Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Visit to Norfolk

Abi Strait is the new 2013-2014 Micah Fellow at ECH!  She comes to us from Wisconsin via the Lutheran Service Corps in Delaware, where she worked at the Ministry of Caring. As a Fellow in the Life Together Program, she'll be splitting her time between ECH and our mother-parish, Christ Church Cambridge. 

I went on my first visit to Norfolk prison last Thursday to meet with Ronald - one of the participants in BU’s College Behind Bars program that HIPE is matched with. It was great to finally get to Norfolk and meet Ronald. Along with it being my first visit to Norfolk, it was also my first time in any prison, and was an incredible eye opener for me.

My most clear impression, which illustrates how important this program is for the volunteers/students too, was how "normal" things were. I had this image in my head of talking to someone wearing an orange jumpsuit behind glass or surrounded by guards. Which was not at all the case - Ronald and I sat next to each other on plastic chairs, and everyone wore normal clothes.

He and I talked about his life in general, and a little about his educational goals. It was not a tutoring session, even though Partakers and HIPE are technically billed as “educational mentoring programs.” When we spoke about college and his education, it was in a general sense - where he’s been and where he would like to go - but not in a specific way of my editing one of his papers. Mostly, I listened to him share his life story with me.

So I left Norfolk feeling positive. Both because of my encouraging experience with Ronald, and the great community I observed in the visitor’s waiting room, especially amongst the "regulars" who come to visit someone quite often. I’ll share an example of this, in an interaction I observed before I was able to go in and see Ronald (I’ve changed the names here).  A lady sitting by me turned to another women approaching a chair behind her.

"Excuse me, are you Joey's mom?"

The second women looked surprised, and responded - a bit defensively- "Yes. Why?"

"I'm here to visit my son Sam. He and Joey are good friends! Sam asked me to look out for you, since Joey said it'd be your first time visiting. He asked me to show you what to do."

And so Sam's mom proceeded to walk Joey's mom through the steps to getting processed, talked her through what to expect in the security screening section, and sat with her while they waited. It was a sweet moment where human kindness shone through to brighten a fairly bleak place.

Now, I don’t mean this to sound as if I visited Norfolk and think prisons are happy places full of rainbows and butterflies. I mean to say that I had my eyes opened to the realities of what prison (or at least the realities of visiting a prison) and the folks inside them are like. My visit showed me the importance of seeing a correctional institution first hand - how it can be a way to break down all the societal views of what prisons or prisoners are like. To see the institution and people inside them for what they are and not how I expect them to be.

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