KOH2RVA: Day 80

I went to jail yesterday.

I wasn’t sent there, thankfully; I went of my own accord, to see what it’s like, and to see how Richmond’s First Baptist Church might get involved during this year-long, every-member mission trip we’re calling KOH2RVA.

I drove downtown on Broad Street, past City Hall, past VCU Medical Center, down the steep hill into the valley that divides “that” part of Richmond from the rest of the city, and then I turned left on 18th Street, went a few blocks more, and there it was: the Richmond City Jail.

I took this picture from across the street. You can see the razor wire around the perimeter fence, the old jail building, the new construction going up to relieve the severe overcrowding inside (I’ve heard that as many as seven or eight inmates are sleeping in cells built for four). I parked in the parking lot and went in the front door where I was greeted by a friendly security guard and an imposing metal detector.

“Do you have a cell phone?” he said.

“Yes sir.”

“You have to leave it in your car.”

I walked back out to the parking lot thinking, “Next time, leave cell phone in car. Check.” And then I walked back in again. The friendly security guard didn’t make me remove the contents of my pockets. He just waved me through the metal detector and then asked me to stand with my feet apart and my arms outstretched as he “wanded” me. Eventually I was buzzed inside where I waited my turn to talk to the receptionist, who was sitting behind a wall of bulletproof glass.

I looked around. There were heavy iron bars blocking the hallway to my right. To my left was a kind of waiting area, with chairs that looked like molded plastic cubes. Straight ahead was another hallway, more bars, and behind the bars a long line of inmates on their way to lunch. They wore bright yellow jumpsuits. Some wore jumpsuits with broad, horizontal stripes of orange and white like you might see on a highway safety barrel.  Both seemed designed to keep the inmates in their place, literally and figuratively.

When I got to the window I asked for Father Alonzo Pruitt, the Chaplain. He’s really the only person I know at the jail. The receptionist said that he wasn’t in and I didn’t know what else to say. I thanked her, turned, and walked away.

Was my trip to the jail a failure? I don’t think so. I think it was an “orientation tour.” I plan to go back again, maybe many times. You see, I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25, where Jesus says,

“I was in prison, and you didn’t visit me.”

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Click HERE to see Eva Russo’s pictures from inside the jail.  I need to warn you: the pictures are graphic and disturbing, but they also make it clear why some kind of jail or prison ministry is so important.  These people, too, are the children of God, and they might go days or weeks in such a place without being reminded of that.

4 thoughts on “KOH2RVA: Day 80

  1. I think we tend to neglect those that are incarcerated, our judgement of them clouds the calling to us that these are still humans who are hurting and could use the gospel more than ever. I think there’s a great opportunity brewing!

  2. How right you are, Heather! When I worked at the women’s prison in Goochland (then the state Industrial Farm for Women — now the Virginia Correctional Center for Women) way back in the 60’s, it was amazing to me how judgmental many of the visitors were, who came from churches “to help”— what many didn’t seem to realize that those of us closely involved with prisoners often felt “Dear Lord, save me from the bleeding heart do-gooders” who only want to improve their own feelings of “pious service to those poor misbegotten people who really don’t deserve treatment, but we’ll help anyway!”
    We welcomed with open arms those who saw these inmates as simply other children of God who like themselves would have really been without hope except for their belief that somewhere there were others who genuinely cared about them. Obviously, this post touched me in a tender spot, but i do wish people could understand that “difference” doesn’t equate to untouchable!

  3. How right you are Betty Ann, Chuck Colson was one of my favorite persons and now that he is gone I pray that many will become involved as he was. The Angel Tree is so very important too.

  4. Hi, good Doctor Jim. I don’t always agree with you, however, many things you do and write about never fail to touch me. I was glad to learn that you visited the Richmond Jail. When I worked as a State Corporation Commission Commission Bailiff (a misnamed position, actually), I attended some portions of the Richmond Sheriff’s Department training academy some of which were held at the Richmond Jail. Not the most comfortable place to have classes or for someone to visit. It was very “eye opening”. Also, later, I attended the Henrico Police Citizens Police Academy, visiting the Henrico County Jail as part of that training, and attended the Hanover County Citizens Police Academy and visited the Pamunkey Jail as part of that training. The Henrico and Pamunkey Jails are vast improvements over the Richmond Jail yet they are still not comfortable places to be and the idea that someone would get to the point that they have to be kept apart from the rest of the population in that manner is very disturbing. Perhaps in various ways the inmates have failed society’s standards, yet, on the other hand, I had to wonder how society has failed them leading to their incarcertation. I think that Betty, posting above, sort of “hit the nail on the head” about the attitude of the “do gooders”, so to speak. During my tour of the Henrico Jail, I remember chatting with the Chaplain on duty that day. When I asked him about the involvement of churches, he alleged to me (and I do not doubt he was telling the truth) that, with some exceptions, few churches in the area actually want to do anything to help the inmates, that those who do usually make their involvement very brief and are extremely cautious about it. I felt disappointed to learn that. I think that our localities, states and nation could and should do a lot better job of trying to actually help these people, to prevent reincarceration and to prevent someone reaching the point of needing to be in jail in the first place. I understand the churches and individuals wishing to be cautious in dealing with prisoners yet the great need is there and the families affected by their members being in jail are out there, needing help. If First Baptist is going to get involved in ministry to prisoners (and may God bless you if you do), I think that there are two things you should do. First, you and some of the Deacons and other interested members should go through the Richmond Police Citizens Police Academy (I believe that they can arrange for you to do that at the church if you prefer) including (especially) doing some “ride alongs” with on duty Police Officers. Second, Pamunkey Jail, out in Hanover County, periodically offerrs a “Citizens Jail Academy”. I’d contact them and ask them to do a Citizens Jail Academy for you all. I’d also contact Sheriff Mike Wade of Henrico County and ask him to let you all do a tour of both the Henrico East and Henrico West Jails and also ask the Federal prison in the Petersburg area if they will let you all tour it. After doing those things, I think that you will be ready to start carrying out that Matthew 25 mandate of visiting those in prison. If you all do that, I pray for God’s blessings on your efforts. And I pray for God’s blessings upon you, good Doctor Jim. Very Respectfully, Marshall

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