The leader of our United Methodist Women’s group put out a request on our Facebook page, I wasn’t really a member but it caught my eye. A woman from another church had contacted our group to see if anyone was available to drive a mother to Indy to catch a bus that would then drive her to see her son in prison. The Indianapolis Methodist church provides this amazing ministry, the families just have to get there, something out of reach for this local mom. I said I was available before even looking at my calendar. What began almost 3 months ago is now finally coming to fruition today. Many scheduled trips have been rearranged, phone calls and texts at the last minute are common. Today we will drive all the way to the prison, I pray the visit will actually happen. There are never any guarantees.
When I first contacted the mom, she was beyond grateful and the plan was set. Then she realized after her son called her that she may not have her paperwork in order. The visit was postponed. I offered to take her the entire way once it was completed. She thought maybe the next week would be fine. We set a new date. I didn’t realize at the time just how new she was to the correctional system. I could have intervened sooner. I have become an expert. Next week turned into the next and the next until I finally asked the right questions and discovered she didn’t have all the information she needed. She was preparing a mailing to the prison including her drivers license and social security card. Oh dear Lord, the desperation of a mom to see her child. Halting that mailing, I printed off from the prison website the requirements, the addresses, the contact info, the forms. It includes how to dress, another hurdle we have jumped many times. I have lost track of the purchases of a new sweatshirt or scrub pants at the local dollar store in order to fit their dress code, which seems to be interpreted at the whim of whoever is checking in visitors. Still, after she had the correct information in hand, her application to visit was approved and now we are scheduled to go.
What those who have never participated in this venture don’t understand and God bless you all who haven’t, is that the communication with your child is costly. You wait for their calls which are expensive, then you give them the information that you are coming on this day. If something changes, you have no way to alert them, they count those minutes until they see you. The disappointment is magnified, the high of a visit can carry an inmate for long after you leave. Waiting, waiting for them to call your name, to say your people have come, the best feeling ever. What your family doesn’t know is that you have to suffer intense indignities just to see them, strip searches both before and after. If the visit occurs during a scheduled count time for the prison, you are made to leave your family in the hard plastic chairs and stand against the wall with the other inmates, searching for somewhere to look as they all try either to send you supportive glances, telling you they know you are more than this or averting their eyes, knowing your shame. The humiliation of all the inmates has cast a shadow over the room, distorted the visit. That brief hour you got to pretend you were a brother, a son, a father only, was destroyed by the harsh bark of the C.O.: COUNT TIME! Still, you will endure it all, to have time with your people.
You will endure the fact that you cannot touch any money, they must walk to the vending machines and purchase gas station quality hamburgers and rubbery pizza slices and bags of chips and then push you to eat it all while also asking you a million questions that you cannot bear to answer, you only want to hear them speak. You have waited so long to see them and then you realize you live in different worlds where eye contact is dangerous and you don’t share anything personal. They hug you as soon as you enter the room and your mom wants to keep hugging you but that elicits another bark, NO TOUCHING. What you most notice is the smell, the way they smell of fresh and clean and outside. You keep sniffing. They think you are sick and you are, an illness borne of captivity. You can’t explain anything to them, they ask if you are friends with any of the other men around you, you ask them not to talk about those people. Lines are drawn behind the door that you have to cross through again in an hour. You eat the chips and drink as much mountain dew as you can but not too much because if you have to pee that means you will be accompanied into the bathroom with a guard while your family watches. You endure all this humiliation to see them. They pretend not to notice and chatter about life outside. This is a visit and it saves your sanity. If it doesn’t happen, if it is canceled, you have nothing to hold you together.
See, I have been the visited and the visitor. Today I will drive a mom to see her son and I will not chatter and I will not ask questions. I will wait and know that though she arrives on time she may be denied without first buying a new sweatshirt, she may wait for an hour before he is released to come see her. I will take a good book and I will pray fervently that she is able to connect with him on whatever level they both need. I will drive her home and plan for the next month. Because going to visit your child in prison is just about the most awful experience ever and one that many of us look forward to. My thoughts are bogged down in all the visits I made, all the hopes for a future with my son after his release, the pictures I sent, the calls I accepted, the chips I bought. I regret none of it. We survived his incarceration. We learned there are no guarantees of the next visit, no promises that even though everything seems in order, we will be permitted a future. We know life is just hard sometimes, most times and mercy and grace and second chances are all we have to offer each other.
Today I am driving a mom to visit her son in prison. I can celebrate that she is finally taking the next step in the process, pray that when we get to the grounds she will get to see him. Will you join me in prayer for this family, for all the families of those incarcerated? The scars remain long after the gates open. The shame and humiliation are not shed when we put our own clothes back on. The long road to recovery is twisted, perilous. The only way to navigate it is with friends new and old and from afar shining the light of God on us, leading us home. Can you spare a little light today for someone searching for their way? We could really use your prayers.