Thursday, July 24, 2008

Wisdom from Someone Who's "Been There"

In my interview with April Brown*, an employee at Presbyterian Prison Ministry and a former inmate at RCCW, April shared many wise words with me. As a woman who has “been there,” April seems to be keenly aware of the challenges facing women who transition from prison to society. The following insights are ones that really stood out to me:

• Women need a sponsor when they are in prison – and not a sponsor who is in it for their own personal well-being.

• The women need to be empowered, not enabled – there’s a huge difference. When we are enabled, our appreciation turns into expectation.

• One really important reality women in prison need to be aware of is how much things cost now, not how much things cost when they went to prison.

• When we are in prison, we think – “If we are liked by staff, then we are.”

• Some women know that they can be safe, protected, and known in prison; these things are not always a reality for them in the real world.

April’s insights bring up several issues. Without a doubt, there is a great need for sponsors to mentor the women, to help them grapple with the reality of the world, and to empower them. But we have to be wary of the motivations of the volunteers. I have met many volunteers who seem to be trying to save their own souls through their good deeds toward women in prison. Many of them are not mindful of trying to minister to these women as whole people, and they actually stifle their development by worrying more about what makes them feel good rather than what is really best for the women.

Another major issue is that sometimes prison is indeed a safer environment than the real world for many of these women. They may feel much more protected in prison than they ever have in their own homes. Many of these women also struggle with self-esteem issues, and being incarcerated probably only makes these issues worse. They struggle to be known, even if it means manipulating others. Many of them have more status in prison culture, than they do in society. And thus their self-worth and existence is often based on being liked by each other and/or the prison staff. Certainly, we must help these women struggle with these deep and complex issues so that they can successfully transition to society and not end up back in prison. And we need the help of selfless volunteers who are truly concerned with the healing and wellness of the women to do so.

(*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.)

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