by Dale Russell
Imagine having no space to call your own, no choice over who to be with, what to eat, or where to go. There is danger and suspicion everywhere. Love or even a gentle human touch can be absent. You are separated from family and friends. Trust is almost non-existent. How valuable would it be to you if you could change that in some way?
Key features of the prison environment that are likely to lead to personality change include the chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, frequent fear, need to wear a constant mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid exploitation), and the requirement, day after day, to follow rules and routines.
The most common observations we find after 10 years of visiting prisons include emotional numbing, regrets from family disruption / termination and dealing with the very common issue of distrust. What if there was a way you can help overcome each?
EMOTIONAL NUMBING, BUT THEN COMES ART
Prison will harden you. It can make you more distant, concealing and suppressing emotions. It is who you become, and if you are hardened in the beginning, you become even harder and colder. You become more detached. Many would say, “after years in prison you ain’t the same”.
Our art group at Snake River Correctional has been active for 10 years. It is a great example of how prison culture can successfully be put aside inviting mutual goals and shared purpose. The room where art is created becomes neutral territory diligently protected from life in the hallway.
The artists have developed personal bonds that easily allow interaction, mentoring and safety. Creating art allows them to easily “be somewhere else” as their minds create the setting on canvas. Many have said it becomes the most cherished time of the week. Stories added to the art tell of fond memories, places they would love to see or a personal statement about purpose.
Prison may harden you, but art frees you to be somewhere else with purpose attached. Since 2009 inmate art has generated over $84,000 for Otino Waa Children’s Village and dozens of inmates take ownership in that. Would you like to be part of the overcoming of emotional numbing?
FAMILY DYSFUNCTION, BUT THEN COMES SPONSORSHIP
One of the common stories we hear is the loss of children or the regrets of how a spouse was treated.
One such story is how one man’s family of six children all went into the foster system after he was sentenced. That was 12 years ago, never hearing from them again. We have multiple letters from inmates who agonize over their family and ask us to pray for a wife who seems to have moved on from the relationship or a child headed into trouble.
The unusual opportunity to start over with family is possible. Visions of Hope created a customized sponsorship program that connects inmates and our Otino Waa orphans. That connection is the basis for hopeful relationships.
One such story tells of an inmate who started sponsoring to offer encouragement to the child. What occurred was the boy speaking strong support into the inmate’s life which brought tears when he shared what had transpired.
Stories from other inmates tell of losing family but regaining one when the Otino Waa child refers to him or her as Dad or Mom.
An inmate can sponsor an Otino Waa child for $5/mo. In light of the typical pay for a prison job, the comparison with you would be asking you to take on the same sponsorship for $900/mo. Our promise to the inmate is a matching partner will step up with another $5. Imagine if a silent partner matched your $900?
DISTRUST, BUT THEN COMES CONFIDENCE
The prison atmosphere that governs many lives is an inability to trust others – a kind of continual fear. Many say, “You cannot trust anybody in the joint,” which leads to difficulty in relationships and hindered decision-making. This is what we find within the first few visits to a prison. We are certain Visions of Hope was viewed as suspicious at first. When God takes the lead He becomes a powerful tool to break prison culture. Then things take an interesting turn.
- Video tells the story of how other inmates find purpose in connecting with Otino Waa.
- Stories of orphans overcoming tragedy seem huge in comparison to an inmate’s life experience. Usher in empathy.
- Consistency and integrity speak loudly above prison culture. Return over and over and do what you say you will do and you will get attention.
- No one has ever offered an inmate such relationship across the world that builds hope on both sides. God continues to be so creative.
- Repeat your resolve to not define them by their past. Prison is based on punishment and reminders of a former life. What if you can provide hope and refreshment?
- Scripture mentions prisoners 73 times. The encouragement to an inmate comes in the form of repentance, forgiveness and restoration. Dive into that and watch how a room full of inmates connect with you.
- Be creative with how you present. Deliver info, encouragement, always use visuals, be transparent and surprise everyone with laughter or deep emotional tears.
If you could soften a hardened life, use simple encouragement to change a life or dissolve distrust to redirect a life, would that seem a worthy use of your time or investment?
..…”I was in prison and you came to me.” Matthew 25:36
What if your first encounter with an inmate changes everything you’ve known? When you combine that with an introduction to Otino Waa Children’s Village, your own life transforms as you discover ways to change others.