Charlotte, a 67 year old retired school librarian, was looking for a new way to become involved in her community. She had specific goals. She wanted to support adults. Ready to give whole-heartedly, she also wanted flexibility to travel and be retired. She sought a challenge, different from anything she had ever done and to make a difference to those who wanted help with their circumstances. “I kept my antenna up, had interesting conversations, read, listened, and waited for ‘a way to open’. “
The Right Thing to Do
Then she watched a film sponsored by The Prisoner Visitation and Support Program (http://prisonervisitatiaon.org) about volunteers visiting inmates in federal prisons. Charlotte says, “The idea of visiting prisoners grabbed my heart and mind. Was I capable? I knew little about prisons. But I knew this was what I wanted to do. It felt right.”
The participating inmates request a visitor from PVS. They either have no family or their loved ones live far away with few resources for a journey. The volunteers and prisoners in the film described what a powerful gift the visits were for both. Research shows that prisoners with regular visitors have a better chance of not returning to prison after release.
THE JOURNEY BEGAN
After a security check and PVS interview, Charlotte was approved and visited her first two prisoners.
“I was surprised that I was not bothered by the security scanner, 3 steel doors, barbed wire fences, and being locked inside. I had to adjust to unpredictable delays, but I learned to accept and appreciate that waiting time. After all, the prisoners and their families are always waiting. I went monthly, on Thursdays, so often I saw the same people in the waiting room. Once they found out I was a volunteer visitor, they often shared their stories. These exchanges gave me a window into the world of families of prisoners who come to be together with their loved ones.”
Separation from Families
Once Charlotte arrived wearing open sandals— a dress violation. She borrowed, a pair of large orange, clownish, bowling shoes from another visitor. She now carries in her car extra shoes and clothes to save others from being turned away or from a buying trip to Wal-Mart.
“What do we talk about?”
“Before my first visit I wrote a long list of conversation starters,” Charlotte says. “However, I have never needed them, with any of my prisoners,” she adds. “I have been touched by their willingness to share their life stories and challenges. I am also struck by their insight and desire to learn. I don’t know their crimes but most accept responsibility and seek to use this “waiting time” to gain knowledge and/or skills to be prepared for their release.”
” They express how difficult it is to keep connected to family. We talk about their interests, activities, books they read, and world affairs. Sometimes we role play a situation where they need to practice strategies to manage anger, frustration, or injustice in prison. Sometimes they share their deepest fears about what will happen when they are released. They know life will be very challenging for an ex-prisoner.”
Dignity and Self worth
Before she began this program, Charlotte wondered if she would be good at it as well as helpful to the prisoners. Now she can modestly say, “I’m better than I ever imagined. I don’t judge,” she adds; “I just listen, accept, and affirm their self worth and human dignity. I’ve learned that the bottom line is we’re just two people sitting and talking about life. I have also learned about being patient and waiting. I love it.”
Being visited by someone like Charlotte who genuinely cares and doesn’t judge can have a major effect on the life awaiting a prisoner when he is no longer behind bars. To step out into the world with a sense of dignity because a stranger visited you can result in lasting changes in one’s self worth. This may be what love really is all about.