My Weekend in Prison

I recently spent the weekend in a women’s prison.  It was my first time in prison and I was there to assist with a two-day Catholic retreat.  Around the same time, I was also invited to a movie junket in Beverly Hills to watch a movie, meet the stars, network with others in the media, and then write a review. Since I still have children at home, I pace myself and didn’t feel right about doing both.  I chose prison.

Those two days in prison gave me something not for sale on Rodeo Drive—love.  Love is not what one might expect in prison, but there were a lot of surprises there. For me, it was an insider’s view of the other side of life. I have worked in the social work field, ran a group home for delinquent boys and did foster care–the results of mothers who did not have their act together.  Meeting these women who are mothers, wives, and daughters, humanized the people I previously viewed from a distance with not a little judgment.

Loving Our Neighbors in Prison

As a mother myself, I have never been able to understand women who choose a boyfriend, a drug, or a crime over their children. I’ve seen the results of children thrust into the world without a stable mommy or daddy.  Yet, my compassion for them—the ones who let children down—began many years ago in a social work class.

Contemplating the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, I asked myself how I could possibly muster such love for someone who abused or neglected children? Immediately, I felt a divine answer:  They were once abused and neglected children—the ones you have such a heart for.

Suddenly, seeing the cycle clearly before me, I easily understood how God could still love his children and through such a lens, how I could love them too. Still, I did not expect the flood of compassion and love I experienced for the women I met in prison.

The retreat was an optional activity. Initially, only 25 came. By the second day, that number dwindled to 19. But those 19 were fierce in seeking the Lord. My friend and fellow retreat helper, Shelly, and I got to know four women who sat at our table; Marion, Delores, Jessica and Shandra (names have been changed to respect their privacy).  Together, we grew to love these women who loved God and their family beyond anything we would have imagined. They were not monsters or uncaring mothers but rather frail human beings who are sorry for their bad choices.

No doubt, the women who came to the retreat are not the average prisoner. Every woman I met that weekend, blamed herself for being there, but my heart broke for them just the same.  We cried together for their pain and regrets.

Their Stories

The women at our table often looked for little ways to be nice to us, like bring us coffee at lunch and cookies during a snack time. They felt like friends; fellow sisters-in-Christ with a love for Jesus and one another.

Marion got mixed up with the wrong guy. She thought he loved her.  Looking sadly at me she confided,  “My friends warned me. They told me I could end up in trouble.”  Marion paused with tears in her eyes. “I thought I might get a DUI or something like that, but I never imagined this.”  She said the apartment was in her name, so she is paying the penalty for the drugs that were found there. Her ex-boyfriend walks free.  Yet, I imagine Marion has greater freedom. When asked what times in her life brought her closer to God, her answer was immediate, “Coming to prison.”  She attends Bible study and shared with us the many spiritual books she reads to find God’s comfort.

Delores is thin and soft-spoken. I don’t know what she is in for.  Her “significant other” of 30 years was injured in a horse riding accident and ended up on a ventilator. She had to make the decision to pull the plug, for which her youngest of three children has not forgiven her.

Shandra had been arrested for drugs previously.  She went to treatment and was straight for 5 years then relapsed. During her relapse, she was on a waiting list for treatment when she got busted again. Shandra’s heart breaks that she will be away from her young grandson whom she adores.  Her own son was also sent to prison the day after she was.  She writes and encourages him to turn to God.

Then, there was Jessica. She cried more than she spoke. Several times we prayed together as a group. She prayed about her younger siblings and how proud she is of them and that she hopes they know. She prayed for safety for her younger siblings that they would stay away and be protected from a certain relative—I am guessing some bad influence or abuse must be a factor.

I know that many of these women have had hard lives, but not all. One woman I met was selling meth and cocaine with her husband, (they were not users) bringing it in from Texas.  “The money was so good,” she explained. She knew it was wrong but gave into temptation. She and her husband were sentenced to 5 years. Both have turned to God and often share Scripture passages in their letters to each other.

No Excuses, Just Grace

Often, those with compassionate hearts will consider people in prison and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  But I do not say that.  In my talk to the group, I explained that such a saying would mean they did not get the graces they needed to stay out of prison, but that God favored me with such graces. That is not true.  God gives us all the grace we need for our state of life. And he gives us the graces we need when we repent of our sins and seek him.

Sherry Grace, the founder of Mother’s for Incarcerated Sons, tells the men she speaks to in prison, “God loves you so much that he took you out of the world and brought you to this institution of higher learning, where you can give your life to the Lord and begin to serve him for the rest of your lives.”

The aforementioned couple from middle class, educated families, brought humiliation upon themselves and their relatives when they were caught selling drugs.  But they have repented and are seeking God now. What of all those out of prison who sin in secret?  What of those in high positions who have extramarital affairs, are hooked on porn or have their own drug problems?  Society holds them in high esteem while heaping scorn on prisoners.

God sees all and surely, in his eyes, there are some in prison living in freedom while others on the outside are chained to sin. There will be prisoners who will be saved in the end and those never convicted of a single crime who will spend eternity in bondage.

