The first time I visited the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, one of the prisoners asked me why I visit people in prison. I didn’t have an answer ready at the time, but I’ve thought a lot about it since then. I can truthfully say that I experience prisoner visitation and support as something God calls me to; that it seems to be something I can do to express gratitude to God for my own healing; that sometimes it’s the only thing that pulls me back into life.
For in a real way, when I visit prisoners I am also visiting myself. Whatever I bring to them, I simultaneously bring to the part of me familiar with alienation and despair. Whatever I bring to them, I also bring to the part of me that needs to know there are others who will remember and reach out to the isolated and forgotten. For whatever faith and compassion, kindness and trust I bring to them, I also need—and am often given in return.
While what I can give to the people I visit is strictly limited, it is also limitless. I cannot bring them gifts, answer their letters, find them legal aid, or rescue them from penury. I can only bring them myself, my presence, my willingness to listen and to love. Happily, they often give me themselves in return. As devotional writer and priest Henri Nouwen observed: "The many ways in which we express our humanity are the true gifts we have to offer each other."
Thus, being a visitor helps me escape the prison of my own self-absorption. Self-absorption, self-destructiveness, self-hatred, self-blame, blaming others—these are all prisons with which most of us are at least somewhat familiar. These are all "places" we can feel locked into, where we are apart from others or even in despair. Thus we all have experiences of being imprisoned, of needing release. They are a part of the common ground of our humanity. Yet these shared experiences, when acknowledged, are also a soil from which empathy and compassion, and hence true community, can grow.
There is yet another way in which doing prisoner visitation and support is also something we do for ourselves. We often suffer from feelings of powerlessness in the face of the world’s suffering. More often than not, we simply don’t know what we can do. Or we are afraid to do what we might do, and so we try to ignore the suffering, deny its reality, or blame its victims: "If only they (or I) had done such and such, this wouldn’t have happened." That may be true. Yet we are all responsible for how we choose to respond to our own suffering, or to that of others. When we choose to act self-destructively, or seek to destroy others, we are bound, if unhindered, to destroy ourselves. However, when we try to address the world’s (our own) deep need in life-supportive ways, we are apt to find ourselves inexplicably glad. Frederick Buechner wrote, "The place God calls us to is the place where our own deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet." Our deepest hunger is for communion—to be met, to be fed, to be one. Prisoner visitation and support is one such way we can find community rooted in the ground of our common humanity. Prisoner visitation and support can help release us from the prisons of ourselves, and make us deeply glad.