Mothers With a Message

I don’t even know how to begin processing the event I attended this past Wednesday…

It was an experience that was so beautiful and moving yet tragic and devastating all at once…

The event was called Mothers With a Message where mothers who have lost loved ones to murders come share their story with inmates, most of whom are convicted murders.

One Mother shared her story so vividly, I imagined I was there.

I imagined I was there as she watched her husband bleeding out on her kitchen floor after a teenager under the influence of gang-life had shot him and ran off.

This same woman then lost her twin brother to gang violence not too long after that. Her brother was just walking home from college when he was shot and killed.

“I may be free but my mind and my heart are in Prison…”

The woman said as she stood in front of a crowd of people who are currently serving their sentence in prison…

So there I was in a room where Mother’s had lost their children to the hands of a convicted murderer, talking to a group of men of who are serving time in prison because they are convicted murderers… yet the Mothers are saying they are in prison too… oh what sad irony this was.

During the stories and pauses between speakers you could practically feel the heavy atmosphere. It was a concept almost to heavy to process, and I can imagine for both Mothers and Inmates almost too unbearable to face.

For the Mothers to love on, share their stories, even be in the same room with convicted murders after losing loved ones to killers is an act of love so moving, a lot of the inmates were at a loss for words and moved to tears.

For the Inmates to face the consequence of their actions beyond serving their sentence might of been the biggest reality check they have had yet. To see how murdering someone doesn’t just kill one person, it can kill everyone that person is connected to.

As the Lady who started this movement wrapped up the event she said

Though you physically are in prison, your heart is not locked up, and your mind is not in chains.

Her goal for this event was to encourage these guys to make a difference for any future Mothers that might lose their kids. To give an opportunity for inmates to write letters to the youth, to hopefully encourage them to make better choices than they did.

How amazing is that.

Then she said the most heart breaking part of her speech… When her son’s killer got out of prison for serving his sentence (he was convicted as a juvenile so his sentence was not too long) she went to her son’s grave site and knocked on his tombstone…

Okay you can come out now! You’re killer has served his sentence so you should be done with yours. Come on out now.

I. Was. Hit. Hard. These women were truly some of the strongest I had ever seen.

I had to leave to go run group, but at the end of the day one of the inmates who helped organize this event came to the RT office. This inmate in particular is a convicted killer himself.

He came because he wanted to share how moved he was at the end of the event. Apparently he was talking to a pastor that helped run the event and who was also among the group that had lost a child due to murder.

I forgive you. I can’t speak for the family you effected by I can speak for myself. You are forgiven.

After telling him that he began to pray for him. He was moved to tears, and could not believe that someone who had lost a loved one by the hands of a murderer was forgiving and praying for him, someone who had once upon a time taken peoples lives.

This event definitely was a special one, and I hope they continue. I think this event allows such a huge and important doorway to healing for both the mothers and the inmates (at least the ones that are truly remorseful), and I am so glad I got to witness it.

Pulling Teeth

Sometimes facilitating a group with these guys is like pulling teeth.

I will flex my creative muscle and come up with a thoughtful activity, only to be shut down after introducing it with blank stares and -100% interest…

I never let that dim my energy though. I just keep on talking about it and encouraging them to participate. Sometimes that’s all it takes, and before you know it the inmates are laughing and having a good time. Or if it’s a more serious activity, they might all end up sharing deeper parts of themselves and helping each other out.

Last week I had a group that didn’t have anymore teeth to pull. They all just sat there and all their answers to my questions were either, “I don’t know,” or “I’ll pass.”

It’s during those types of groups you are so thankful for the one or two guys that actually say something or express even a little bit of interest.

“Write a Spoken Word piece as if you were talking to your 13 year old self.” ….I said as I handed out papers and pens. Only two out of about 8 of them accepted it.

At least in prison I get a lot of practice with rejection, which is a life skill that’s always useful to have…

The two that did participate misunderstood the prompt a little bit, but that’s alright. It was still a good thought provoking activity for them. They wrote a piece as if they were 13 again, instead of to their 13 year old self.

I would like to share one of the pieces they wrote, he called it “Just Keep on Dreaming!”

I am who the world says I am
but no one knows what lies deep inside of the person I want to be!
I trudge through the struggles of poverty
Not knowing the why’s and how’s of my life position.
Living from one day to the next, looking to momma to help me
withstanding those things called vex.

As I continue to fight off those dreams, I just keep on dreaming.
I can see a brighter day with joy’s and elation for I have traveled those roads of hard-knots and survived to tell my story to those that need
A helping hand to pull them up and outside of their struggles and despairs
Let them know they too can rid themselves of their demons and
Life gets better when you look to God, and just keep on dreaming!

