No one can imagine the noise of a prison door slamming shut until hearing that noise in person. I never dreamed I would willingly hear that sound until I volunteered to visit inmates at the state prison in Marianna and the Department of Corrections’ women's camp there.
Several of us visit with inmates who, for various reasons, get no other visitors. Can you imagine being alone with only your own survival instincts to guide you, often for many, many years?
I had heard Father Norman Bray speak of his prison visits and how many of these inmates, both male and female, looked forward to a simple visit from someone who wanted nothing in return. When Father Norman died, my love and respect for him told me to continue in his place, on his behalf, though with perhaps a fraction of his knowledge and wisdom. After all, what did I have to lose by spending a few hours a couple of times a month talking (something that most who know me wish I did less of)?
I never realized how these visits would change my own life. I marveled at the simple joy that being treated to a soda while chatting with someone who cares can bring to an inmate hardened by family that is no longer concerned and a church that has deserted a one-time parishioner. Such a visit can bring tears to an inmate’s eyes.
We work through an organization called Prisoner Visitation and Support. PVS is the only organization permitted in all federal and military prisons in the country. The Federal Bureau of Prisons likes our visits because they have found that inmates who receive visitors do better than those who do not.
After a background and criminal investigation, prospective PVS volunteers are cleared to hear that solid steel door slam shut behind us. We have a list of inmates requesting our visits and usually try to visit one-on-one if possible, but sometimes there are several inmates to each volunteer because there are not enough volunteers. Some inmates receive no other visits and are are all alone in life, perhaps because family is unable to travel across country. Our visits usually go quickly as we talk of better times, loved ones, and life's dreams.
We are not permitted to give inmates money, correspond with inmates beyond our visits, give inmates anything except a soda or a snack at our own expense, or ask what crime an inmate committed or the length of sentence. Doing any of these will get us eliminated from visiting in the future.
All we really can give is our ears and our heart. Some inmates tell us what put them in prison. I realized it was only by the grace of God that I avoided jail in my own youth. Some say, "Throw away the key." But should someone be doomed forever for a making mistake that I myself made but wasn’t caught?
If you can't for whatever reason hear that door slam shut yourself, please at least keep all of us in your prayers since we are all God's people, for better or for worse.
Carl Williams is a PVS volunteer from St. Luke’s, Marianna.