When I first get onto my computer for the day, I check my emails, read Heather Cox Richardson, Huff Post, and respond to anything personal or important.
Both of which are very rare.
Usually there are several messages in my in-box that say, “Hello from Jpay. You received a new message from your loved one.” And then the name of the prison inmate who has sent me an email.
Jpay is the communication system that many prisons use to allow inmates’ contact with the outside world. It’s like gmail in a lot of ways except that it costs money to send, there is a word limit, only teeny tiny photos can be sent to the prison (no attachments coming out) and, every word is read and filtered by someone in a position of authority armed with a uniform, a weapon, and freedom.
There is no privacy. Not much dignity.
I look forward to opening my Jpay inbox every day. Some of my messages are strictly business, “Can you help me make a Freedom of Information Act request?”
Others, from my more regular clients, become more personal.
“My auntie died.”
“My daughter graduates today.”
“How was your river trip?”
“I bet on the Steelers because your kids like them. I lost.”
These are the conversations that have me scanning my inbox early in the day. I look forward to them. I want to know my clients as human beings.
I enjoy them getting to know me too.
Within limits. I have learned a few boundary lessons in my years at this job. Treating an inmate as a complete human; someone with likes and dislikes, interests, family, dreams, hardship, intelligence, insight, and humor, brings me joy.
I have one inmate who has 3 kids in college. Another that helps his teenage daughter with her homework on the phone each night.
One man has the same name as one of my sons. He always askes about my boys. Wants to hear what they are doing.
Another man has asked if I will take him on a river trip when he gets out.
And yet another said he wants to live in Colorado after the confinement of a Detroit childhood and the Michigan Department of Corrections because he wants open space and freedom to roam.
They treat me with respect, they tease me, joke around, express concern for the losses that we have endured recently.
They want to see photos of Elvis the Wonder Corgi.
I love these interactions. I so often say, after a phone call or an email, “He is the sweetest man.”
Those who have never interacted with a convicted murderer may question if there is anything redeemable or even remotely humane about a man or a woman locked away for life.
No, 90% of my clients are not saints. Often there has been some sort of criminal activity that helped get them into the position they are in today.
Often, but not always.
And the ones I deal with are claiming innocence (innocent of murder) and I tend to believe some of them wholeheartedly.
I work with one man who most definitely was a major street dealer. Drugs, guns, gold jewelry, exotic animals, dog fights (eww), but he is not a murderer.
If I judged him for his pre-incarceration lifestyle, it wouldn’t matter to me if he shot someone or not. But who am I to judge? I didn’t grow up on the streets. Didn’t have to learn how to survive, protect my family, make a living with no education or opportunity.
So maybe the exotic animals and dog fighting disgust me a bit, but they’re part of a culture that I am fortunate enough to not have to navigate.
My thug with the alligator on the couch sends me a thoughtful essay about the horrors of being locked up during a pandemic. He expresses fear and grief. The alligator doesn’t change those feelings and shouldn’t eliminate him from receiving compassion.
I guess what I am getting at is that these men and women are human beings – no different than you or me when it comes to emotions and love and sadness. They deserve to be treated with as much dignity as I do.
And so very often they receive no semblance of respect from the outside world.
So I see it as my duty and my privilege to do right by them, which means, first, getting to know each person beyond their (alleged) crime.
And a privilege it is. The responses that I receive after showing just a tiny bit of interest in who the inmate is and what makes them tick, is overwhelming. It sheds a glaring light on how infrequently someone is kind to a prisoner.
Their gratitude is palpable.
I am astounded and honored that someone who has never met me and has absolutely no reason to trust the do-gooder that they have never met, would open up and treat me as a friend.
And it brings me so much joy to be a source of humanity. Someone asks about my boys – I return the question. Someone wants to know what the weather is like in September in Colorado – they tell me it’s raining buckets in the Upper Peninsula.
I laugh when a joke is made, I ask about the sick cousin, I grieve when a loved one is lost.
I will certainly tell the one not to ever bet money on anything my kids suggest.
Knowing that I have given someone an ounce of kindness fills me up. Makes my day. Gives me pause to ask the question, “If I enjoy this so much, is it really work?”