The National Catholic Review
Postlude

Today I failed that easy command of St. Paul, Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. While inmates at the prison where I work were smiling and rejoicing, I was on the verge of tears. It happened this way. Shortly after arriving at the prison, I noticed three inmates standing with a correctional officer around a stack of brand new, unassembled cardboard boxes. Today was their release date, and these three inmates were being issued one or two cardboard boxes. Everything the three prisoners owned during their imprisonment would be transferred from dull, gray State of Illinois property boxes to plain cardboard boxes to accompany them to their next home.

For the last three months, the men had been counting: 90 days and a wake-up; 89 days and a wake-up; 88 days and a wake-up. Their obvious energy and smiles revealed their pleasure that they had reached their last wake-up. I imagined their inner voices singing: Free at last; free at last. Thank God Almighty, I am free at last.

Yes, at least three of my 1,800-inmate congregation were happy. Since talking with happy inmates is a rare experience in this prairie prison to which God has sentenced me, I welcomed the opportunity and occasion to talk with those who were rejoicing.

Of one I asked, Dave, who is picking you up?

My ex, he replied. Without pausing, he continued, Unlike other inmates, I didn’t burn my bridges. Although my ex has remarried, we are still on good terms. She is taking me to the halfway house in Alton where I will be living. His air of superiority and boastful tone was not out of character. For several months, I had thought this man believed he was smarter than others and that he was smooth enoughslick is a more accurate termto convince others, even a divorced wife, to satisfy his needs. Dave was rejoicing that he was leaving prison, that his ex-wife was picking him up, and that a halfway house operated by the Salvation Army would welcome him when no one else would. Dave rejoiced. But I couldn’t.

Experience had repeatedly made clear to me that optimism, smooth talking and an above-average intellect are not the keys to staying out of prison. The same teacher had taught me that inmates who lack humility and expect others to do for them routinely return for another term in a state-operated correctional center.

To one of the other homeward bound men, I posed a similar question. Who is picking you up? Chaplain, he said, I don’t have any family anymore. I am taking the bus to my mother-in-law’s house in East St. Louis. I’ll stay there a couple of nights. He went on to explain that his wife had left him and her mother to race down the fast lane with other drug peddlers and abusers. Neither he nor her mother knew where she was. Although his mother-in-law had little more than a couch to offer him, she had agreed he could stay with her. But I can’t burden her. If I get a job, maybe I can rent my own place or at least pay her some rent. With a big smile sweeping across his face, he said, One thing about it, Chap, she is a better cook than any they have here.

Willie was smiling, and I took that to mean he was rejoicing, rejoicing at the prospect of home-cooked food, freedom to find meaningful work and regained freedom of movement. He rejoiced, but I couldn’t.

I knew something about East St. Louis, Ill., where he was going. It is a town with too few jobs, too many dilapidated and substandard houses, and too small a tax base to support even the most meager of community services. Besides that, I had learned from the experiences of others that adjustment to life outside prison takes more than a couple of days. Without help, without a family, without a small group of encouragers and supporters as friends, and without a specific plan for at least six months, many inmates return before they complete their parole period. I wanted to rejoice with Willie, but I couldn’t. I could see past a home-cooked meal, farther down the road than a couple of days.

Of the third man, I asked the same question.

No, I’m catching the bus to Decatur, he replied. I don’t know anyone there, but I’ll be all right. I know I’m not coming back here. I’m 42 years old, not one of these kids who keep coming back. No sir, I’m not coming back. I walked away thinking about these men, their smiles and their future. I wanted to be happy, but I wasn’t.

The man whose ex-wife is picking him up and who has a place to go thinks he is smarter than other inmates and the system. Although he has paid the first installment on his debt to society, I think he has not learned the skills required to stay out of prison. It was his brains, at least his education, that brought him to prison. He used his knowledge of computers and the Internet for the peddling of kiddy porn. If he comes back, I suspect his intellect, wrongly used, will bring him.

Willie is in trouble too. His shortsighted view of the future will undoubtedly blind him to stumbling blocks in his path to a good life. His search for legitimate work will be difficult and discouraging. More likely than not, the lure of quick and easy money selling dope will nullify or override his good intentions.

The third man has a bus ticket, 50 dollars, a destination and a degree of hopebut not much more. He will stay in some kind of homeless shelter until he can manage to rent a room. Until he gets a paycheck, I suppose he will take his meals at a soup kitchenassuming the community at the end of his bus ride has such a place. When negative probabilities outweigh positive possibilities, it is hard to rejoice.

A few hours later, I was in the records office stewing over the endless paper work. One at a time, the three men came into the same room to have their final, exit interview with the field service chief. I couldn’t help overhearing.

This is the 800 number and address of your parole officer. You must notify him by telephone within 72 hours to make your first appointment. Any questions? The inmate shook his head. If not, sign this paper that explains what is expected of you and the consequences of not meeting those expectations. End of interview, end of sentence. I thought to myself: What a send-off! Not so much as a Good luck.’ But each inmate left the room smiling!

All day long I thought about the men leaving prison and about their futureno transportation, no job, no place, no family, no church. I ached on the inside as I imagined the pain awaiting them. But even as I pitied them, I reminded myself of what had brought the three men to prison and how little they had done for themselves in recent months to prepare for their release. My old, hard-nosed, pragmatist self successfully fought back the softy’s sympathetic tears.

As I passed through the gatehouse to the good side of the high chain-link fence topped with razor-edged concertina wire, I recognized man number three, who had nowhere to go after his release. He was sitting alone in the visitors’ waiting room. I jokingly asked him what it was he liked so much about this place that he couldn’t leave. He smiledstilland said the bus to Decatur didn’t leave Litchfield until 7:30 p.m. Thinking about the boredom of sitting in a prison visitor waiting room, just a few feet on the free side of prison, I momentarily thought about breaking the rules and asking if I could give him a ride to the bus station on my way home. He must have read my mind.

It’s better that I wait here, Chap. I think they don’t want guys like me hanging around the bus station too long, and I’m not looking for trouble. I’ll be all right.

I couldn’t argue with such logic, even if I had wanted to. Nothing, not even a pause for compassion, would stop me from escaping the confines of prison on time. Slipping across the parking lot alone and into my little pickup truck, I headed for my nice home, my loving wife, my good dog and a pot roast with sweet potatoes.

Several times that day, I had opportunities to rejoice with those who rejoice. I had wanted to rejoice, but I couldn’t. I simply didn’t see what they saw. Or was it that they didn’t see what I saw? Or could those questions be the wrong ones? Maybe the Apostle Paul would rather we do what we can to assure that a prisoner’s rejoicing is reasonable and well supported by our deedsproviding job opportunities, helping with transportation, being a friend and including him in our church home.

Postlude

It has now been more than a year since those three men were released. Dave, a sex offender, was back in prison within two weeks for a parole violation. At the halfway house, he had picked up a child who had mistakenly crossed the dividing line that separated families from the all-male side of the facility.

Willie was back in a few months. He violated his parole by moving from East St. Louis to another community, where he had found a job. Even though he had telephoned his parole officer on schedule for several months, he was a technical violator for moving without permission of his parole officer. He will serve out his full sentence and then be released again without parole.

I do not know how the third man fared. Perhaps he violated his parole and I missed his return. Or he might have committed another crime and is in a county jail or other correctional center. Or he could be doing welljust as he intended.

John Stahlman is a Presbyterian minister who works as the senior chaplain in a medium security prison in Illinois.

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