On Friday the 20th I got the opportunity to enter the Washington State Corrections Center in Shelton, WA. It was without a doubt one of the most incredibly experiences of my life. I am making this blog to share some of the thoughts I have been pondering in the 2 weeks since I entered the prison and to release these thoughts to the world before I enter for the second time tomorrow, August 3rd. So here is a list of my unfiltered thoughts leading up to, during, and after my experience in prison.
I was nervous. Incredibly so. I met the couple I was to be going in with at a Park and Ride in Lacey. I had never met them before but they had been the force behind getting my paperwork approved for entry; a lengthy process even for myself, a 20 year old college student with no record of criminal activity. I had been notified a week prior that my paperwork was approved and given info on where and when to meet them and so on. We began the drive to the prison; picking up a pastor who was entering with us on the way. His name was Bob. We drove through the capitol of Washington and slowly the landscape became more and more sparse as we traveled further away from town. About an hour and a half later we turned onto a straight road, lined with tall trees on each side, and continuing into the horizon.
Finally the walls came into view and my gut turned. It's hard to explain but I felt deep down inside me immediately when I saw the massive spools of razor wire, tall guard towers, cameras, and isolated compound that no human was ever made to live in a place such as this.
We left everything in the car aside from a photo ID and Bible. As we entered the doors guards greeted us and kindly asked us to walk through a metal detector and briefly searched our bibles and notebooks before letting us go on our way. We approached the first barred door which, after receiving signal from another guard, slowly slid open with a grind and a clang. We stepped through the door and it shut behind us with the same sound. We were inside.
We handed our ID over to be verified by a guard surrounded by multiple walls of bulletproof glass; the only opening was a small metal trough in which we put our ID cards. The verification process took about 10 minutes as the guard checked and double-checked that we were all approved for entry. We went through another barred door; and another, until we were in the yard. Men in orange, grey, and khaki jumpsuits milled about in the distance separated from us by 20 foot chain link fences covered in razor wire. We had about a 5 minute walk to the chapel ahead of us so we got moving.
As I sat waiting in the chapel building I contemplated what this experience would be like and if I had the right to be here. I was young, and new to the space of issues of incarceration, but I had a passion for it; was that enough? My thoughts were cut short by the doors opening and the first crowd of inmates bustling into the room. The first one to walk through the door was tall, standing around 6 foot, white, with a shaved head. The most memorable feature of him however was his brilliant, joyful, glimmering, smile. In fact, that smile was a shared characteristic of nearly every inmate coming through that door. There was a palpable joy in the chapel located in a place where it is hard to imagine that joy could exist. Nonetheless these men came in with joy in their hearts and immediately came to greet me. I had never been here before and I was a new face and they wasted no time coming to bid me hello. The man I mentioned earlier, the first one to enter the room, came to me and introduced himself as Aaron and asked me my age. When I told him 20 he whistled with a smile and told me that was the age he first entered prison: now he was 31.
As the room filled with 40 or 50 inmates, a handful of them went to pick up the guitars, microphones, and drumsticks on one side of the room. Another sat down at an electric piano and more still stood eagerly, awaiting the music. Worship started, each inmate playing was a skilled musician with a touch and a confidence like no other. We sang for the better part of an hour before the message was given. The message was simply a reading and commentary on roughly 30 verses from all parts of the Bible. One of the few books inmates have available to them is the Bible; for this reason most of the messages are almost entirely readings so that they can reference them later. Some of the inmates stepped to the front to share their heart or their interpretation of the verses and after the message was given many asked to be prayed for. After the service many of the grown and seemingly hardened men were weeping in their chairs and crying out to God; and they meant it.
When I got home that night I took time to work through what I had experienced. I came to the conclusion that what I had witnessed was exactly how church was intended to look like. A room full of people who look nothing like each other and are from all walks of life who have fully admitted their mistakes, asked for forgiveness, and openly received grace from the ultimate giver of it. Additionally, there was no option to profess their faith silently or undercover or away from prying eyes. Multiple cameras lined the walls of the room, watched intently by guards from around the prison, and every inmate who didn't attend could easily see that this group of men were walking to worship in the chapel. They professed their faith for all to see even in the face of real judgement.
It is hard for people not in prison to sympathize with those inside the walls. It is extremely difficult to get into the prison if you don't have a support network helping you with the paperwork and for that reason many people are oblivious to what many of the people are like there. I am a vocal and open supporter of proximity for understanding. Without proximity to people different than yourself, you cannot help but be bigoted and not understanding of issues they face. Statistics and research can only take you so far but until you take the time to meet, speak to, and ultimately befriend people radically different from yourself, you will be stuck in an echo chamber of sameness.
I believe that no matter the crime or the wrongdoing, if someone wants to do everything it takes to change their life around for the better, no one and nothing has any right to stand in their way and prevent them from doing so. EVERYONE needs love and EVERYONE deserves forgiveness.
I built Forgive Everyone Co on the foundation of unrelenting forgiveness. Being dedicated to the mission of Forgive Everyone means you are dedicated to extinguish the flames of hatred and injustice with love, grace, and mercy. It means you believe that nothing and no one should stand in the way of someone genuinely trying to go down the right path. It means you believe in Forgiving Everyone no matter what the past holds. The past holds memories but it should not hold a person captive. That's what it means to be a part of the Forgive Everyone Team.
If you would like to get involved in prison ministry, feel free to email me @ firstname.lastname@example.org I would be happy to connect you with the necessary resources for you to get involved in some capacity. Or, if you simply would like to learn more about the current incarceration issues in the United States I would be happy to send you our informational pamphlet laying out the current problems and the practical steps we can take to address them. Forgive Everyone Always and have a wonderful week.