Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Going To The County Jail

After the last remote-control lock on the last steel door opens with a loud, metallic clang, I walk into B-1, the two-tiered, oval-shaped “pod”  at the Cumberland Country Jail in which I’ve been running a weekly Bible study for two-and-a-half years. The eighty-five inmates there are dressed in orange or blue. Some are in their teens. Some look to be in their sixties or seventies, but it’s hard to guess ages of men who live hard lives. Smoking, drinking, fighting, poor nutrition, repeated physical and/or emotional traumas age them prematurely.

All the pods look like this
Some stand in pairs talking. Some are stripped to the waist doing chin-ups on cross bars. Some are seated at steel tables bolted to the concrete floor and playing cards. Some are just standing around looking scary with neck and face tattoos around primal, calculating eyes. One, sometimes two correctional officers (COs in jail parlance) are on duty. He or she sits at a desk in the middle of the oval with electronic controls to all cells and rooms on both tiers. I wait a minute for the CO to recognize me and remotely unlock the door to my classroom on the lower tier.

Inmates are screened upon arrival at the jail before being assigned to various pods depending on whether they’re detoxing, suicidal, aggressive, or determined to be cooperative at some level. Inmates in B-1 have usually been sentenced to less than a year, but some are awaiting trial with potentially long prison sentences if found guilty. After further evaluation on the pod, some are chosen to work, usually in the kitchen where they earn “good time” — which is time off their sentences. Those inmates are called trustees and given blue jumpsuits, but they can “lose the blues” for bad behavior and be transferred to another pod.

Sometimes the CO announces that a Bible study is beginning, sometimes not. Inmates trickle into the classroom — maybe five, maybe fifteen or twenty which is all that can fit in the small room with a table and attached stools bolted to the middle of the floor. They bring in their own brown, plastic chairs and set them up around the edges. I might see two, three, or more familiar faces from previous weeks, or it might be an entirely new group. 

Normally I’ll begin with a prepared lesson, but if it’s a new group I’ll repeat an introductory lesson. I tell them I’m a retired history teacher and not a Bible scholar. Some are familiar with the Bible while others know only that it’s some kind of holy book. I tell them it’s the revealed word of God for Christians divided into two parts. The Old Testament begins with creation and joins the historical record with the life of Abraham around 2000 BC. From there it proceeds to the birth of Jesus Christ 2018 years ago. The New Testament covers the life of Christ and the first generation of his disciples up to 80-100 AD.

Then I describe beliefs of Jews, Christians, and Muslims citing commonalities and differences, and offer a timeline for all three using a whiteboard. I’ll end by defining a Christian as someone who believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God who assumed human flesh and lived with us on earth for thirty-three years, was crucified by Romans, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven promising to return someday. I entertain all questions during that lesson.

I’m always prepared with something to begin a class, but it may go anywhere depending on where they inmates want to take it — which I allow as long as it’s centered on something in the Bible or how it’s interpreted (or misinterpreted) here in the 21st century. It goes best when my role is limited to guiding a discussion. I never ask what anyone did but it often emerges. Many have done serious time. Some have been incarcerated for almost their entire adult lives and are awaiting sentencing for still another stretch.

Sometimes Muslims come in. They’re welcome to listen, ask questions, point out similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam, but not to proselytize. They’re free to hold a Koran study at some other time if they wish.

Over two-and-a-half years, I’ve listened as the toughest men reveal a soft side. When they do, others are more likely to as well. Some complete their sentences are released, then re-arrested. A few have shown up for the third time — usually addicts who relapse. Nearly all who come into the classroom are addicts of one kind or other. Some will say they needed another sentence to get clean and reoriented before trying again on the outside.

At 4:30, the CO appears outside the classroom door pointing at his watch. We all stand, shake hands, and stack up chairs before I head back to the lobby through a labyrinth of corridors separated by a succession of steel doors, each of which is remotely unlocked by another CO who is watching me through CCTV cameras.


Jay said...

I’ve been fortunate in my life. I’ve never known anyone who was “in the system” except for one person convicted of a white collar crime.
I can’t imagine what it must be like, especially to do hard time.
Good for you that you are bringing the word to these people. It seems to me that if the word had been spread around a little bit more when they were younger, some of these folks might not have to hear it now. I don’t know. I have little or no experience with this issue.
Drug addiction is a terrible thing and has ruined many lives. I had a battle with alcohol many years ago and God helped me through it.
Even if you just touch one soul you’ve done a good thing. For some, this may be the first time they’ve heard those words.

Unknown said...

Tom, Thanks for this interesting commentary. For a while my late husband and I used to visit a state prison to see an incarcerated relative. This is a very depressing situation for the family. Prisoners are basically dehumanized. I wish there were a way of giving inmates more training so that they were less likely to reoffend upon release.

DAWN said...

This is a very good thing that can reap many eternal rewards. At the end of the day that's the important thing. Everything else will fade away. We know the only thing we can bring with us to the other side of eternity are souls of those we have witnessed to.

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me." Matt 25:34-36

May the Holy Spirit lead you to say and teach exactly what needs to be taught to open hearts, minds and ears.

Mr Ed said...

Tom God love you for your good work

BUT in keeping with the times on this election day, let me remind you that you are a white Christian male and therefore a RACIST and an Oppressor, repent Tom repent.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Oh yeah, I forgot. Is it too late for me to renounce my white privilege and my toxic masculinity?