On the outskirts of my hometown, on 400 acres of land sets an imposing building surrounded by barbed wire fencing.
It’s the largest medium security prison in Illinois, housing more than 2,000 adult men. It opened five years after I was born, so I can’t remember ever not knowing about it. It’s out of the way of regular traffic patterns, so if you don’t want to drive by it, you don’t have to. I’ve always thought it odd that the country club is on the same road, not even a mile away. Could two worlds be more different and yet so close in proximity?
Also not far from the prison is a neighborhood of low-income housing, built for the families who move to the area to be near their incarcerated loved ones.
The Dixon Correctional Center is on some of the most beautiful property in the county. A wooded bike path passes the backside of the property. Years ago, before it was a prison, it was a colony for epileptics, then an institution for the mentally ill and a school for people with developmental disabilities. I don’t know as much about its history as I’d like to, and I’ve maybe even gotten it wrong now. But I know that I feel sad and hopeless when I look at the building.
And I’m just on the outside.
“Want to go to prison with me?”
The man who asked was a friend and mentor, a Bible study leader who spent at least one Saturday a month teaching a Bible study in the prison. It was one of his favorite things to do, and he wanted me to go with him.
That was what happened in my mind. I was working as a journalist and I almost never passed up an opportunity to do something I’d never done before. But go to prison? I didn’t know if I could do it, even if my friend was going to be there the whole time.
We met in the parking lot. I almost wet my pants just driving onto the property, certain that I’d mess something up and find myself in some kind of trouble. Because I was a good girl. I avoided trouble like contagious disease. I’d never even had a speeding ticket. The one time I’d had to go to detention in elementary school, I was physically sick about it.
Because I could do no wrong. So I thought.
But there I was. Entering a prison. Metal detector, pat down and all.
I was nervously excited. Maybe a little scared.
All these years later, I barely remember that day. But I know the fear faded. I was welcomed by the men who came for Bible study. They were genuinely glad to meet me and to see my friend. They had wisdom and experience to share. They were people. People who had made mistakes and were paying for those mistakes but people nonetheless.
Reading this book reminded me of that experience and reignited something in me. Something I’m still trying to identify.
Our church is partnering with another church during Lent to focus on injustice in the prison system. You can find out more here. I read the compact yesterday and the first day’s devotional, and I’m appalled at my ignorance. I have little firsthand knowledge of the injustice in the justice system. I know it’s not a perfect system, but there’s more to it than that.
What I appreciate about this Lenten compact is the emphasis on restorative justice, or giving convicted felons another chance at life outside of prison. It’s no easy road, from what I’ve read. In the book I referenced earlier, the author learned that women released from prison in Alabama are given $10, a polo shirt and pants, and a bus ticket back to the place where they committed the crime. And with that, they’re supposed to make a fresh start. Think even of movies like Les Miserables and The Shawshank Redemption. Those aren’t just stories. There’s truth in them.
That prison I mentioned earlier in my hometown? According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, it costs almost $24,000 a year on average per inmate to house them. To me, that ought to be serious motivation to examine how we rehabilitate, who we sentence and what happens when they leave prison. I absolutely understand it’s a complicated issue full of challenges I can’t even imagine.
But, can we do better?
Lent is a season of fasting and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus, who came to free us from the chains of death and sin.
Because we are all in prisons, some of them self-imposed, and He offers freedom to us all.
The Lenten Compact begins with readings in the psalms regarding confession of sin and appealing to God’s mercy.
Because we are sinners. And He is merciful.
And we who have been shown mercy are to show mercy.
I confess: this Lenten Compact made me uncomfortable at first. I already felt unprepared for Lent this year, like I hadn’t given it much thought, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe all I need to do is show up and let God lead me through the season, then take appropriate action. I have no idea what that will look like.
But I’ve already been to prison once, so who’s to say it won’t happen again?