Several years ago I read a report in a science magazine that stated that even with our most advanced instruments and best telescopes, it is only possible for scientists to detect about 5 percent of the known universe. Another way of stating this is that 95 percent of what exists in the universe is not measurable by any means available to us today. I’ve often pondered that my experience and understanding of God is likewise limited by my physical and mental limitations—most of God’s being is unfathomable by me, except for the tiny bit my senses and intellect allow.
Similarly, my experience with the prison system probably touches on only a very small portion of what is really there. For many years, outside of an attempt at civil disobedience that might have landed me in jail, and outside of the experience of being a foster parent of a child who visited his mother in a women’s correctional facility four hours from home, my contact with "the system" involved letter-writing to oppose capital punishment, support for an Iowa prison-awareness walk, and financial support for a grassroots criminal justice ministry.
It was through a penpal program coordinated by this criminal justice ministry that I first had written contact with a federal prisoner in a State of Iowa facility. He is in for life as a result of a conviction on a murder charge more than 40 years ago. A volunteer with the ministry matched us on the basis of interests and experiences from applications each of us had submitted. Though the penpal program only asked for a one-year commitment, our correspondence has continued for nearly seven years, spanning several prison transfers for him, a number of phone calls by me to check on his treatment and healthcare during difficult situations, his wish for me to market his handcrafts, his recent transfer to a correctional facility in Oregon, and my learning that there are a number of reasons that the state (which reads my mail, but not his) would not allow my mail to go through: because I neglected to put a return address on the envelope, because I glued a picture to the front of a homemade card, and because I allowed my 8-year-old daughter to address the envelope. It is highly unlikely, though not impossible, that Ben will be released—and very unlikely that he could make it on the outside should this happen. It is improbable that I will meet Ben, particularly after his move to the West Coast.
Since joining the penpal program, a number of my letters to the editor opposing capital punishment and federal mandatory-minimum legislation sentencing have resulted in correspondence with: a Native American in a federal prison in Illinois; a prisoner in Nevada facing extended time and seeking spiritual friendship; and a young man (and his mother, who was not incarcerated) about the sorrow and anguish of the mandatory minimum sentencing law that sent this nonviolent, first-time drug salesman to prison for the next 30 years with no chance of parole.
My strongest connection and warmest correspondence, though, has been with Hal, an inmate at a medium/high security correctional facility in central Iowa. Though I have benefited from the insight, experience, and friendships of each of my inmate-writers and have continued correspondence as long as I continued to receive it, Hal’s correspondence has been most like a natural friendship. Following several years of sincere sharing of perspectives on politics, philosophy, life experience, spiritual matters, and mostly reporting my daily activities, I inquired about the possibility of visiting him, about a three-hour drive from my home. I am not Elizabeth Fry, visiting wretched prisoners in squalid conditions (and, in fact, have been questioned by one of my correspondents about why the Quakers have had a hand in creating our current penal system, which, though it does not have the shortcomings of the system of Elizabeth’s Fry’s time and place, still has its own problems). I did feel ready to "spend my change"—as the brochure for the penpal program describes it—to meet this person whom I was genuinely beginning to like.
The initial phone call with the appropriate prison official resulted in receipt of a poor copy of a visitor approval form. I filled it out and several weeks later received a rejection form because Hal already had three people on his visitors list, the maximum allowed. We resubmitted the form after Hal "bumped" someone else from his approved list. My spouse and I were counted as one visitor (gives new meaning to the phrase "and the two shall be as one"), while our 8- and 14-year-old daughters did not count against the visitor’s list when they accompanied us.
Our first visit to the facility was one of many strong impressions and vivid memories: the pat-downs, the ionizing drug wand detector, the fact that non-copper change could be carried to the visiting area (but pennies could not), the heavy clank of various doors as they opened before us and locked behind, the multiple coils of razor wire that topped 15-foot fences (which I was told would drop if the fences were rattled), and the 100-foot outdoor walk from the visitor entrance across the gravel compound to the door of the prison proper.
When we reached the visiting area and told the guard whom we’d be visiting, we sat at a small, square table in a room with 50 or so similar tables, and waited for Hal to be escorted in for the visit. Our first visit allowed me to put a face with the personality I’d constructed from his letters—I thought he’d have more hair and be younger; he thought that I’d be older. My spouse and I visited with Hal for two hours or so while my daughters fed vending machines (that’s why change is allowed in the visiting area) and themselves, and played card and board games that were stored along one wall. Hal clearly appreciates the opportunity to have contact with people; this is evident from the kinds of reading and writing assistance he provides for other inmates and the correspondence he keeps up with a number of people. For the duration of our visit, he answered our questions, including my youngest daughter’s very direct and concerned, "Hal, what did you do to be here?" Mostly, though, we just listened as he spoke with little prompting for most of our time together, something he clearly needed. For me, one very poignant image of that visit in the big room was the sight of a 60-ish white-haired man in a blue jump suit embracing his white-haired spouse before they sat down to visit at a nearby table. Many people of their apparent age and appearance enjoy each other’s company in the comfort of their own living rooms—what choices had been made that brought this couple to this point? We left the facility absorbed in our own thoughts.
That first visit was over two years ago. We continue to write to each other, mostly two to three times a month. For Hal, I think that it is, among other things, a reminder that there are people "out there" who know he is there, and who care. For me, it is an opportunity to consider the unremarkable nature of my life as I relate it to him in letters, and also to reflect on the remarkable fullness, richness, beauty, freedom, and choices I mostly take for granted. I have visited Hal several times since, though the distance involved in travel and the increasingly limited visiting hours make visits infrequent and difficult to arrange.
In the past two years, the state of Iowa has been experiencing financial shortfalls serious enough that even the prison system is affected. But even in 2001, Iowa had continued to build prisons and expanded its prison population by over 10 percent—many of the prisoners being sentenced to long terms under the "three-strikes-you’re-out" guidelines. Hal suggested in one letter that when the Iowa quarter is minted, prisons should be featured on one side and gambling on the other, representing Iowa’s two biggest growth industries. The substance-abuse treatment programs and educational programs that were previously inadequate are currently being downsized or eliminated; cells built for two people now house three; visiting hours are being trimmed back; meal portions are being reduced; garden and outdoor yard work is being dropped; legal services are mostly unavailable; the phone system discourages inmates from making outside calls; and work hours (and the pay of $.38/hour) have been significantly reduced or eliminated for many inmates who had jobs.
C.S. Lewis said that "Praying doesn’t change God—it changes me." Likewise, I have not changed the system, but it has changed me. My contacts with Hal have inspired me to collect used books on an ongoing basis and ship them to the prison library, permissible in the state of Iowa if the donation comes from a religious institution such as Decorah Friends Meeting. A year ago, when inmates were still allowed to work in the gardens, I shipped flower and vegetable seeds to the prison system to make up for early budget cuts. A state official who received the shipment commented in a letter that she "guessed that they need beauty as much as we do." If someday I live within a practical commuting distance of a prison, I may be able to participate in Alternatives to Violence Project trainings, do some regular visiting, or spend time working toward real change in the system, something that could make a difference in a bigger way. In the overall scheme of things, what I am doing is pretty insignificant. But following a Gandhian way of thinking, I do it anyway.
Hal concluded one of his letters about a year ago, "Prayers welcome. Thanks for listening, for all your recent special cards, and for letting others know that there are people outside who care for me and others in prison." That kind of comment, coming from someone inside the prison system, is part of the 5 percent that I am able to understand.