It was probably the wrong day for me to attend a meeting. I suppose the case could be made that I dislike attending most meetings most of the time. But yesterday was different.
In just one day, our office dealt with a record number of communications from Michigan prisoners and/or their family members. Among the 28 with whom we communicated, several needed help with seeking a commutation of their sentences, one claimed wrongful conviction, one is suing the system, one was having trouble with a bunkie (room-mate), one wants a letter written to a judge, one was just denied parole, one hoped for some re-entry information, one reported a bullying problem of older women behind bars. And the list went on and on. We couldn’t keep up with the requests, and by the end of the day Matt and I were catching our breath, still trying to find answers.
By evening it was time to head to Grand Rapids, where Crossroads Bible Institute was presenting a seminar on the effects of solitary confinement in our prisons. An important topic.
As I rethink the whole meeting one day later, I am reminded of the saying that often is attributed to Mark Twain: Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Substitute the word “weather” for “prisons,” and you’d have my thoughts exactly.
Lois DeMott of Michigan’s Family Participation Program gave first-hand accounts of the horrors of solitary confinement when mixed with mental illness.
Natalie Holbrook of American Friends Service Committee gave alarming statistics about the Michigan prison system, the shameful number of administrative segregation (solitary confinement) beds, and the always-present issue of racial disparity.
Pete Martel of AFSC gave a first-hand account of a typical day in solitary.
A psychologist and former prison warden agreed that solitary confinement drives people crazy.
And after more than an hour of this, Rich Rienstra of Citizens for Prison Reform finally said: “We’re hearing all the stories. What is anybody doing about it?”
No good answers.
A person in the audience asked, “Can you give me the name of one Michigan legislator who gets it, and wants to make change?”
They could not.
Finally, former Calvin Seminary President James DeJong, now a Crossroad volunteer, pointed out that the gospel of Jesus Christ can and does change lives. At last, something that all these people could hang their hats on. This was more in their comfort zone.
So at the end of the day, participants in CBI’s international Bible study program felt good, I’m sure, and returned to their important work with prisoners. But the rest of us continue to struggle: Lois DeMott trying to help prison families to negotiate through our prison system one at a time; Natalie and Pete struggling to change the system; Rich and Carol Rienstra banging their heads against a stubborn State of Michigan wall; and HFP down in the trenches holding hands with needy inmates.
James, the brother of Jesus, said in frustration: Faith without works is dead.
Yet, the Bible study programs thrive. And the rest of us keep trying to remind the faithful that this is the other half of prison ministry, and we’re not thriving.