He sets my feet in spacious places. He sets my feet in spacious places.
After the screenings and the x-ray machines and the locking of belongings in lockers with little keys, the heavy steel doors clang shut. I am closed inside a small room between two sets of bars in a maximum security prison. After we sign our names, show our IDs again and get our laminated badges, we will enter.
I don’t know what lives inside — I’ve never been in a jail of any kind — and so I keep repeating words to combat fear rising like clouds in me. The men who live in this facility represent the darkest places of my imagination, and soon I will stand face to face with them.
I cannot imagine what this will be like, but I have no doubt I must go because mingled with fear is a peace and propelling I cannot explain.
Several hours ago, before the drive south in the creaky 12-passenger van, I told my girls about where I was headed, said that Jesus asks us to visit the prisoner.
I tell them about a young man, the son of a family in our church. A man who met God in a desolate, barred place like this one.
I know I will see God there, I tell them, because he promises to bring hope to the hopeless. He promises to answer those who call, for this God is not afraid of the broken, the dark.
Four-year-old Lala prays, “Dear Jesus, thank you for the prisoners. Thank you that Mama gets to go there so she can tell us what God looks like.”
As I prepare to enter, I try to remember I am God’s child, that I am clinging to the hand of the One who lives even here.
A small group of us — myself, my writing group and several board members of the program we are visiting — walk through the center of the Oregon State Penitentiary. One small, roundish guard leads the way, while on two sides men stare at us through glass. Others seem to be crossing our path on their way to somewhere else. I try not to look at them or look afraid.
We walk up a long flight of stairs to the room where the Seventh Step program meets once a month to talk about recovery and hope, where they take responsibility for the pain they’ve inflicted on others and seek to become men so much more than what others believe they are.
The room is the size of a small gym. Around the perimeter are small offices of sorts, created by chain link. Each has a sign — AA, Lakota Indian Club, Sports Club, Roadie Club, Asian Pacific Club, Lifers Club.
Men wear navy blue sweatshirts or denim shirts with the words “Inmate” large across their backs, and they extend their hands and thank us for coming. We pour ourselves water from a big orange jug. A man with plastic gloves offers us cinnamon rolls.
“They look homemade,” someone in my group says.
“We like to call them ‘prison made,’ ” the man says with a wink.
I exchange hellos with several men, and then start talking with the only woman there who’s not come with us. She is a professor of writing at the local community college and teaches a course to the prisoners in this program.
No group of students I teach is more intentional, engaged, thoughtful or willing to tell their stories than these, she says.
“We are publishing our second book,” she tells me. “This one will be filled with Mom stories because no matter what we write about, moms are always woven throughout.”
Her eyes begin to fill with tears at these words, and mine, too, surrounded as we are by scared boys turned men in blue.
“That’s the part that gets me,” she says. We linger with our filled eyes, understanding, us two moms.
I take sips of water.
Then I make eye contact with a man named Doug. We introduce and shake hands. Doug is boyishly handsome, and perhaps a few years older than I, but looks like he’s scraped and scrapped through many liftetimes. Scrolled on his neck are several names, which I assume are his children’s, though I don’t ask.
Doug speaks with kind deliberateness, peppered with occasional shy sidelong jerks of his head.
I ask him about the chain link offices around the room, and he tells me these clubs serve the prisoners and their various interests and that these groups will often join together to raise money. With their $2 a day pay for their prison jobs, with getting Burger King brought in from the outside and doubling the price, they use their shared profits to help battered women, the homeless, kids.
Recently, someone stole a Little League team’s equipment — $1000 worth — and these clubs banded together to raise money to replace the team’s gear.
“Some guys do a lot of good in here, trying to make up for what they did before,” Doug says.
There are a lot of people on the outside who believe you will never change, but you can’t let that get you down, he says.
Doug wants to be a better man. He wants to be the dad and husband his family needs, the one he should have been before, and he’s trying to do that from the inside.
Doug’s 4-year-old grandson visits regularly. They toss a ball in the yard, eat food from the vending machines in the visitor’s area, play with the toys.
“I’m really glad he visits me,” he says, “and my daughter’s actually a pretty good mom. But I want my grandson to know that even though he gets to visit grandpa here, this is not a place he wants to be.”
So Doug wrote his grandson a book. A book about bad choices and punishment and about second chances.
“I’m trying to tell him a story in a way that’s appropriate, you know? ‘Cuz I want him to know, he doesn’t want to be in here,” he says.
Doug met God in this place. And even though lots of people use religion as a mask, and most people will think it’s fake, Doug says, this is real.
“I talk with God everyday, and now that I do, things are changing.”
I ask about the tattoo on his forearm: Psalm 56:4. He says, “I can’t tell you word for word what it says, but I know what it means. It means I have God with me, so man can’t do nothing to me.”
It’s kind of macho, he says, but it’s strong in God, you know, because God protects me.
I stretch my eyes wide as Doug and I talk so tears won’t spill. We talk for half an hour, maybe more.
I meet a man with a shaved head and gentle eyes who transferred from LA County so he could be closer to his dying grandmother who visited him often. She’s gone now, and he tells me how he fills long days. I talk with a man who used to be a pianist and now spends days reading as many books as he can, playing the guitar.
“You should hear him play,” his friend says. “He’s really good.”
The next day, a man will be released with a 4.0 GPA and will go to college on the outside. He stands in front of the group of 70 or so men, and they clap and cheer for him. I wonder how many of these will never leave.
While I am talking to these inmates and to Doug, I think, I have no idea why he is here. And I will not know.
He is a man who has hurt others. A boy who has hurt himself. Who has been broken. Who has fallen. Who is picking up pieces. Who has been afraid. Who is asking for help. Who wants to be whole for his family.
He is like me.
In this moment, in this room with no windows, with Doug, surrounded by men of my fears, there is no barrier between good woman and bad man. Between punisher and punished. Between prisoner and free.
Without dividing walls, all I know, all I really know, is that he and I — we are children of God.
The gorgeous and soulful writer, Amber at The Runamuck, is leading an exploration of voice in writing, in which we use concrete words to show the abstract. This week’s began with the prompt “THE BOY.”