by Mike Donovan, staff member of PBMR
Before dawn on Christmas morning, having gone to Mass on Christmas Eve, I left on my annual Christ-mastime prison road trip. Living alone, far away from my nearest family, I very much appreciate the importance of these visits to the young men I see on these trips, who are separated from those they love. This year’s Christmastime trip took me to the adult correctional centers of Stateville in Joliet, Hill in Galesburg, Western in Mt. Sterling, and the men’s prison in Centralia, Illinois.
During my visits, I listened as Arturo told me of his frustration of never hearing from his mother, despite him writing to her every day for the last month. He also expressed concern for his father’s health, because he hadn’t visited in a long time, and Arturo was unable to reach him by phone. I met Arturo when he was 15 years old, and he has 19 years left on a 27 year sentence.
The next day, I also visited Victor at the same facility. He was a little nervous because he was finally going to see his father for the first time in seven years. A gang leader, his Dad was recently released from prison and finally cleared to visit his son. Of course, it was his father’s influence that precipitated Victor joining the same gang at age nine! Victor has 17 more years behind bars.
At my next stop, Jesús expressed disappointment that he received no family visits in 2013. I was his lone visitor throughout the year. He worries about becoming disconnected from his family, realizing their importance to his successful re-entry—even if that re-entry is still eleven years away.
The usually optimistic Chaz was the next inmate I saw, but even his spirits were deflated. He had just returned to general population after two weeks in segregation. Those two weeks in segregation resulted in him being dropped from the two college courses he was taking. He was within two weeks of acing those courses. Again, Chaz had no visits from his mother or sister in 2013, nor did they answer his phone calls. Chaz has 18 years before his release, a long time to be alone in the world.
After my trip to Mt. Sterling, it was on to Joliet where Reginald was waiting after winning the appeal of his case. The State now has to decide if they are going to contest his successful appeal. Despite this potentially good news, which would result in his release, he was already worrying about where he could live upon re-entry. Before his incarceration he lived with his father, who died while he was locked up. He is estranged from his mother who lives in Atlanta. He has nowhere to go, no job skills, and he will leave prison with no money.
I ended my trip in Centralia, visiting the only young man who receives a minimum of one visit a month from his parents. The trip from Chicago is five hours, but for Alejandro, the love and support of his parents makes all the difference. Upon his release in two years, he’ll have a loving family to go home to.
It is during these visits with inmates—who I met when they were “kids”—that I feel closest to God. I can see God’s face in these young men; I can see the goodness in them. It is easy to see that they too are children of God. I always go home from these visits inspired by the patience, perseverance, strength and courage of these young men. Despite the indignities and injustices they experience while incarcerated, I am always amazed that they never give up on themselves. Despite being disconnected, estranged, and separated by distance from their families, they do no give up on their families or on God. I am honored to listen to their stories as part of our ministry of presence and accompaniment.