He wrote that in less than 15 minutes. I could tell it was a poem that was already inside of him, and I’m glad he got it out.

A lot of these guys I’m sure can relate to his poem. How unfortunate circumstances like poverty cannot always be understood when they didn’t choose that life. How it’s easy to be looked at by the world and be seen a certain way, when deep down they actually want to be better people. How it’s easy to forget the hopes and dreams they once had, but it’s better to look to God and just keep on dreaming.

He’s a nice guy, and signed his poem as “The Fallen Soldier,”

Just his one poem made the teeth pulling group worth it.

I am Back From Parole…

Or rather… I’m back from vacation.

I can relate now to inmates who parole for an amount of time and then come back to prison.

You leave for a bit and get a taste of a different life style until reality snaps you back into the life you were once used to. And now after tasting something so sweet, you have to get used to the bitter taste once again.

Now I really should not complain. Even though this is prison and a normal 40 hour per week job, it pays well and is never overwhelmingly stressful. I am definitely blessed to be here, and to have a chance to impact the lives I can. It’s just a matter of readjusting back to the reality of adulthood, which may take a day or two.

And just like parolees, it has sparked a hope of a life I may have to look forward to. I hope to save money and move on from this job to go travel and serve overseas for months at a time, but I suppose only time will tell.

Just like for a lot of the guys here… only time will tell.

Paroling seems like such a tease, but I can see how it would be motivating for the guys who parole and then still have time to serve within prison walls. I say that because I am now motivated more than ever to start preparing for when I get out of prison. That may be a year or two from now, but years here seem to fly by.

I can hardly believe I have already been here almost a year and a half… in some ways it feels like I just got here, and in some ways it feels like I am ready to leave… but like I said only time will tell… and God.

Only God will tell when it’s time. There, that’s what I’m trying to say.

Now that I am back I hope to start posting regularly again (:

If you put inmates in a book club, what do you get?

In the most recent case, you get the soft side of convicts, and a beautiful thank you card with personalized art…

Book clubs don’t exactly hold a reputation for being a cool thing to do, but here in prison on a level 2 yard, a lot of the guys appreciate it.

We just finished a whole 5 week session with the book “All the Light We Cannot See.” It’s a historical fiction book that takes place during WWII…

Most of the inmates hated it.

The book was long, and the ending was disappointing.

HOWEVER…. they loved what the book did for our conversations when we met up. A lot of them related to the characters of that book, whether it be because of their relationship with certain family members, or because of the hardships the characters went through.

It was a special time, and a lot of them expressed how grateful they were to be able to meet up and have a space to have meaningful conversations.

One was so thankful, he even made a card with his own drawings…

One of our guys is a stellar artist! The left picture was the front of the card, and the picture on the right was the inside (it’s an inside joke in case you were wondering what it says haha)

What has prison turned you into?

Some might answer predator, some might answer survivor, some might answer a better man.

I’ve heard testimonies of each.

Today I met a guy who is a survivor. In prison terms he is what the inmates call an “OG.”

He earned that title because he survived 11 years in Pelican Bay around the early 2000’s. If you are not familiar, Pelican Bay during that time was a war zone. According to him there was, stabbings everyday with inmates having to be helicoptered out because their injuries were on the teeter-totter of life and death. He was there for both the big riots that are down in history for being some of the worst.

During those times it wasn’t “Fighting to see who would win” it was “Fighting to see who would live.”

Needless to say, he earned the label as an “OG.”

He spoke about another prison awhile back he used to be at where the Lieutenant and the Sargent and other Custody Officers (COs) would take home made knives from the inmates, place the knife/knives on the ground in a cell block that was about 10ft by 10ft, bring 2-4 inmates into the cell block, and tell them to fight. Then the COs would bet on who lives…

Like the real life version of Hunger Games.

Apparently after that had been going on for awhile, a Lieutenant finally ratted them out, and stopped that process. But if that was able to go on for awhile with no one knowing about it, what else could be going on right now that no one really knows about?

He’s also spent over 5 years in the “Shoe.” Which is basically the prison within the prison system. In there, you barely get anytime out of your cell, and a whole a lot of time to sit with yourself. He said the first year or two sucks, but then you just get used to sitting in your cell all day. It forces you to occupy your mind with reading, puzzles, and to think and reflect about your choices.

He has a good head on his shoulders, and I can see why he is a survivor. Anyone else who has been through what he has been through or seen what he has seen, would probably be completely insane by now… at least I think I would be.

How inmates make their Vodka.

Inmates have created quite an innovative culture here. They have come up with ways to pass messages, their own “prison” sign language, how to make lighters, tattoo guns, tattoo inks, hot pots, wine, vodka, and much more. These tricks and trades have been passed down from inmate generations, and they still go strong today.

