Friday, August 24, 2018

Things Pondered After a Jailhouse Visit

Yesterday I went to the Walton County Jail. I had only been there once before, to the morgue to hold up a friend while she identified the body of her beloved son, and those memories came flooding back as I drove in the parking lot. I was there to visit another friend which was almost as difficult as my first visit. This friend is someone I really love, but someone who has made some bad choices over the last couple of years. I was thankful I’d decided to forego breakfast because my stomach was tight with anxiousness. There’s something about a place like that that sets you on edge, especially if you’ve never been and are unsure of where to go and what to do. 

It took a couple of conversations through bullet-proof glass, after passing through secured metal doors that buzzed open and locked behind me, to figure out where I was supposed to go sign in and wait. I drove to the designated parking lot, left my purse and cell phone securely locked in my car and proceeded toward the walkway encased by chain link fencing. As I walked toward the entrance, I was struck out of the blue by a scripture I had learned years ago in an effort to try to parent well…

”When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong.” (Ecclesisates 8:11) 

It seemed like a safe parenting verse way back when, but suddenly I was wondering how many people were behind these walls because they had never experienced this verse lived out in their own lives. No judgment…just the pondering of my heart as I made my way to the door.

I entered the waiting room and passed through the metal detector, armed only with my car keys and a piece of paper with my friend’s inmate # written in the bottom R corner. No name…just a number to mark her place in the system. I filled out the paperwork with my personal information and surrendered my driver’s license through the tray beneath yet another piece of bulletproof glass. The deputy taking all the visitors’ information was the friendliest one I had encountered so far and I marveled at how she had maintained what seemed like joy in the midst of such a barren place. I completed the registration process and took one of the few available seats in the stark waiting room.

There were a lot of chairs in a very small area and I found myself with only a couple of feet separating those who sat across from me. Since it was my first time being in a place like that, I was unsure of the protocol regarding chatting with your neighbors. I’m one who tries to overcome my introverted ways and make a conscious effort to engage others and do what I can to encourage them. Since discouragement and downcast souls seemed to be the common denominator that linked all those who were waiting, I glanced at the floor and prayed for an opportunity to be His hands and feet. A sweet little one year old girl with beaded braids bounced around in circles and captivated the attention of most who were there, such innocence displayed despite her jaded surroundings. Another sweet girl soon joined the room and they played with a carefreeness that belied their reasons for being there…each waiting to visit their Mama. I gazed around the room and noted the tired eyes, many of whom wore their years and stories firmly etched on solemn faces. “Weary” seemed to be the word for the day.

A nervous woman randomly asked if she could sit beside me and I welcomed the chance to strike up a conversation. I asked her who she was there to visit and as she explained her situation, I realized she, too, was there to visit my friend, a step-mom come to see what she could do. Suddenly the “random” request took on a divine appointment and she expressed how thankful she was to not have to experience this  first time alone. So there we sat, strangers but moments before, both anxiously waiting for the same name to be called. Her name was called not long after and we walked through the heavy metal door and waited our turn to be searched with the wand that would signal we were safe to proceed ahead. We entered a cinder block room with 7 cubicles. I know because I found the need to count them, I can only assume, in an effort to bring order to my jumbled thoughts. Each cubicle was equipped with a phone and a heavy glass barrier that would separate us from our inmate. And suddenly there she was, not in the cute clothes I was used to seeing her in, but a state-issued jumpsuit identical to the woman next to her.

Her step-mom talked to her for 5 minutes or so and then left me alone to visit as we tried hard to hear each other through phone lines long out-dated. My friend wept bitter tears of regret and it was heart-breaking to realize this was her reality. I spoke firm words wrapped in grace and reassured her that her current circumstances did not change our love for her. I prayed with her, sensing the Lord was there, stretching His arms through the thickened glass connecting us to one another. Then a guard called “time” and we each hung up our phones, feeling the distance between us deepen, she heading back to a place of scary unknowns and me to the world of familiar. 

I passed back through the waiting room in a sea of mourning souls and heard a lady right behind me sigh and say, “It sure is hard seeing your baby girl in a place like this.” I turned and waited for her to join me, recognizing her need to speak forth the broken pieces of her heart after her painful visit. She shared her daughter's story, intertwined with her own, and I listened to a mama’s heart filled with regret. A mama who now has the responsibility of raising four teenage grandchildren because both their parents made selfish choices and find jail their current home. As I listened to her nervous words spill out I was reminded, yet again, that we all have a story and want someone to care enough to wade into it with us. We talked for 25 minutes, leaning against the chain link tunnel, and as we parted ways I hugged her and assured her I would pray for her.

It took me a minute once I got back to my car to collect my thoughts. I looked toward the building from which I had just exited and asked the Lord to use this time to bring my friend to a place of true brokenness and repentance. I finished my prayer with a sigh of my own and slowly backed out of my spot, my heart a little less anxious than when I drove in. I was thankful the nervousness had dissipated, but I found it had left a heaviness in its place. A heaviness that felt like a cloak wrapped tight and I thought...

I guess that’s what happens when love has to reach through bulletproof glass.

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