Today began with my feeling a bit fearful about what the day would be like. I have never been inside of a prison before. When I did my emotion check in the morning, I found that I had a sense of curiosity about what my experience would be like and I also found that I was a bit afraid. Now, as I sit at home and reflect on the day, I find my primarily feeling is one of appreciation for the experiences I had and the people I met. And, I have a feeling of hopefulness.
My fear was mostly grounded in my fear of the unknown. I have had the opportunity to work with many colleagues who have been involved in various forms prison ministry. They have all been good friends and they are inspirations to me in my ministry. Their stories of their ministries in and out of the prisons have moved me to see the world in a different way, in a more inclusive and compassionate way. I have also had the opportunity to get to know some of the women who have been in the prison near where I live. Through the years, I have come to know some of them well. I am always happy to see them and to hear their stories of hope and new life. And, I had never been inside a prison until today.
Part of me wanted to visit a prison because of the positive impact some of my colleagues and ex-offenders I have met have had on my life. I was curious about what a prison would be like. And, if I am honest, part of me was afraid.
Today, I both walked into that place of fear and I found that my life has been deeply touched by the experience. The time in Salinas Valley State Prison opened my eyes. Going through the gates, meeting the guards and seeing some of the cells and the yard, I have had a small experience of what a prison looks like. At times it felt tense and yet, I also saw some deep friendships amongst the guards (their handshakes indicated deep connection and respect) and a honest desire and commitment to having good communication with the prisoners.
Going to the Correctional Training Facility opened my eyes as well. We heard a report from the Common Ground research team, a self-selected team of inmates desiring to listen to and learn from other inmates. They reported on the statistics they gleaned from their survey about their common ground experiences – similar family structure ( about half were raised in a single parent home), similar childhood experiences ( abuse as a child was common), similar longing for love as a family value and similar experiences of how old they were when they were first incarcerated ( most were 13-19 years old). The small group time with about 14 of the inmates was very powerful. Hearing their personal stories was a true gift. I am grateful for that time of personal sharing. It helped me also to appreciate the work of the prison chaplains who create similar spaces of sharing.
One thing I am curious about relates to the prisons in Connecticut. In California, the gangs are very present and visible in the prisons. Is this true in in Connecticut? I do not know. I have many questions to ask my friends in Connecticut as my journey as a peacebuilder unfolds before me.