The first step in making vodka is first making wine… in there they call it Pruno (I guess because it used to be made out of prunes). To make the wine they’ll save the fruit they get; mainly apples and oranges. They will also save their juice boxes.

Once they have enough, they’ll mash up the fruit, put them into a plastic bag, add the juice and maybe some warm water. Some of them might add a little bread so the yeast in it will help it ferment.

They seal the bag and then let it sit for awhile while chemistry takes over.

Now sometimes, officers will find these bags in their rooms, and what do they do with it? They will dump it on the yard. One time, an officer dumped it all over the basketball court, so for a whole week if you wanted to play basketball you played with the lovely smell of rotting fruit in the air.

Once they feel the mixture is ready ( I think they wait a week or two), filter the contents so the liquid is separated from all the pulp. Once they’ve done that… TA-DA, it is wine! Enjoy. Some say it tasted nasty but gets the job done, others say when they make it, it actually tastes really good.

They have the wine, but want something STRONGER. So they go into phase ll… vodka. This step is fairly easy if they have all the items they need.

All you do is take the wine, pour it into a pot, put it over the hot pot and let it boil. Before boiling it though, you have to make a plastic contraption that goes over the pot. It has to be positioned so it catches all the first steam (because thats really the potent alcohol) and lets it drip down into a bowl.

Let it boil for a bit, until your bowl or cup is filled with a clear liquid, or vodka.

Bottoms up!

Do you care about what others think about you to much?

I am definitely guilty at times…        

And when I do, I find myself in a prison I have locked myself in.

I feel most people have locked themselves in this prison at least once. It’s the kind where after every interaction with someone thoughts will flood the mind and sound like this:

 "Did they understand what I said?" "I wonder what they really think." "Should I have said that differently?" "Did I hurt their feelings?" "Do they secretly not like me? "Are they going to gossip behind my back?" "Are they judging me for that?" "Can I really trust them?"

It’s the kind of prison that heightens anxiety, feeds your shame, and isolates your true self from the world.

It is dangerous to stay locked in there for long.

But you see, as someone who holds herself to a standard of living like Jesus in a place where Jesus’s character would seem foolish and wrong, it’s easy to fall into the prison of what others might think of me.

When I don’t live up to the standard of Jesus’s all loving character and setting an example for those around me, I worry that others won’t think of me as Christlike. When I do live up to Jesus’s all loving character, people around me might judge it or misunderstand it. There is no winning here.

I have to remind myself:

Jesus didn’t die on the cross and set you free from sin, only for you to lock yourself up in a prison you yourself created.

Actually, what I have noticed is, every new born Christian has a prison they put themselves in from time to time. Whether its the prison of achieving, the prison of comparison, the prison of anxiety, the prison of unbelief, the prison of validation through relationships, the prison of past hurt, the prison of low self-worth, the prison of unhealthy habits, the prison of pride…..  the list goes on.

But this is not because our faith is weak or because we are not doing it right… it is because we are still affected by the fall- the human condition… That is why God sent his “Helper” when Jesus ascended into heaven.

So how should we break free from the prison’s we put ourselves in?

We call on the helper.

Now notice how the bible calls him the “Helper” not the “Solver.”

“I will send you the Helper from the Father. The Helper is the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father.” John 15:26

I think many of us sometimes call on the helper expecting him to be a solver. Rather, his purpose is to help you see truth, but it’s up to you to believe it. In other words, he will give you the key to unlock the prison door, but it’s up to you to put it into the lock, unlock it, and walk out.

When I care to much about what other people think of me, or what other people might be saying about me…

The helper will remind me of these truths:

It is dangerous to be concerned with what others think of you, but if you trust the Lord, you are safe.” Proverbs 29:25

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2

“Am I saying this now to win the approval of people or God? Am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be Christ’s servant.” Galatians 1:10

“It is better to take refuge in the LORD Than to trust in man.” Psalm 118:8

But of course, this doesn’t mean we should go balls to the wall and not care at all what people think, God did call us to be wise about it:

Be very careful, then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Ephesians 5:15-16

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15

For we are taking great care to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord, but also in the eyes of men.” 2 Corinthians 8:21

It comes down to the heart. We should care what others think about us (to a degree), but not to please people. Instead we should care what they think about us in a way that pleases God, because what people think of us is representative of what they think of God.

It’s a balance between honoring God through the way we live, with the right heart, and being wise in how we do it, as to not stir up conflict or cause people to feel hurt or offended.

I posted awhile back about how where I work is one big balancing act, and this is definitely one of those things I am learning to balance. If you’d like to read that post you can find it here:

In conclusion, if you ever find yourself in your own prison of whatever it may be, let the spirit of truth help you and give you the key. Then take that key, unlock the door, and get the crap out of there.