Re-entry

For weeks now, I’ve been thinking every day about what it will be like to get back home after 74 days on the road (almost THERE!!! see Countdown clock at right!!)

Various metaphors have come to mind: astronauts re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, sailors returning home from sea, explorers returning from an expedition.

But the one I keep coming back to is prisoners returning to the community after incarceration (big surprise, huh?) – because of the vast differences, not the similarities, between that experience and mine.

For 74 days, my main living quarters have been a 19’ x 6’ van – twice the size of an average prison cell. Unlike an incarcerated person, I haven’t had to share my living quarters with a (potentially dangerous) total stranger. No one else has decided for me and told me when I’m allowed to eat, sleep, use the toilet or take a shower. And I haven’t been subjected to arbitrary rule changes about any of that. I’ve been able to come and go as I pleased. I’ve been able to get outside and enjoy sunshine and fresh air whenever I wished. I’ve been able to talk with family and friends any time I wanted or needed to. I’ve been able to visit with people without Plexiglas between us. I’ve been able to give and receive spirit-lifting hugs and other human touch.

As for my homecoming – my “re-entry” – I will be greeted with love and laughter, hugs and kisses, from family, friends and community. I will not face stigma or shame or disgrace. I will not be looked at with suspicion or distrust. I will not be limited in where I can go, what I can do, who I can visit or spend time with. I WILL need to find paying work when I get back – but I won’t be limited in possibilities there, either.

And I won’t have painful, even devastating memories to try to deal with – memories of being grabbed roughly by the arm or hair or back of the neck and shoved up against a wall or across the hood of a police car or onto the pavement. Of being handcuffed and shackled. Of being cursed at, called vile names, treated with suspicion, disgust or even basic disrespect.

I won’t have horrifying memories of being spit on or having urine or feces thrown at me. Of being strip-searched, with probes of oral, vaginal and anal cavities by an expressionless uniformed stranger with a gun and tazer strapped to his or her belt. Of being attacked, beaten, stabbed, shot or raped by other inmates or by those in authority.

Are you shocked? Squirming? Uncomfortable with these graphic descriptions? After weeks of blog posts with lilting descriptions of pleasant landscapes and lovely people, why write about such unspeakable things?

And besides, my situation is different, right? I’m not one of “those people.” I’m not a dangerous criminal or a threat to society.

But here’s the thing: neither are a lot of the people in our prisons and jails. We’ve locked up hundreds of thousands of people for petty, non-violent offenses, and for parole violations. We’ve convicted and incarcerated innocent people. And, according to an in-depth series on American jails and the bail bond system that aired on NPR earlier this year, we have:
“. . . more than a half-million inmates sitting in America’s jails — not because they’re dangerous or a threat to society or because a judge thinks they will run. It’s not even because they are guilty; they haven’t been tried yet. They are here because they can’t make bail — sometimes as little as $50. Some will wait behind bars for as long as a year before their cases make it to court. And it will cost taxpayers $9 billion this year to house them . . . According to the Justice Department, two-thirds of the people in the nation’s jails are petty, nonviolent offenders who are there for only one reason: They can’t afford their bail.”

Yet all of these people, the innocent, the non-violent, the parole violators, those awaiting hearings or trial, will be subjected to some or all of the conditions I described so graphically above – or worse. And those experiences may well scar them emotionally, damage them psychologically, make them bitter or angry, or hurt them in other myriad ways for the rest of their lives.

Now are you shocked? Squirming? Uncomfortable? I certainly am. And I really hope you are, too. Because as long as we are comfortable with (or ignorant of) “the way things are,” we have no reason to try to envision a better way or to work for change.

I’m looking forward to my “re-entry” with joy, excitement and anticipation. And after that, I’m looking forward to figuring out what I can do to help change “the way things are.” Will you join the effort?

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison book tour criminal justice

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