By Bonnie Friedmann, EUU Secretary and member-at-large
On our recent honeymoon visit to the US over the summer, my German husband and I did something vacationers don’t often do – we visited an American prison. It was the first time either of us have been inside a prison in any country, and it made a deep and lasting impression that we want to share with you – because prison is a place where shining our UU light can make a huge difference to someone who is incarcerated. And you don’t necessarily have to visit a prison to make that difference.
The online Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) has a Prison Ministry which is vital in helping incarcerated people deal with life on the inside and prepare for reintegration into society. The Prison Ministry Pen-Pal Program, in which I participate as a pen-pal, promotes the philosophy that no matter what we have done, we are all Worthy Now.
My pen-pal for the last 5 years was recently transferred to a new prison, which is important for this story of visiting him a few weeks ago. Arranging the visit at all revealed from the beginning of the process that the huge bureaucracy of the prison-industrial complex is very broken.
After asking CLF if a visit was possible and a good idea and receiving their enthusiastic support, we next asked my pen-pal if he wanted us to come. He was very happy that we wanted to come and sent us the application forms, which he had to sign first. We did all of this via the postal service, so that slows things down from the get-go. We filled in the forms, sent them in – and heard nothing. It was only through my pen-pal and a relative with whom he is able to have phone contact (once a week, on Saturday) that we heard that my husband’s application had been denied. Already in the US, we called the visitor’s department at the prison. A helpful staff person told us the only possibility was to appeal the decision and reapply. We did, sending the appeal via Express Mail —and heard nothing. The weekend before we hoped to visit, we heard via my pen-pal’s relative that my husband had been approved. We heard nothing about me, but decided that was a good sign, so went online to make the actual appointment. A day later, we received an email saying our visit was denied, because we had not applied for the actual time-slot a month in advance. No where on the website or in any of our interactions with the visitor’s department had this information been provided to us. In tears, I called the visitor’s department again. Because I am living with cancer, and traveling to the US is not easy, we knew this was probably our only chance to meet my pen-pal. Luckily we reached the same staff person, who knew our story. He got us clearance for a 2-hour visit at the end of that week.
We also only received the information about how we needed to prepare for the visit indirectly – my pen-pal got the information from other inmates, and we got it from his relative. Modest dress was required, and one can be turned away if the front desk staff believe one is dressed inappropriately. Also, we had to leave our cell phones in the car. We were allowed one quart-sized plastic bag each that had to contain the same ID with which we had applied to visit. It could also contain one electronic car key, one house key and an unopened packet of tissues. If a contact visit is permitted, up to $70 cash can be brought in, which must be in $1 bills. This can be used to buy the prisoners foods and snacks from vending machines to which they normally don’t have access. Prisoners really look forward to and appreciate this, because as you can imagine, the prison fare is, well, nothing to write home about.
Prepared, we arrived at the prison. Inside we went through security much like airport security. And just like airport security, even standing there knowing you’ve done nothing wrong, you feel nervous and guilty, somehow. Would we be cleared, or turned away because we somehow missed a rule and didn’t follow it? Or because one of the guards was having a bad day or didn’t like our looks?
After walking from the visitor’s entrance building, we had to surrender our passports before entering the visiting area. Again came the feeling of being powerless and insignificant, of having no rights despite only being visitors there.
What struck me most about the prison campus was the inside/outside contrast — outside the prison one has beautiful views of a nearby body of water, and as we exited after our visit in the early evening, we saw five deer on the grounds eyeing us curiously. A sign on a tree outside the grounds advertised a studio apartment available in the area for $3850/month – I kid you not.
Inside there’s no access to this view of the water, let alone the deer or the option of ever living freely there. Inside, behind walls and electronic wire gates in hallways painted pale prison beige, interrupted only by guards in khaki green, even visiting, one immediately feels the weight of this institution and its systems. We didn’t see the cells or anything beyond the visiting area, but given that, it was painfully easy to imagine that if one regrets their mistakes and is seeking redemption and trying to become a better person, the very environment in which one lives makes this hard right off the bat.
Then there are the people – power-hungry, not ready for rehabilitation prisoners who terrorize others. Guards who for whatever reason ignore it when white supremacists, without provocation, beat up the new guy in his cell where they were not permitted in the first place. The new guy was my pen pal, a UU Buddhist who refuses to fight back. Not all the guards are bad, but keeping solidarity with other guards and keeping one’s job requires turning a blind eye to the few who let things happen. What can they possibly gain, except a feeling of power? An us-versus-them mentality ensues, instead of prison being a place where staff are there to support the rehabilitation of the incarcerated and make sure of their safety. To protect and serve. It is a very painful reminder of our human frailty.
The attackers claimed he threw the first punch. Even if this were true, it was three on one. And what were they doing uninvited in his cell? Who deserves to be reprimanded? In the end, my pen-pal was put in “protective custody” (isolation, also known as “the hole”, usually used as punishment – as if that experience would help anyone improve their behavior for the better). The perpetrators are running about unrestricted in the prison. And my pen-pal, after who knows how long in solitary confinement, will be transferred to another prison, his life disrupted again. If he’ll be any safer in a new prison is anybody’s guess.
