed up and left.

Apparently, four inmates regularly attend this meeting. Two didn’t come. One inmate went to check on them. When she came back, she said one wasn’t well and she couldn’t find the other. But she brought someone else who had never been to a meeting.

My meeting partner wanted to encourage the women to conduct their own meetings, so she asked for a volunteer to lead. A woman who was maybe in her mid-50s lead the meeting and picked the topic of “humor” from the index in the daily reader “Courage to Change.”

We read all three pages listed in the index, then opened the meeting up for sharing. I felt pretty confident in the topic. There was a time when I had nothing to say about humor, but these days I could say a lot.

The first inmate shared that she just found out that her mother had died. “She always loved me,” she said. “Well, she was always kicking me out, but then she missed me and I’d have to come back, you know? What are you going to do?”

She was holding it together, she said, but she was sure it would hit her when she got out. She couldn’t be paroled to her mother’s house now, “obviously,” so she would go to a half-way house. She was sure that’s when it would hit her. When she was there at that half-way house without her mother.

The inmate who lead the meeting went next. She shared that her father had killed himself by walking out in front of a recreational vehicle full of people.

For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what I should share. Somehow, talking about humor no longer felt appropriate. I had no idea how to steer this ship.

My Al-Anon partner went next. She said she was going to share a little on the topic of humor, which she did. Then she shared about when her mother died. How she had nursed resentments against her mother and how, though the program, she was able to forgive her. She brought the topic back to recovery. It was masterful, really, and I felt saved. I was back on very comfortable ground and I shared next in the same way.

The third inmate declined to share, saying she just wanted to listen.

We read another page out of “Courage to Change,” and my Al-Anon partner decided to close the meeting 15 minutes early. “There’s only so much you can do with three people,” she explained when we were outside. “If you let them go on too long, things tend to devolve.”

The prison training manual had said touching inmates was forbidden, so I was surprised and happy when we held hands for the Lord’s Prayer. My Al-Anon partner had brought some copies of “The Forum” with a questionnaire stapled to the front and asked the women to hand them out to try to get more women to attend.

We left the way we came, then headed to another building to sign the visitor’s log and that was it.

I thought about the women all the way home. How prison was both ordinary and extraordinary. About how regardless of our circumstances, we shared many of the same experiences and were all affected by this disease in all the usual ways. I thought of how truly blessed I was to end up on this side of the bars. And to be going home to a husband who loves me.


  1. There but the Grace of God..truly. I am glad you both were there to be the hand of Alanon. You will never know how the seeds planted may grow one day. Awesome.


  2. Your journey with this is VERY personal to me. I appreciate these thoughts. I was imagining this process for you the entire time. I was imagining the women.

    Thank you for sharing these details...there is a great deal of work going on in our community right now that involves Women prisoners, I am within this work greatly at this time. What I have realized in ALL of this, there is more similarity than difference. It is a startling awareness. We are ALL the same, and yes by grace, and grace only do I sit in the setting and freedom of my home.

    Bless you in your work.

  3. Thank you for your service. No matter where we go, being able to start and end our meetings the same way is a wonderful thing. Holding hands and saying the Lord's prayer or the Serenity Prayer is pretty special everywhere!

  4. Thank you for doing that. Isn't it sad that those are the stories that came to mind when humor was the topic?? My God.

  5. thank you for sharing this, kathy. i'm really grateful to get to hear such a detailed account of the work you are doing here. it is so motivating and inspiring. i would love to do something like this.

    hugs to you~~~

  6. Kathy,
    Thanks for taking me on a journey to the prison. I have never been to a prison. You were a blessing to the women today. :)


  7. Kathy, this was wonderful. Wow, what an account of that meeting. The blessing that you shared with these women, will certainly not go unnoticed. ((((Kathy))))

  8. What an experience you describe. This is service with a capital "S". I know you blessed them and you were blessed as well.


  9. The description of the inside was similar to the shelter. Things went well on your first meeting. Probably each meeting will be different.

  10. "There but for the grace of God..."
    It is sometimes amazing to me that my life has turned out as it has. For all the bad things that I went through as a child, there have also been countless blessings that have kept me safe and, as you said, on this side of the bars. I was no angel...

    What an amazing service you are doing. Thank you so much for sharing it here. This post moved me deeply. It makes me want to push forward to service work of my own.