When we started as volunteers with Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS), we did not have a clear idea about what prison visitation would be like. We approached it from a somewhat philosophical thought about expanding our cultural boundaries and caring for those who are incarcerated, as advocated by Quaker testimony. We understood that PVS was not a religious organization, and that visits were to provide an outlet for communication without any particular religious focus. Nonetheless, our Quaker values of reaching out to those beyond the boundaries set by our society created the impetus for our visitation.
We soon came to realize, though, that our thinking of visiting as an "expansion of cultural boundaries" was quite shortsighted and perhaps even arrogant. Almost all of the people we visit are no different from people we meet anywhere. They care about each other, about us, and are quite insightful about life. Our visiting, though not overtly religious, turned into a spiritual confrontation for us as visitors. The prisoners confront us, probably unknowingly, to the extent to which our faith is related to the promises of the larger culture. We have faith in the cultural promises that tell us how to live our lives, how to be accepted, and how to get the ego enhancement for which we all strive. The prisoners, who share the same faith in these cultural principles, have been stripped of the means to fulfill them.
If our understanding about how to live life and about what is important in life is true for us, it has to be true for a prisoner with a life sentence as well. If our understanding of the Divine and our understanding of what is essential for leading a happy and meaningful life would not apply to a prisoner with a life sentence, then of what value is it?
The prison system as we know it today is punitive, without any pretense of rehabilitation or even compassion. As a result, prisoners find themselves in a situation where people are clearly divided into those who impose their will on others and those who are imposed upon, even in the smallest details of life. However, in many ways it is not different from what all of us face in a society that is similarly structured. As Mary Rose O’Reilley writes in The Barn at the End of the World, "It’s one of the cruelest things on Earth, to take the beautiful inward struggle each one of us negotiates in our own time and make it subject to power, coercion, and fear. We suffer from that horribly, most of us, in our jobs, in corporate life, and too often, in our families and church. And in our own minds because these cruel power structures have become internalized."
These comments remind us that we are all "doing time," except that the powers we nonprisoners are struggling with are not as all-encompassing. We have options that the prisoners don’t have so that we are able to continue to place our hope in the promises of the social forces we face. It seems that the challenge for us is to come to terms with the truth that our life is found in simply existing in the presence of God. The prisoners teach us this as we see in ourselves the internalization of cultural values that make prison life seem so unbearable and make us imprisoned as well. We do not really believe that by simply living in the presence of the divine light one has everything necessary for happiness and fulfillment. It takes someone of profound ability—like Nelson Mandela or Dietrich Bonhoeffer—to turn a prison experience into grace in the struggle with powers that control.
Another principle of our faith as Quakers is that there is that of God in everyone. When we look at a struggle between a prisoner and a guard, we must see that of God in both prisoner and guard, and we must have compassion for both. Most of the prisoners we meet are sensitive and understanding people who we would value as friends even outside the prison environment. Granted, we have met a few prisoners who would be quite dangerous to others if they were not imprisoned. But PVS visitors do not cast these people out of their hearts. In our experience, even criminals who have committed the most unimaginable acts have that of God in them.
Even though the topics of our conversations with prisoners may often seem superficial when we discuss the news or sports, they involve communications that are much deeper. We are participating in each other’s personal lives and sharing in identity struggles. The prisoners must go through strip searches, both when coming into the visiting room and when returning to the units. Prisoners would not likely put themselves through the humiliation of these multiple strip searches if we were only discussing mundane topics. We are sharing in the same struggles when we share our thoughts and experiences. Our visitation, as in all our relationships, is an extension of our desire to touch the peace within.
Through visiting in prison, we continue to deepen our understanding of John Donne’s observation that "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."