This trouble also restricted our visit – despite the fact that he was cleared of any fault in the matter, my pen-pal’s privileges are restricted the same as all other prisoners in isolation. He has to wear a sort of prison jumpsuit and was brought to our visiting area in handcuffs. We were separated by glass and spoke over intercom telephones, seated in rooms so narrow the chairs barely fit under the equally narrow counters. Because it was a non-contact visit, technically we were not allowed to buy him snacks, despite the fact that those snacks would have come from the prison’s own vending machines and been relayed to him via the guards. We did bring a bit of cash after finding out while checking in that we would be allowed to take a photo with him, albeit through the glass. Despite the glass, the experience was deeply moving for us all.
My pen-pal had not had visitors since 2019, when his parents came. His mom died last year, and he couldn’t go to her funeral. His elderly dad moved to a remote area to be closer to family and doesn’t have the support to visit, as my pen-pal is estranged from parts of the family.
My pen-pal deeply regrets the mistakes he made and understands what caused him to make them, and he is working to change that through therapy and engagement. He has spent the last 9 years of his sentence taking college courses, earning his degree and helping organize Buddhist worship on the inside. We reminded him that he is worthy now, and he broke down in tears, as he did several times during our visit. Because some guards are empathetic, we were granted four precious hours with him.
We found out that with time off for good behavior, he could get out anywhere between 4-8 years from now. It’s unclear because the rules keep changing regarding good behavior time credit, credit for courses taken and also as related to his sentence. That our system could leave someone in a possible 4-year limbo is almost beyond comprehension. And how can he use his one phone call a week to communicate with his legal assistant when the call is on Saturdays? The prisoners were given tablets during Covid, but his was broken when he was attacked, and his charger was stolen (along with his TV and other personal items). There’s one person responsible for the tablets for the entire prison, and that person is there once a month.
We asked what we could do. He’s very reluctant to ask for anything; his dad sends money to help him get by, and he doesn’t want to take advantage of me. Prisoners have to buy everything, from toothpaste to writing paper, so if no one puts money in your account, you don’t even have basic personal care items. He asked me to try to find out how he can get his tablet fixed, and to please send a picture of Buena Vista Park in San Francisco – because he’s reading a book that mentions it. We also bought him a cold water, relayed to him through the guards, not generally allowed, but the guards were generous. He showed us a small packet of some sort of drink powder that came with his lunch and said, we mix it with tap water. Cold drinks are rare. And there’s no A/C in there. Lunch was peas, a potato, beans and a very skimpy portion of fruit salad. They don’t get much fruit, because some prisoners make liquor from fruit.
As appalling and depressing all of this is, I write it to remind us not just how broken the supposed “rehabilitation” system is, but also to remind us how vitally important our UU support of these prisoners is. My pen-pal couldn’t take all his belongings with him when he was moved – and among what he took were all my letters to him. He decorates his cell with nature pictures and now more personal pictures from me. This relationship and experience is enriching my life as much as it is his, and I am so grateful to be a part of this work. We are a lifeline for people like my pen-pal, who truly seek rehabilitation in a system that does not support it.
If you want to know more, you can catch me live on the CLF’s online talk show, the VUU, on Thursday, Oct 5, at 18:00 Central European Time. Broadcast for the past 9 years, the VUU has hosted “scholars, writers, activists, and religious thought-leaders who are shaping Unitarian Universalism and society for the 21st century and beyond.” I am deeply honored to be asked to join the conversation. The show is podcast on YouTube as well, so you can also catch it there another time, as well as view other episodes. Here’s the link to the VUU:
This link is an episode from May of 2021, focused on the Prison Ministry:
Last but not least, I would like to appeal to all my readers to consider becoming a prison pen pal, or at least to spread the word that more pen-pals are desperately needed. Pen pals must be UUs, but they don’t need to be members of CLF. Donations are always appreciated as well, so that prisoners who wish to join CLF can become subsidized members, as well as to support the program in other ways. As of August, the CLF is serving 1,728 members experiencing incarceration. Beth notes, “Every time we make a small dent in the pen pal waiting list, 10 more people become eligible”. There are generally 100 or more prisoners on the waiting list. All participants are screened by CLF and required to complete a UU basics course before being paired with a pen-pal. All letters are channeled to the non-prison pen-pal via the CLF Boston office address. It is up to you how much personal information you share, if any. Prisoners receive the CLF newsletter, Quest Monthly, and the UUWorld magazine, as well as access to correspondence courses on a variety of topics. The Prison Ministry provides inspiration that helps rehabilitate prisoners or keep them going, if they are in for life.
Free-world pen-pals also receive Quest Monthly and the UUWorld, as well as the support of a private Facebook page where we can ask each other questions and share stories. We also receive the wonderful support of Beth Murray and the rest of the Prison Ministry Team at CLF.
It can feel a little scary and awkward writing to a prisoner, and it doesn’t always work out. And of course it’s not for everybody. But it is a chance to live our UU values and share our philosophy in a way that can help change individuals – and that helps change the world. Please take a leap of faith – support the program – and start writing. Here’s a link to the program: https://worthynow.org/pen-pals