Lights flash as I walk through a metal detector; heavy steel doors slam behind me with clashing blows. Locks clatter as security guards grant me permission to pass through sterile hallways; echoes reverberate with every footstep. The air is heavy with austerity. As I enter Multi-Purpose Room 23, the mood lifts slightly. Inmates are frisked before they are allowed to join the classroom.
Once inside, each student offers a respectful greeting, possibly with an update on their sentencing status or a quip from the “pod” they are housed in. Then he or she settles in to work on high school curriculum in the hope that a GED might be attained over weeks or months, making earnest use of the incarceration period. For some, the odds are stacked against them, either because there simply isn’t enough time before the next leg of their journey, or because the curriculum is too great a challenge. Sometimes, too, they haven’t yet learned the lessons that life is trying to teach them – difficult lessons about integrity and humility, and being honest with themselves and others about the decisions that landed them where they are. For many of these students, poor attitudes and a habit of manipulating people get in the way of their progress. For others who are ready to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions and understand that they, alone, possess the power to change their lives, there is hope.
That hope is just one of the reasons that I spend two hours every week volunteering as a GED Tutor. I’m not, nor have I ever been, a teacher, and my only qualifications are (an unrelated) college degree and the desire to help. As you might guess, corrections facilities are not popular places for volunteers to give their time. People generally prefer to volunteer at hospitals, schools, food kitchens…build houses, walk for cancer, or donate blood – causes that benefit people who haven’t committed crimes. It’s easy to justify to ourselves why we would give of our limited time and resources to people who “deserve” our help; not so easy, though, to give to those who are spending time in jail.
But life has a funny way of opening our minds and our hearts sometimes, and so it is with me. Nothing in this life is black and white, and everyone has a story. It is my personal belief that almost all individuals are born with the potential to be good, productive, loving people. We don’t look at sweet, innocent babies and imagine future criminals, addicts, alcoholics, or mentally ill adults. But what happens as some of those babies grow, watch, listen, and learn can have devastating effects. I’ve listened to inmates say, “my dad has always blamed me for being born early, causing my mom to lose her job.” And “my mother used to chase us around the kitchen with a knife.” One man lost his wife to cancer, became severely depressed, and got involved with drugs. There are women who only know how to assuage their lack of self-esteem with the affections of men who pull them into risky situations.
So, is my intention to make excuses for the poor, destructive decisions these people have made because they were the recipients of unlucky or tragic circumstances? Absolutely not! There is painful, unspeakable damage done by people who commit crimes. And I am fully aware that there are equally as many people in this world who have survived horrific events or upbringings, yet they manage to thrive. Those people are my heroes, and I strive to learn from their example every day. Do I believe that inmates must serve time for the crimes they have committed? Most definitely! Also, I am not gullible enough to believe that everything that comes out of an inmate’s mouth is reliable. But I also believe in second chances for those who genuinely wish to change for the better and are ready to take responsibility for what they have done. Some people need time to reprogram years of inherited dysfunction, and some require shameful falls from grace before they are ready to admit guilt and defeat.
Sadly, statistics show an over-70% recidivism rate in the U.S., which diminishes much hope that these men and women will go on to lead constructive lives. What a devastating waste of human potential that is, and at a huge cost to each citizen on the “outside.” But for the few who commit to a new way of living, they need every tool available to them. The climb out of the abyss will be a steep one, and it is not for the weak or the quitters.
One of the biggest surprises I have discovered during my hours “in jail” is that it’s ok to have fun there. Serving time isn’t meant to be a picnic, of course, but the instructors who lead each class find ways to keep learning light and positive. It helps motivate inmates to want to participate in something that could change their life’s trajectory. Sometimes when they are there, they share deep thoughts with us – fears, regrets, hopes, and dreams; and we get to impart a little wisdom on what it means to live a rewarding life. We can only hope that a nugget of that wisdom sinks in. If they aren’t ready to apply what they learn, maybe someday in the future they’ll remember what we teach them, the ideals we model for them, and the respect we show them as individuals. This is why I go to jail every Thursday.