Sharing Our Common Humanity
In her article below, Sr Lilianne Flavin OP writes about working with women in prison in Louisiana
Sharing Our Common Humanity
On Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons for more than 30 years, I’ve been visiting women in jail. I never take these visits for granted. I’m humbled and privileged. While the surroundings breathe a kind of toxicity, my encounters with the women are moments when the spirit is awakened, and the vulnerability, beauty, and trust that I experience are rare outside the gates.
The crimes for which the women are accused (but not convicted) run the gamut: drug possession, possession with intent, prostitution, theft, assault, trespassing, conspiracy, armed robbery, murder, accessory to murder, accessory after the fact. They are mothers, grandmothers, teenagers. They leave a trail of sadness on the outside: children unable to cope, family members overwhelmed as they take on extra responsibilities, financial burdens, loss, a great deal of confusion and (often) anger.
I’ve met women who live extraordinary lives of faith – a faith that gives them buoyancy to live above the insanity of their environment. I know women who are haunted by waiting months, even years…. Melissa was arrested when she just turned 20; now she’s 25. There have been countless setbacks and delays. According to her lawyer, she will “walk” when she goes to court in August. What will five years of degradation and humiliation do to her lovely disposition?
I’ve met countless women who are suffering from the scars of physical and sexual abuse from an early age. Many are depressed and traumatized. Some turn to drugs to relieve the pain. Some time ago I sat with Betty in jail. She wanted me to contact her family. That’s all she wanted. After I asked her a few questions, she finds herself telling a story, her life story in broad strokes. The body in front of me is racked with pain and abuse. There’s sexual abuse at an early age, there’s drugs, prostitution, failed relationships. There are children she hasn’t seen for a long time. In telling the story wounds become exposed and they are cleansed of their ugliness. There are tears and a relief about her countenance that would only be of God. When we finish our conversation, we hug amid globs of runny nose, tears and bad odor – a long hug. After talking with some of the other women, I get up to leave. Betty comes to me for one more hug. Someone else comes; she wants one of those hugs, too. And then another person, and another, and another. The whole devastated, dehumanizing place is filled with a lovely Spirit, a Spirit that comforts, includes, unites the liberating Spirit. The deputies in the watchtower smile, and I leave bearing gifts.
Sometimes I walk out of jail feeling like something very profound has happened. At other times I’m plagued with questions: What does it feel like to be targeted by the police? Is their basic crime the fact that they are poor? Is it easier to put people in jail than to deal with systems that oppress? What does it feel like to be thought of as “the problem,” the cause of society’s ills? Do unmet basic needs lead to violence? Is a dehumanizing place the best place to put a person who has suffered abuse?
I’m troubled by the number of women I meet in jail who have no place to call home. And time spent behind bars causes many more to lose the little stability that they had. For many, the day of freedom for which they yearned for months or years turns out to be a nightmare – there’s no home, family is in disarray, no emotional support, nor much needed counselling. The only option for many is to go back to the familiar neighborhoods, where they are preyed upon by drug dealers and abusive friends.
I accompanied Bev for her 8 1/2 years of incarceration – four years in jail and the remainder in state prison. As her roll out date approached, Bev fretted that she had no family that she could count on. I promised that I would be there for her. She came back to New Orleans on a Greyhound bus. It arrived a bit early. By the time I got there, Bev was up front, crying and stricken with fear. A few blocks away was the scene of the crime where she was arrested. She stayed with me for a few weeks. Then we moved her to an apartment owned by Hope House, rent free. She’s slowly putting the pieces of her life together. She’s happy!
As I ponder the lives of the women I meet each week, I find the words of Eugene Debs both inspiring and challenging:
“…years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free…”
Sr. Lilianne Flavin, OP