Christ came to set the captives free. As his followers, we are called not to judge but to love our neighbor as ourselves. I am thankful for a merciful God who forgives and grants mercy to sinners and sets us all free.

Patti Maguire Armstrong

By

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on TV and radio stations across the country.  Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It are both available now. To read more, visit Patti’s Catholic News and Inspiration site. Follow her on Facebook at Big Hearted Families and Dear God Books.

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  • James H, London

    Thanks for this Patti. You did indeed choose the better part, that weekend.

    So strange how being in jail can be a path of redemption. Chuck Colson knew that, God rest him.

  • chaco

    Oh, Patti - Patti – Patti;  Truly, you are rich beyond measure !  ["What good is having the whole world without a soul to love it with ?"] I believe you “Tapped into” the source of God’s Greatest Delight; Fatima shows that “Heaven’s Peace Plan” is for us to “Console Mama” ( “Make reparation for the outrages committed against The Immaculate Heart of Mary.”) I’ve experienced that God’s Greatest Joy comes from seeing His Mother’s smile.[Imagine their Joy after the Resurrection.] Mary has a similar Joy when we(Her children) experience the healing compassion/ mercy of Her Son. The love you ignited, by reaching out to Her Children, brings about what is promised in Joel 2: 25; “I will restore for you the years that the locusts have eaten.” You are a “Lightning Rod” through whom God transmits His healing to those “Grounded” in sin/ confusion.  World peace begins in individual souls/ Hearts.  Happy “New Springtime” ! (“Period of Peace” promised at Fatima)

  • chaco

    Dear Patti,  Referring to you as a “Lightning Rod” is reminiscent of how the children at Fatima knew Our Lady was coming; they saw flashes of lightning.

  • chaco

    Whoa !  I just realized; Mother’s Day is on the 13th – same as Fatima apparitions – same day JP II was shot (and seemingly miraculously protected). How often does Mother’s Day fall on the 13th ?

  • ImmaculataArt

    Thank you Patti, for your generosity of heart….reaching out to prisoners in need of the love of Christ. One of the great corporal works of mercy.  I pray daily for prisoners, ever since my brother in law took me through a large Oregon prison, where he was an administrator many years ago. It is heartbreaking to think of anyone stumbling in life so badly, as to end up in a 7 ft. cell for endless days and nights. I also pray for those imprisoned to their own passions, for whom, we can be Christ…people the Lord puts on our path, for just that.

  • Shirlein

    Dear Patti,
    Thank you for sharing your weekend experience.  How fitting that a mother of 10, would visit mothers in prison.  The stories you shared of each woman at your table are both sad & happy.  Sad that they live with the regret of what they have done to their children and themselves, but, happiness in having found freedom in getting to know Our Lord and His Mother.  I will pray fo rall of these women & their families.

    May God Bless you and all you do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501002865 Tony Frasco

    What a great article and experience.  I’m convinced of 3 things: 1.) Everyone should be a waiter for a year and deal with all types of people 2.) Everyone should visit a prison and share the Good News  3.) Everyone should visit a third world country for awhile.  “Man finds himself through a sincere gift of himself.”

  • Pattiarmstrong

    Thanks for all the spirit-filled and reassuring comments. Tony, I could not agree with you more and I’ve done all three, waited tables, worked in a Third World Country and visited a prison.  All our enriching life experiences. 

  • Pattiarsmtrong

    Oops, should read “are” not “our”. And to think I call myself a writer!

  • Dmaguir

    Patti, your article is beautiful and especially meaningful to me as my son is in prison. He is a wonderful person, who was having a relationship with drugs instead of God. You would not believe how people look down upon you because you were in prison or because your child is. I recently attended a Kairos Outside weekend, which is a Christian based ministry for women who have been affected by incarceration. They also have a program called Kairos Inside, which is a weekend retreat for incarcerated men and women.

    The weekend I spent was powerful and brought me closer to God. I am now getting involved in the prison ministry myself as I know God is calling me to do. kairos men’s “In God’s time”. god has touched me at this time in my life. thank You for your article and for spending time with these women. God’s Grace is enough for all of us.

  • chaco

    Dear Dmaguir,  Wonderful suggestion !  Kairos (God’s Timing) is SOoo much SWEETER  than Chronos (chronological time).  Feeling God’s leading is far superior to “chasing the clock”.  I recently read Our Holy Father’s comment on ETERNITY; He pointed out how it “OVERLAPS” our current existence of “Time & Space”.  It is truly a treasure beyond measure when God gives us “Hors d’ oeuvres” (orderves) of Eternity before “The Heavenly Banquet”.  [ "For indeed, The Kingdom is within you. (Lk 17: 21).]

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Diane-Gold-Reeh/615236298 Diane Gold Reeh

    My husband does prison ministry in Texas.  They have a web page, prisonacts.com.  Check it out.

  • Pattiarsmtrong

    Thanks, Diane. I will take a look.  God bless you.

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