Love Lessons from Jail in Virginia
My first time in a jail was at two years old — to visit my incarcerated father. Mom was just 22, but this wasn’t her first time and it wouldn’t be her last time visiting him there. My father’s times on the outside were a rollercoaster of church-going, substance use, support groups, petty larceny, repentance and guilt. Recidivism, not rehabilitation, was the way of life. When I was six, four years after this visit, he died by suicide.
My second time in a jail was when I was 22, after being arrested on felony charges of Malicious Destruction of Property. I had the full experience: handcuffs, police car, militant officers, strip-search, jumpsuit and drunken cellmate. I’d learned my lesson and couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Fifteen years later, and under very different circumstances, I’ve been invited to be a guest at the Abingdon Regional Jail in Virginia. It’s an unassuming brick building on a small rise just outside of the picturesque Appalachian town. Inside, our intimate group is led through a sterile maze of grey concrete corridors housing around 1,000 people incarcerated for up to four years at a time.
Armed with staple-free informational packets, I’m there to speak to a group of men in a reentry pod called The Opportunity Program (T.O.P.), a faith-based educational initiative unique to this jail. Out of 100 applicants, these 10 men were chosen to participate in T.O.P. based on both a letter of appeal and exemplary behavior.
Like so many in Southwest Virginia, they’ve been hard hit by the coal bust, opioid epidemic and suicide crisis. They come from a tradition of trauma, as deeply woven into the cultural identity of the community as their characteristic drawls.
We enter the pod, and the double-thick steel door clangs shut behind us, reverberating it’s message of “no escape”. Panic begins to rise in my throat — an eerily familiar feeling from somewhere in the past.
A row of motley men in orange jumpsuits stand before us — each wearing a smile as remarkable as their tattoos. We’re warmly welcomed into their living space with neatly made bunks, a TV area, showers and group of tables piled high with Bibles, personal development books, study sheets and writing utensils.
Despite being under lock and key, they are hope-filled and eager to share their triumphs over broken families, poverty, addiction, past choices and a system built to fail. As I spend time getting to know them, they challenge every stereotype I expected to encounter.
During our hour-and-a-half visit, they listen to my story and wellness training with unwavering attention and eager nods of agreement. They absorb every tool, tactic and truth I present like knowledge-thirsty sponges.
But whatever wisdom I believed I was there to impart paled in comparison to the generous lessons of faith, grace and love which I received from each of these men.
We close the session by joining hands around the circle — the only form of contact allowed in the jail. The men voice individual petitions, offered up in a collective voice, asking for blessings and wellness for every person in the room. It is an unintelligible symphony of prayer and gratitude. As a powerful wave of positive energy washes over me, I’m struck by an odd feeling — I don’t want to leave the jail.
These men are such a sharp contrast to the stereotype assigned to many like them in Southwest, VA. Led by a small but mighty regional collaboration of community organizations — namely T.O.P., Frontier Health, Mount Rogers Community Services and Hands and Feet Ministries — these people reflect the ruggedly breathtaking beauty of the land with a kind selflessness and generous hospitality.
Outside the jail, the mountain air smells like rain. Our group quietly contemplates and expresses a shared desire for an expansion of these much-needed services, beyond the Abingdon Regional Jail and Southwest Virginia, to the rest of the troubled criminal justice system throughout the country.
As if in agreement and affirmation, the clouds part over the jail to reveal a rainbow — a promise of freedom and hope and better things to come. Perhaps it was more — maybe a testament of the power of prayer from a chorus of grateful hearts.