"I Was in Prison, and You Visited Me..." 

May 14, 2019

Those involved with the prison ministry visit men who have no visitors for years. If the men are released, they will have no support system of family or friends. How will they survive on the outside, especially those who deal with mental health issues? Did the prison system equip them to find a job to provide a living wage? Are they leaving prison with enough money to pay for clothes, food, lodging, transportation? Prisoners who have friends and family to go back to are not in a better place if their friends and family are felons or others engaged in criminal activity. A former probation and parole officer told me that as a condition of parole, one must not associate with felons or others engaged in criminal activity. Any violation of the conditions of parole and one is sent back to prison.

(A quick, simplified explanation of the difference between jail and prison, probation and parole: Generally, people awaiting sentencing spend time in jail. Jails are usually run by cities and counties and, when sentenced to jail, it’s usually for less than one year. Probation may be ordered as an alternative to a period of incarceration. More serious cases may be sentenced for several years (or for life) to a prison. They may be released early under parole. During probation or parole period, they must meet regularly with their probation officer and be employed or actively seeking employment - and refrain from re-offending. In either case, there are rigid rules, one of which is to not associate with felons, criminals or those engaged in criminal activity.)  

The irony of this system is that, while we value the benefit of not associating with criminals, when we do sentence to jail or prison (even for a relatively minor crime), the individual is then forced to associate with felons and those who engage in criminal activity (past, present and future). 

Supposedly, we incarcerate for the “protection of society.” Prison rates in the US are the world's highest. Roughly one in every 32 adult Americans are under some sort of criminal justice system control. And when they are released, what happens? My ex-parole officer friend says that, not surprisingly, the more time a person spends in prison, the more likely it is the person will return to prison.

Is the system working?

The following books cover many aspects of the prison system and the lives of prisoners. Most of them are new to Plymouth Library. I encourage you to check them out - as I am doing! Read on for a look at a different kind of prison.

American prison: a reporter's undercover journey into the business of punishment/Bauer, Shane, 365.973 BAU

Rethinking incarceration: advocating for justice that restores/Gilliard, Dominique DuBois, 261.8 GIL

Prisoners of age: the Alcatraz exhibition/Levine, Ron, 365.60846 LEV

I bought this book many years ago for Plymouth Library, and I am still waiting for someone to check it out. In 1996, Ron Levine first entered a geriatric prison to photograph some of the prisoners. He went back many times, and this book is the result. Photographs of the men are accompanied by their words, sometimes about their crimes or prison conditions, sometimes just random thoughts. Here is James Veach, 88: “Oh, my gypsy blood got to boiling again. This fellow tried to kill me with a pole ax, and I beat him to it and shot him and he died. Course, I may have killed him, and I may have not. Could have been a heart attack.”

The maximum-security book club: reading literature in a men's prison/Brottman, Mikita, 365.66 BRO

I found this book to be a compelling read. The author, a humanities professor, runs a book club for 9 convicts (they bristle at being called inmates) in a Delaware maximum security prison. Some prisoners leave and are replaced, but for the three years she writes about, six were constants. The reader learns about these men, about Brottman's preconceptions, frustrations and joys, the 10 books the group reads during this time and men’s reactions. Not least, is what the reader discovers about the realities of life within the prison system.

Standard operating procedure/Gourevitch, Philip, 956.7044 GOU

The new Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness /Alexander, Michelle. 364.973 ALE

An American marriage: a novel/Jones, Tayari, F JON

Sing, unburied, sing: a novel/Ward, Jesmyn, F WAR

Unlocked: a journey from prison to Proust/Ferrante, Louis. B FER

All prisons are not built with stone. I am sharing with you a few verses of a hymn written by Densley Palmer, a member of New Pilgrims UCC in Anacortes, with his permission:

What prisons do we build and fill

through prejudice and word?

What lives do we in bondage hold,

their voices never heard?

All prisons are not built with stone,

do not confine with steel,

for prisons built from bigotry

are prisons just as real.

Our expectations build strong walls

for those whom we demean:

denying skills, degrading worth

with bars seen and unseen.

All prisons are not built with stone,

do not confine with steel,

for prisons built from bigotry

are prisons just as real.

What for ourselves;

what have we built

to be our sure defense?

Have we not selfsame walls

put up at liberty's expense?

All prisons are not built with stone,

do not confine with steel,

for prisons built from bigotry

are prisons just as real.

- Densley Harley Palmer, 2005

– Suzanne Sanderson, Plymouth Librarian

Topics: Church Life


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