Thursday, July 23, 1998
If you want to freeze a conversation midstream, simply say: "I visit prisoners." The other soul--still in motion from their innocent "what''s new?"--will stop to breathe. Pupils will dilate, hands fidget. They will gamely follow your tale. But in their heart, they will probably wonder: Why on earth would you go, by choice, to prison?
It wasn''t until the summer of 1996 that I would have done--even thought to do--such a thing. Spiritually, I did know how important it is to offer hope and healing. I have served the young and elderly; worked to rid the world of nuclear weapons; created art for my parishes. When Bill Jordan, coordinator with the Match-2 Program, came that Sunday to St. Angela''s, I sat in the pew: secure. I was already busy, productive. Someone else could say yes to the imprisoned.
I don''t remember what Bill said. But I do remember that as he spoke, I listened. As I listened, my hands picked up the M-2 reply card. Blanks were filled; calls were made; my car tank filled with gas for the long first trip to Chowchilla, site of a women''s maximum security prison 130 miles away.
M-2 was conceived in 1971, at a time when crime and punishment were being explored for new and better solutions. A nonprofit group formed and presented a plan for "matching" volunteers to lonely inmates, giving them a better transition back to society. You didn''t have to be a prison or crime "expert." You just needed to listen, stick with it, care. Since its start in Northern California, M-2 has spread and enlisted a wide range of volunteers to make more than 49,500 matches.
Alicia was my first match: A bright woman in her 20s with a young child, an ebullient smile, and eight years for manslaughter. She, like other inmates in the M-2 program, had no other regular visitors. Many prisoners don''t. Either because of relocation to a different part of the state, poor family ties, or shame, many men and women serve time cut off from family and friends.
I don''t know why Alicia killed a man. As I go for the first time, I try not to expect or judge. But passing through the first checkpoint and the visitors center, pulling out my pockets, showing my ID for the umpteenth time, I wondered. Walking slowly, cautiously, past the silent guard-tower, entering grounds trimmed with bright roses and razor wire, my heart quickened. What had I entered into?
Inmates at Chowchilla are garbed in various shades of blue and white, distinct from the visitors. To this end, I must spend an extra 20 minutes dressing to code: no blue, green, brown or beige; no scanty tops or shorts; no purses, chewing gum, tampons. The list is huge and daunting, but I grumpily comply. This, after all, is prison. It''s nothing compared to the gauntlet Alicia will go through. Because of the prevalence of drugs and other contraband, there is very little short of bone marrow that doesn''t get poked and peeked at if you''re an inmate.
I share the three-hour drive to Chowchilla--and my before-and-afterthoughts--with Kathy, another local M-2 sponsor and fellow parishioner. It''s vital to share your impressions, and Kathy provides both empathy and challenge.
Together, we enter a large open room for our first visit, exchanging tight smiles. Whatever we had thought or hoped or feared, we are about to discover what befriending a prisoner really means.
We are greeted by what sounds like a high school cafeteria at high noon, a cafeteria filled with women of all ages and colors, scattered men, lots of babies and young children. It is late Saturday morning, and the place pulses with chatter, game-playing, card-shuffling, pages of scripture turned and pondered, bags of microwave popcorn devoured like manna.
As I wait for Alicia, I spy a grizzled old man decked out in a crisp three-piece suit and a fedora. He sits with his wrinkled wife, playing cards. What sly move will she make? What could this frail old thing possibly do now--what could she ever have done--to get in here? Nearby, a young woman, also in telltale blue, rises to take her three hijos to play and hear stories. The fear which lay coiled in my stomach loosened a bit.
Though I''ve never actually seen one, the prison reminds me of a coral reef, a place given to harsh currents and little certainty that nonetheless teems with myriad forms of life, all holding on for dear life.
Before long, I hear my name called. I look up and see a young woman approach. Sandy, serpentine hair, perfectly coifed. Eye shadow, lipstick (geez, I''m glad I bothered to dust mine off). And a 1,000-watt neon smile. I feel my face return it. When was the last time anyone was that happy to see me? No tattoos. No jaded glare. Alicia seems determined to defy the stereotypes, any notions of a typical prisoner.
But in some ways, she is very typical. Fleeing from a troubled, middle-class home early, no high school diploma, she followed her gypsy heart into the arms of men who cared more about what they could get than give. The exciting, violent world of a runaway teen.
During our first few visits, I try to bring into focus her murky past. So many wrong turns. I sense there''s a legacy of anger and abuse that led to her awful choice, her crime. But I am reluctant to squeeze her too hard, this woman with so little personal privacy.
Slowly, over games of Sorry! and soda, Alicia begins to tell me about her family. An adopted child from Virginia, Alicia grew up watched and loved, probably in that order. She still loves her "mama" and "daddy," who ended up following their wayward child out to California. Her greatest hope is that she gets the transfer she''s applied for to move to a prison in Southern California so her parents can visit--and her little girl, Melanie. When I start my M-2 visits, Alicia has been waiting over a year to see Melanie. I think she''d add years to her own sentence if it meant regular visits with this child.
Over the course of six months, Alicia and I share as many visits. The conversation flutters freely: learning Spanish, places we''ve been. Our favorite foods--many of which aren''t served in prison, but whose kin are somehow concocted in "stingers" or makeshift hot pots.
We climb up roads to higher ground--land of the spirit, where life and pain have perspective. From this height, we begin to talk of what really matters, transcends, even as her crime lies in plain view at the bottom. I will go the full six visits without fully knowing what happened, or why. But Alicia says to me, her eyes set and dark: "I know what I did. And now I''m paying for it."
When you sleep in a 12 x 18-foot room with five or more women and you do everything from shower to sleep under the eyes of others, you look to a visit from the outside as an elixir, something to drink in and savor every drop of until the next.
Sometimes, our plans were jarred. I arrived late, while Alicia sat alone on her bunk, waiting while a Saturday morning with its few pleasures (a nice breakfast, a chance to stroll outside) ticked away. After arriving late, not corresponding promptly, I began to see in her eyes, her voice, the message: "Keep your promise." Another time-- a busy, hectic time getting processed--I sat 45 minutes, an hour, craning my neck at the snap of the cafeteria door, the next inmate not Alicia. Not my friend.
We weather this, and so much else. Despite my lifetime of Catholic education--or maybe because of it--I tend to squirm under the weight of rules. But this was different. Every time one or the other of us was forced to wait; everything that rose as an obstacle seemed to shrink, melting in the warmth of our friendship. It''s the kind you would never plan, but that simply takes hold and bursts like a cactus flower into bloom.
Friendship...and looking to the future. Everyone, even a prisoner, needs a future. We talk of our work. Alicia works as a medical files clerk, aiming at more computer expertise. Prisoners often choose to learn and work: partly for restitution, mostly to keep their skills and spirits alive. At Chowchilla, there are a variety of educational and job-training programs.
During a prison tour, I witness one area where new motherboards and central processing units for computers are being installed. The rebuilt, upgraded machines will be sent to public schools. In prison, the long-timers tend to tap into these programs. They hold few false hopes of beating the system. They''re in the system, so they''d better do what they can within its snug embrace.
Alicia''s sentence is long enough to wake her up. She knows she needs to learn, not return.
Finally, Alicia got her wish and was transferred to a prison down south where she can visit her family. We continue to write one another, she by far the more faithful correspondent. Last I heard, she was on her way toward being paroled in a few years.
As for me, I continue with another M-2 match, another friend. Goofy as it sounds, I''m enjoying my time in prison. Perhaps the more I go inside, the more likely my friends will make it on the outside. For good. cw