I have a family member who is in prison.
Statistically, I knew I was not alone, (1.7 million minor children in the U.S with a parent behind bars), but suddenly the prevalence became personal.
We were at a restaurant when I responded to a query of my next project with “perhaps one revealing how common it is to have a relative in prison.” Voices erupted as every extended family member, and every non-related person (including our waitress) chimed in – they too had one or more immediate or extended family members who was or is in jail or prison.
Sad commonalities arose when sharing our past: many of us felt relief over imprisonments because their absence meant less violence. Embarrassment, fear of ridicule, crime-association, or guilt of feeling happier without the incarcerated person, had kept us from revealing facts or feelings for years. Though it made no sense, many had treated us differently, suddenly ending friendships, refusing services or greatly increasing the cost of services after hearing the family’s last name.
One related prisoner had been abusive to many. His mother continued to visit despite his threatening her. He was her boy, she said, and he was sick. Years went by with her begging several of us to join her visiting, and I’d finally capitulated. The first visits were oddly comforting with multi-layered security clearances, yet intimidating from awareness that every inmate in the big room had murdered.
Visits were brief and impersonal, until the prisoner shared his intent to locate and contact every person, spouse, parent, and child (now grown) to review every injurious action he’d committed to ask forgiveness. I came unglued, imagining families renewed pain and fled the prison, weeping. I chose to end all communication, disconnecting abusive phone calls and refusing response to accusatory and defensive letters.
I kept praying but turned to chaplains and prison ministries who encouraged that sometimes things get worse before they get better. Where I could not reach, others could without the personal conflict. I did not realize, I too, as a relative or victim needed ministering, until I received it. Hope only came when I let go of trying to fix things myself. I had not known of summer camps for children of incarcerated, prison hospitality homes where chaplains and locals minister to family members, or prisoners who prayed for victims.
Years later I was helping the family make arrangements after this relative’s mother’s stroke when the phone rang. Apparently the parental bond had never broken. I accepted the call, feeling he did have the right to know what happened. Surprisingly, I heard a thanks for helping his family, and an apology for past behavior.
Reporting that call gave his mother peace until her passing shortly after, but I remained angry at all that young man had stolen from his family and other families. It made me re-examine beliefs of restorative justice, and I kept that door of forgiveness firmly locked. That, I was certain, was hopeless. Hope came though, ironically from inside another prison across the country.
I’d participated in Christian Women’s conferences before and knew of prayer teams who spent hours anticipating needs and potential ripple effects of God’s touch in each attendee’s life. I was unequivocally dumbfounded when we entered the True Woman conference in Indiana, shortly after being handed a paper link. As I read the handwritten short prayer and first name of the woman who had prayed for the receiver of my link, a group of women carried a chain of thousands of links, surrounding the huge convention center of 8,000 women. Each link represented prayers said for us over the past several months. I gasped when the screens revealed our prayer warriors – women in white – prisoners. Several shared how their time in prison was the best thing that happened to them because they found God, enabling them to storm heaven with prayers to restore relationships like mine.
Joni Eareckson Tada, a paraplegic from a diving accident, shared the story of another paraplegic wounded by a man intending to rape and kill her. Her statement “Justice and forgiveness can both be seen even in the most horrible offenses,” was profound from those whose lifelong wounds were so visible. Joni, and the prisoners, explained how deeply hidden scars that do not show can also imprison both the perpetrator and the victim. More than selfishly comforting to know that others understand our wounded world was the shared experience of God’s restorative justice, finally removing the issues’ controlling power. This because prisoners prayed – not for their freedom, but for mine!
I left our reunion feeling new kinship with all those who have endured side-effects of a family member’s incarceration, and gratitude for the dedication of the women in white. We are interconnected now with a peace that allows us to share our circumstances knowing. . . it’s all relative.
Matt. 25:36 (Message)
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.