Life

Christmas Behind Bars

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Do it. Even if you’re scared, then do it scared.

It seems some of my best life moments began with terror. I am not brave. I get nervous a lot and often I anticipate the worst. But, I force myself to do things anyway, terror and nerves included. Terror and nerves have now become more of an indicator that I should do something instead of shouldn’t.

My director told me not to dress up. I’m more of a shiny tights and skirt girl, so right away I knew this wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. A couple of weeks ago a small group of staff and teenage boy residents from House of Hope Northeast Indiana, where I work, went on a jail visit. I didn’t have to go, but the newness of the experience intrigued me. I have never been to jail–not to tour, not to visit someone and especially not because I was charged with a felony (clean criminal record right here!). I’m a naturally curious person so I wanted to know what a jail was like.

6Then the nerves set in. I have a tendency to sign up for things and not really think about it until after I have already committed. I started thinking about the inmates–would they catcall me? Cuss me out? Try to physically harm me? Gosh, what was I even going to say to them? Then I started thinking about the jail–was it dark and gloomy? Eerie? Bars and shackles? What if I got lost? And I started thinking about the guards–what if my movements were wrong? What if I wasn’t dressed right…would they kick me out? My brain was going to burst with all the questions running through, but I had already committed. I was going.

I climbed into the back of a passenger van the next day with seven other people. Safety in numbers, right? Because hiding behind three teenage boys was going to protect me…or maybe I should stick closer to the staff. The engine purred alive and 45 minutes later we pulled up to the Delaware County Justice Center.

We parked a good distance away from the building. Walking in the fresh air allowed me to somewhat shake off my nerves. Once inside we passed through a metal detector, which I kept setting off (sorry…I like to wear a lot of jewelry). But the overseeing officer was nice and waved me through after three tries. We then walked upstairs to a waiting area with block cement walls and teal accents. Everything looked very rigid and structured. And then a mass of high schoolers came filing in. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “if they’re letting a mob of high schoolers into a jail, these inmates cannot be that dangerous.”

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My organization and the high school group were both at the jail to be a part of Christmas Behind Bars, a Christian organization that delivers gifts and the message of Christ to inmates not only during Christmastime, but also year round.

We walked through a heavy door, followed by a second heavy door. My group and the student group were corralled into a waiting room. Eventually an officer emerged and instructed us to form groups of ten. Each group would enter various jail units to sing Christmas carols, speak, pray and pass out gifts.

My group was the second to leave the waiting room. We followed our guiding officer down a passage of walkways that all looked the same. Cement walls. Cement floor. No natural lighting. We went through one last set of heavy doors and were greeted by a rush of stale, heavy air. The officer stopped in front of  room marked by an array of colored coded name magnets, one of the many units in a jail of almost 300 prisoners. Brown stuffed paper bags set outside the door alongside Christmas cards and a garbage bag of toothbrushes.

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The guard peeked his head into the room to make sure everyone was in lockdown mode, and then motioned for us to walk in. I followed my group carefully, as if the impossibly hard cement floor would break. The room was large, with cement and plastic sterile furnishings–no sharp edges or points that could potentially cause harm. A dozen pairs of eyes stared back at me from behind bars. Bars. Like caged animals on upper and lower story displays, dressed in matching colors. But these weren’t animals.

These were living, breathing human beings. There’s something about human beings behind bars that startles me. It looks…unnatural. A defiance of the natural will to be free. We began to sing Christmas carols (terribly, I might add) and the inmates continued to watch, most seemingly fascinated. At first I was afraid to look any of them in the eye. We were a decent distance away, so it wasn’t hard. I looked at the floor, then at others in my group, then at the wall, but propelling by sheer curiosity, I finally scanned the jail cells on display. I expected to see mean, scowling faces, but I didn’t. If anything I saw poker faces, or defeated faces. We finished our presentation and grabbed a set of gifts for each inmate.

One by one our guiding officer took us up to each jail cell. By this time, curiosity had absolutely consumed my terror. I walked up to the door and peeked through the bars. There weren’t any decorations. The toilet and sink were in plain view. Snack wrappers littered a shelf. The occupants wore plastic slider sandals or crocks, both with socks. “Merry Christmas” I said, looking at an inmate in the eye, trying to smile warmly. I handed him the gifts and he somewhat timidly replied, “thank you” and looked at the floor.

My heart broke.

I immediately thought, “this guy needs a hug.” Of course I didn’t act on my impulses, but the defeat in his eyes and the eyes of others pulled at my heartstrings.

We repeated this process in two other large jail room units. The inmates became more and more human to me, and by the third room, I actually had the courage to hold a conversation. Some of these guys were my age, some even younger. A couple looked familiar. Once they told me they had played on their high school basketball teams from surrounding area schools, I knew I must recognize them from cheering past high school basketball games years ago.

The inmates were becoming more and more real.

As a prisoner, they have no freedom, no privacy and hardly any chances to exercise their decision-making ability. “Everything’s decided for you,” one of the inmates said. “You have all this time to sit and think about what you did. You miss holidays with family, and then your family becomes use to not having you there.”

It never dawned on me how lonely this Christmas season must be for those in jail. I am glad I had the opportunity to at least spread a little warmth.

The experience was a reminder of grace and of compassion and the hope we ultimately have eternally in the gift of Jesus Christ. I walked away from my jail visit wanting to go back.

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