It is Thursday morning. I walk into one of the halls at the ARC1, the prison unit where I work.
I make eye contact with Adam.2 He is in the corner of the hall, nods slowly, and raises his eyebrows saying, “we meeting?” I nod. He stands up, retrieves his fan a few feet away, and makes his way across the room.
This is our ritual almost every time I’m at the prison.
We make our way to the prayer room, the closest thing I have to an office where I can meet one-on-one with guys.
“How are you?” I ask.
“I feel messed up,” he responds, shaking his head in frustration. He is more flustered than usual.
“Tell me about it,” I say.
Ask how someone is doing at Belize Central Prison and, if the conditions are right, prepare to listen. For a long time.
The men at Belize Central rarely share how they are actually doing. They don’t feel safe to do so. Vulnerability is a punishable offense in the court of one’s peers at the prison. What they say can be – and often is – used against them by fellow prisoners, as a way of exercising control and dominance.
Much of my time at the prison is spent listening, sometimes for over an hour, to men like Adam, about how they are actually doing.
Adam and I have met dozens of times at this point. Adam ponders things deeply. He notices his emotions and innermost thoughts with honesty that amazes me. His emotional depth is matched by an equally deep suspicion of his peers, common to many at the prison. Many of the things he shares with me begin with the phrase: “I’ve never told anyone this, but….” Or, “I can’t trust these guys with this…” As a result, we have built a relationship of trust where Adam can share freely and honestly. And he does.
What he shares is often heartbreaking: the absence of his parents, especially his father, during his childhood; the difficult decision, when he was younger, to leave a secure job and refuse a promotion, rather than reveal that he was unable to read; his deep longing to meet his 9-year old daughter, who was born right when he entered prison, in person.
“I have never done anything good in my life,” he says one day, unable to look away from his past life of theft and deception. Despair, for Adam, often seems inescapable.
But there are days when Adam confides his hopes and desires: to care for his ailing mother; to become a pig farmer; to go back to his passion for fixing cars. And, perhaps his deepest desire: to learn how to read. Over several weeks, we work out how to pronounce words like ‘through’ and ‘compassion’. And I watch a man in his mid-40s slowly learn to read. His confidence in himself – and in his future – radiate out, “like shining from shook foil.”3 Adam hopes that after his time at the ARC, he will be transferred to the prison school, to learn to read and continue his education. For Adam, education is the wellspring of hope he has for himself.
On that Thursday morning, I find out why Adam is feeling “messed up.”
He has just come from a phone call with his 9 year old daughter. He suspects that the girl’s stepfather (who is with Adam’s ex-girlfriend now) was watching her while she was on the phone with him. She sounded different to him, guarded. She does not talk to him for long. Adam does not know the stepfather, nor does he trust him. This is unnerving for Adam. He is angry, his hands gesticulating wildly, and his eyes big, incredulous. He is so clearly hurting. He is so painfully powerless.
All I can do is listen and try to be a comforting presence. I do not have answers.
And then, just two hours later, Adam is gone.
I return from a quick walk and a small group of interns is being led away from the ARC. Adam is among them, as are a few other guys with whom I have worked closely. I ask Adam where he is being taken. He doesn’t know, but he thinks he will be sent to one of the work crews.
The machinery of the prison bureaucracy, with no warning or consultation, has deemed Adam – and his cohort – finished with their program at the ARC. Adam’s great desire, to be sent to the prison school to continue learning to read, goes unheeded.
My mind fills with expletives and condemnations. I am angry at the prison. I am angry with the coldness and indifference of the bureaucracy. I am angry at my co-worker who told me nothing of this move. I am angry that a man striving to be rehabilitated is ignored and simply moved along.
I am angry because I have no control. And I am grieved because I do not know when (or if) I will see Adam again.
Over the next few days, I pour out my frustration and anger in prayer:
Why am I at this prison? What good is it for me to simply listen? Especially when I can’t do anything about what ails these guys? Why should I bother to build relationships with guys if the prison can just move them at a whim?
From the silence that follows:
You are my presence there. It is through you that I can come close to the men at the prison and reassure them that I am listening to them. I am with you in the trenches, in the cells. I am right beside you.
To listen is to labor with Christ. To listen is to receive Christ. In Adam. In the many men who seek to be heard in the small prayer room that has become my makeshift office. In those who share in His crucifixion in this world.
To listen to what is really going on means to enter into what is really real. As Christ did and does. It is to wade into the anger, frustration, and powerlessness of someone else and stay there, irrevocably marked by it. As Christ was and is.
As one of the guys at the ARC recently told me: “You know, Brother Dan, walking the King’s highway: it’s no joke.”
He’s right. I have begun to notice the footfall of Christ, to try to make it my own. It is a difficult highway. But there’s grace there too.
I arrive at the ARC the next week, wondering how things will shift with Adam and the others gone. I pass by Pablo, who is sitting in front of the workers’ dormitory. I greet him with a customary “Hey, how’s it going?” and we catch up for a few minutes.
As we finish talking, I turn to head into one of the halls when Pablo says:
“You know, when you ask how my day is, that’s a part of my recovery too. I’ve gone a year or two in this place without anyone asking, ‘Hey, you good?’ and it makes me feel good to know people see me as a friend and want to know how my day is going.”
My heart fills with gratitude as I walk down the hallway to the next conversation.
- Ashcroft Rehabilitation Center, a prison unit at Belize Central Prison where interns take classes in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and work through various forms of addiction. ↩
- All names are changed to protect the anonymity of the people mentioned. ↩
- “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ ↩