God Lives Behind Razor Wire: Ministering to Women in Prison
by Rev. Maryann De Simone, M.Ed.
It was a warm evening in September of 2006. What was I doing, driving into this place surrounded by razor wire? I had never been inside a prison before. As I’d taken the hour-long drive, I’d found myself wondering if I was crazy even to come here. Could I handle this?
Yet I knew hospital ministry was not my call. Never did like even walking into a hospital. … So, here I was.
I’d had to have a background check even to visit. Now I was learning the routine that would become familiar over the next two years: Put all your valuables in the locker. Make sure you have your quarter to lock it. Sign the roster. Take off your shoes, belt, jewelry, and coat and put them on the counter so the Public Access Officer can check for contraband. Walk through the metal detector. Then go through each gate, waiting for it to be opened by some hidden person in a control booth, one gate opening only after the one behind it has slammed shut.
I promised myself that I would walk away from this place if the energy was too dark to hold, or if I felt afraid. Yet by the end of the evening, I drove home feeling as though I’d fallen in love. How very strange! How completely unexpected.
During the preceding summer, I’d weighed the possibilities for completing my 200-hour Chaplaincy Institute practicum. How would I do this on top of my full-time job as a school counselor? I considered several options, but nothing quite clicked.
Then Spirit nudged me. I was watching a PBS show that included a piece on the women’s prison. Under some conditions, moms who gave birth during their sentences could keep their babies with them, bonding with their little ones and learning more about parenting. Interesting, I thought. Maybe I could mentor some of these new mothers. Years ago I’d been a family therapist and parent educator. At school, I always welcomed the chance to support parents.
So I called and spoke to the volunteer coordinator. It wasn’t going to work; on Saturdays they only wanted people who would bring in their own programs. I had none.
Then I recalled the long message on the prison’s main line. One extension was for the chapel. Maybe this was where I was headed.
I left a message for the chaplain, then called my best friend to talk it through. Susan said, “That sounds great. You’ve already BEEN a therapist. Now maybe you need to practice being a minister!
Chaplain Larry returned my call and invited me to visit the following Thursday evening. If I came aboard, my supervisor would be Mary, the Catholic chaplain, since she was there on Saturdays. On Thursday I could meet her, see the facility, and get a feel for this work.
When I arrived at the prison, Mary greeted me with her warm smile and her no-BS attitude. As we walked through the units, she stopped to inquire about the women we passed. “God bless, Mary,” we’d hear from one or another. Always the return response: “God bless YOU!” Maybe because she was so warmly received, I felt welcomed, too. It felt so right to be there.
That night I left, knowing I’d be back. And long after finishing my 200-hour practicum, I continue to go “inside” most Saturday mornings. As always, I meet with individual women and hear their stories.
A therapist colleague of mine says, “Without trauma there would be no prisons.” I’ve been saddened but not surprised by the deep levels of trauma experienced by these women, so many of whom have been abused in one or more ways over time. Each is both a perpetrator and a victim, many times over. The majority of them also have a psychiatric diagnosis—such as PTSD, ADHD, bi-polar disorder, anxiety, or depression—for which many of them are prescribed “meds.”
When I first spoke with Chaplain Larry, I said I thought my interfaith background would be of use in prison chaplaincy, since I could sit with women of different traditions. He replied, “Most of them don’t care what your religion is. They just need someone to listen.” He knew what he was talking about. I’ve learned, and keep learning, the power of presence—the power of just being with someone, seeing her, hearing her.
I learn over and over how to let go, to surrender, because I hear godawful stories and can do nothing about them. Sometimes it’s about a woman’s history. Sometimes it’s about some rule that would seem insane outside—such as prohibitions on hugging each other, lending or borrowing, or bringing materials in unless they’re for everyone. Although I get why the rules are there, they still feel SO painfully de-humanizing.
The women I have come to know have struggled hard: with addiction; with the kind of deep self-loathing that comes from knowing how much pain you’ve caused your children by leaving them, coming to prison yet again because you relapsed; from the realization that the person you robbed at gunpoint for drugs was probably traumatized for a long time, and that person’s own family also suffered because of what you did; from knowing just how much of your life you’ve “missed” being addicted or locked up, and often fearing more of the same when you get out.
I vividly recall a dear young woman who had been molested by several people and addicted at an early age. Now pregnant, she was glad she was incarcerated so she couldn’t damage her unborn baby with drugs, and scared to leave because she didn’t trust herself to stay clean and care for her child well.
In each and all of my sisters, I know that there’s a pure soul beneath the trauma and the tragedy.
Sometimes friends or family will tell me how good it is of me to go inside the prison weekly. What they don’t get is how much joy there is for me in this work. I take it as a gift from the Holy One, whom I see in the face of each of my incarcerated sisters.
My wish for each of my prison friends is that she sees herself as the Divine, embodied in form. I don’t know how long this will be my ministry, but for now I look forward to Saturday mornings in a place where God lives behind razor wire and has forgotten who She is.