More than half the men incarcerated at Angola are serving a life sentence. Most others began doing their time decades ago. There are 72 cells on death row.
Advent is a season for patience and perseverance -- a long looking forward to the happy ending we know is coming soon, but never soon enough. It's always hard to wait, even when the goal is in sight. But what about when there is nothing to wait for? What is life like then?
In October, my mom and I attended a teach-in about mass incarceration that was held at our new parish. The evening focused on the challenges people encounter when they are released from prison. We had the chance to meet ex-cons and hear how they overcame obstacles to re-entering society. Even more, we learned about how they were helping others to do the same. I was so inspired by what I heard that I decided to look for ways to become more involved. So, I emailed the person who had coordinated the teach-in. She let me know that a "Day of Compassion" was scheduled in early December. I signed up online.
With over 5,000 inmates, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is the largest maximum security prison in the country. It's a two-and-a-half hour drive from where we now live, at the end of a road in the middle of rural nowhere. Its cell blocks are surrounded by watch towers, high walls topped by razor wire, and its larger-than-Manhattan acres are bordered by the Mississippi River on three sides. The 400-pound bear that reputedly lives on the grounds is a definite deterrent to anyone thinking of attempting an escape. That, and the gators.
Angola has a long history, and a reputation for harsh conditions that will take more than a few years to live down, if it ever can be. Despite the Louisiana heat and humidity, there is no air conditioning. But there is a museum and -- strangely -- an Angola prison rodeo. (I'm definitely going to that next October!) There is also hospice care for prisoners with terminal illnesses, interestingly staffed by fellow inmates. More than half the men incarcerated at Angola are serving a life sentence. Most others began doing their time decades ago. There are 72 cells on death row.
The Day of Compassion is a chance for people on the outside to share conversation and lunch with the men who live at Angola. Security is, of course, the number one priority. Cell phones are left at the gate. Cars are searched. IDs are checked. All visitors are body scanned.
There were 25 tables of six, and half the seats at each table were for inmates. The conversation topics were sentencing reform, re-entry, and victim/perpetrator dialogue. Certainly, these men had made some very destructive choices in their lives. Frankly, so have the rest of us. Under the right set of circumstances, only God knows what any one of us is capable of. At one time or another, we are all both victims and perpetrators.
But you know what I found at Angola? Not anger or bitterness, but a vibrant community of faith. Many of the men I met had found God in prison. Angola wasn't where they wanted to be spending the best years of their lives. But it wasn't beyond the reach of God's presence or his love. Christmas proves that nothing is.
God sent his Son to set the captives free. The amazing thing is that we can know his freedom anywhere we are. Our circumstances do not need to change for us to change. Healing is available everywhere. Forgiveness is an option every day of our lives. Christ Jesus has come to dwell behind whatever keeps us out or locks us in. That is what the Incarnation means. God's compassion is not for just a day, but for eternity. He never walks past the bars and out the gate, but remains with us, wherever we are. Even if it's Angola.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and serves as a senior editor at Ave Maria Press. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.