Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas Mail Call

December, 2016

My Friends,

As I prepare to celebrate another Christmas out here in the "free" world, a flood of memories rise up in my mind.

I remember the night before my sixth Christmas in Prison. The officer arrived in the late afternoon with the last bundle of mail until after Christmas. Most of the men crowded near the duty station, hoping to hear their name called. 

Receiving a card or letter could lift one’s spirit for days, especially around the holidays when homesickness was heaviest. But receiving mail means so much more for people in prison than a mere balm on the pain of separation. Hearing one's name called fulfilled a longing to be remembered and forgiven.
A Christmas card was like a promise that we would be welcomed home, free from shame.
One of my friends didn’t receive any mail that Christmas. His estranged father had died months before, and his mother died decades earlier. His brother was in another prison in South Texas. He so rarely received any mail, that he never bothered to join the crowd near the duty station when the bundle of mail arrived each day. He was very much alone.

This was his fourth stint in prison, always for property crimes to feed his addiction; yet, his incarceration struck frustrating chords of injustice inside me, as though a bright child had been harmed and discarded. Just like most people I met while in prison, incarceration was a detour off the intended path for his life. His mother and father had split while he was still a toddler, and he had to endure a series of increasingly abusive step-fathers before leaving home. He had learned to survive on his own, becoming a whiz at repairing any device powered by an electrical current.
Sadly, the pain and anger of his boyhood had created an unloving inner landscape where he couldn't find peace inside his own skin.
We became unlikely friends. We shared little in common when it came to our past lives and interests; but our inner worlds could not have been more alike. I related with the way shame and anger coiled lethally inside him, and understood how his past drug abuse was the way to cope with these painfully complex emotions. I admired the remarkable ways he had learned to survive. His selflessness humbled me, and his sincere efforts to overcome the destructive pattern within him truly inspired me. When the officer had handed out the last letter, I went to sit next to my friend. I told him how glad I was to be spending Christmas with him.

As I write about my friend, I realize that I’m writing a similar story about so many of the people I met while in prison. My friends in prison emphasized the need to take responsibility for the pain we had caused others, but their stories taught me something deeper about compassion.

"Compassion is defined as a keen awareness of the suffering of another coupled with a desire to see it relieved. People hurt others as a result of their own inner strife and pain. Avoid the reactive response of believing they are bad; they already think so and are acting that way. They aren't bad; they are damaged. -Will Bowen 
I think that is the deeper call of the exhortation to "Remember Those in Prison."

Remembering my friends in prison creates a vision for a world where justice is redefined:
It’s a world where we see crime as evidence of brokenness; 
Where holding people accountable also means helping them find their true potential; 
Where people never need to wear handcuffs to get help for addiction and mental illness; 
Where investments in "public safety" actually strengthen communities rather than tear away the human capital communities need to thrive.
Christmas is named for someone who exhorted His followers to remember those in prison, so I thank you for letting me share these memories with you. 

I hope that you'll receive this letter before Christmas, and know that all of you are remembered, worthy of forgiveness, and free from shame.