Real Talk
... min read

Why I Go To Jail Everyday

Written by
Mellisa Sparks
Published on
June 11, 2024

An Eye-Opening Encounter

An intern shadowed me recently as I taught my most recent class at a county jail where I have ministered for over two decades. The intern connected during the class with a young man named Brian, with soulful eyes and insatiable curiosity. As we got ready for class one morning, the intern was shaken. He asked me, “Did you know that Brian broke into an old woman's house? Did you know that he pistol-whipped her and killed her? I just can’t imagine him doing that” …I forgot to tell the intern that unless there’s a compelling reason to do so, it’s better not to look up charges. When I do, I inevitably do what the rest of society does and fixate on the worst thing that person has done, and not the inherent goodness of that person.

The Belief in Inherent Goodness

As a 30-year-old seminary graduate, I brought to my new ministry at a county jail, an idealistic notion that people are inherently good. 21 years and thousands of incarcerated care seekers later, I am even more convinced that each of us humans is inherently good.

Yes, people do horrific things. I have worked with women who have killed their children, men who have raped, addicts who have stolen repeatedly from everyone they know and left their children in dangerous circumstances to chase the next high. To this day, I have never met anyone devoid of inherent goodness.

The Roots of Violence

The cliche couldn’t be more correct. “Hurt people hurt people.” In my time at the jail, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone without a history of deep trauma, often many layers of trauma that might include domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, incest, gang violence, systemic racism. “I saw my brother get shot…” “I told my mom that my dad was touching me and she beat me and told me never to say that again” “I escaped with my children after he kept me locked in a room for more than a year…”

Meeting with Compassion

That violence stems almost always from unhealed trauma doesn’t take away victims’ pain of course. It doesn’t mean violent or other criminal behavior should be excused or ignored. But for me, regarding criminal behavior as a terrible coping mechanism helps me to meet an incarcerated care seeker with compassion and kindness.

The poet Rumi said: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, There is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

The Role of Care

So we meet, in classes and one on one. I share compassion, listen deeply, and sometimes offer ways of coping that won’t result in wearing a scratchy red jumpsuit. I have learned to not attach to outcomes.

Some years ago, I talked with a bubbly young woman the day before she was released. She told me that she was intent on staying clean for her three small children this time. She already had a spot in a residential treatment program. She never made it to the program. She died a week after she was released from a fentanyl overdose.

Another young woman found out that she was pregnant. She was what we call a ‘frequent flyer’ with an extensive arrest history, in and out of jail many times. We talked through her options and she warily signed up for a treatment program. To my surprise, she worked that program diligently and became a peer support specialist to help other addicts and formerly incarcerated people. What a joy it was to do her wedding seven years later witnessed by the son she carried while she was in jail, a son who has always known a clean and sober mother!

The Mystery of Change

These women received similar care, classes, and counseling. It’s an ongoing mystery to me why and how some people can change their behavior and others keep repeating mistakes that are harmful to themselves and others even when they are convinced they want to change. As a caregiver, I trust that my role is to offer moments of kindness and compassion. I cooperate with the great mystery and show up to play my small part in an incarcerated person’s story that likely spans many generations of trauma and violence.

Witnessing Resilience

I continue to choose to provide care at the jail because every day, I have a front-row seat to the incredible resilience of human beings. I get to see some human beings with unimaginable trauma who have done horrible things, figure out how to change their long-held patterns and return to their inherent goodness. If they can learn to forgive, make meaning, and rise from the ashes of dysfunction, I know it is possible for all of us.

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