There have not been any jail breaks from the new Wyandotte County Detention Center in Kansas City, Kan. It is not easy to get in either. The paperwork to apply to provide a program for inmates is extensive, and the waiting afterwards long.
The required training workshop was disappointing. Besides procedures and “Don’ts” the main fundamentalist speaker was determined to put the fear of hell and God in us, and especially fear of the inmates. Entering the inmates’ area requires passing through at least eight locks and two elevators that I have no control over.
I have been interested in doing some kind of jail ministry for many years and always assumed that, if I did, I would work among men . . . and do it when I was older. Now I am older and find myself going in every week to teach, and sometimes just listen to and be with, groups of mostly young women. Probably more than half are women of color and most grew up poor with minimal education. Sometime in childhood or adolescence most were sexually violated.
The women I have met in detention are often as honest and serious about their faith as those I’ve met anywhere. Their struggles are right up front, staring them in the face. Most do not hesitate long to talk about them.
First is that maternal struggle: they miss their children and babies. Many have had them taken into state custody, and even when the women are released, they will not be getting their children back any time soon. Other concerns are how to deal with their drug and alcohol addictions when they get out. Without help, they worry they will go right back to their addictions. Many do, for I meet them months or years later back in detention.
The need for education of the “girl child” (United Nations term) is something I always stress with the young women, as I believe that is the needed path out of poverty and violence. As children, many of these women did not get an adequate education. Since I work at a women’s center I know where they can get basic literacy instruction if they read below fourth-grade level, as many do. Some need their high school equivalency diploma. Luckily, we have an archdiocesan-sponsored community college nearby. I have met many in jail who have attended there, as well as many who dream of someday attending.
Without strong family support when released, the women face a bleak future, at least in the short term. An immediate need upon release will be safe affordable housing, which is hard to come by in this metro area. Employment concerns many of the women, though quite a few of those I see qualify for disability income. Getting a job is a special challenge for anyone with a felony record. The young women I meet are usually in detention for offenses related to drugs and, not infrequently, commercial sex.
I’m often asked what I do with the hour I spend there. Sometimes I just let the Holy Spirit lead me. I always have in hand some poems and short readings. I explain the services of the women’s center and invite them to come. Hints on parenting or finding a sense of self, which just about all have lost, draw interest. As an old teacher I throw in a little social analysis of the causes of poverty and racism as well as criminal justice issues.
Tips on posture when standing before the judge lead into suggestions about accepting and respecting their own bodies. Sometimes I stress the importance of giving something back to the world. And always the Catholic idea of the dignity of each person, and so why we do not abuse, hit, kill or curse each other. It’s a simple way to insert some concepts of nonviolence without actually using that word.
When asked why I visit them every week, my answer is that this is something I can do. I do not recommend it to many other people. I do it because it is a little way I can try to live out the Gospel command to love my neighbor. It is our only outreach ministry from the Keeler Women’s Center where I help out. I have been given many advantages in my lifetime, so this is a way to give away some of what I have. Perhaps it is a way to push the Kingdom forward a little, to share some hope, to encourage, to love.
[Benedictine Sr. Barbara McCracken is a longtime member of Mount St. Scholastica of Atchison, Kan., where she is an associate director of Keeler Women's Center which provides programs and services for inner-city women.]