Three times yesterday I was asked, “Why do you do this work?” Or some variation of that question. The final question came at the end of our time at the prison. One guy who had been particularly quiet for the entire night took me aside as we were packing up to go and said, “I know there’s the feminine thing of wanting to help, but I still can’t figure out why you guys would want to spend your time up here with us.”

This isn’t the first time one of the inmates have asked this question. Typically, it comes from a place of wanting to know if we have an agenda. Motives, other than what we say are the goals of our program, for spending time at the prison. Some guys want to know if we are just there to collect their stories to use for our own. Some guys simply have a hard time understanding why, out of all the volunteer projects one would take on, anyone would choose working with inmates. Others have had experiences with volunteers who come in and are demeaning, disrespectful, judgemental and shaming. But when I was asked by this man last night I also wondered if the question has anything to do with their own ability to forgive themselves for their crime. Meaning, if their shame is still too great, perhaps it is difficult for them to accept that we might actually be there for no other reason than we choose to be. For this man, he told us about his young daughter who he never gets to see. So, I wondered if his family has rejected him how that plays into trusting that someone might not reject him — particularly someone who doesn’t even know him.

It is true that in order to go into the prison we have go in with a certain mindset. One that allows us to either see beyond the crimes in the room, or if that is difficult, which it is at times, to not let the impact of learning about a crime deter us from our efforts. The same guy who asked me the question about why I come to the prison, also said, “Despite what these guys say, it’s still prison, you know?” By which I think he meant that when the guys come to our group we see one side of them. He was reminding me that they are all there for a reason, and it’s not just because they are misunderstood. But most of the guys in our group would agree with that statement. They too are trying to reconcile the part of them that is capable of committing whatever crime they are serving time for with the part of them that is still a good human being, a creative individual, a father, a son, a reader, a spiritual man, etc. I watch their internal conflict with all the pieces of themselves play out over the course of our time there. They talk about what led them to prison and then talk about the struggle to serve their time in a way that will leave them better off when they came in.

This guy read me a quick piece of writing before he left, in which he referred to the death of his brother. Because the custody officer was calling for the inmates to line up, and because we don’t ever want to throw the prison off their rigid schedule, I did not have time to do anything but listen to his piece, tell him it was good and wish him a goodnight. This is the hardest part for me about my time at the prison –there’s never enough time it seems to say, “I’m sorry about your brother. What has that been like for you?” Or, “I’m sorry you don’t get to see your daughter. What is that like?” They disclose these painful moments from their past, I get to glimpse a piece of their story, and then we have to say goodbye. It’s difficult.

What I wish I had time to tell him is that I come to the prison because of stories like his. Because I care about the “rest” of his story. The part that doesn’t show up in his DOC file. The part that most others won’t ask about. I believe that all stories deserve to be heard, the full story. So, I keep coming in the hopes that, over time, they’ll be able to share their story — their full story — even if it only comes in small pieces, rushed at the end of an evening and meant to test whether I’m really there for the reasons I say I am.

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