It was nearly three years ago when I first visited Washington State’s incarceration facility for women in Purdy. I was there to work alongside a fellow chaplain for a couple of days. This was in a time when COVID-19 fears prevented religious programs from operating in most facilities around the state, so the women there were feeling quite neglected.
One of the days we walked the entire campus, ensuring we visited each of the units, checking on the incarcerated. Since I was a new face, the women were expressive in their curiosity as to who I was. Initially, and for a long time afterward, I suspected hormones might have been a significant reason for their excitement of this new, fancy-dressed man in their facility. Later, I learned a troubling fact that was likely the main reason.
As I was greeted with much enthusiasm, I was treated with great respect. It was Christmastime, but there was nothing in the units to indicate this — no decorations, no Christmas music, no festive feelings at all. No, nothing on the inside of their living units felt like Christmas at all.
In my mind I had no expectations as to what I would see in there. Still, it did surprise me how many of these women were so young. To me, many seemed like teenagers. Maybe I subconsciously thought the kind of women who would be locked up for horrible crimes would be mean, angry-looking older women. No, they looked just like anyone’s daughters, and most were young.
A lot of them were likely severely depressed. Even so, this was not obvious. They were so excited to see us and talk to us, so I couldn’t detect any sadness. It was extraordinarily rewarding to feel like I had made a difference those couple of days. It felt like I encouraged people who desperately needed it.
A couple months later, I worked alongside another chaplain at our state’s other incarceration facility for women in Belfair. It’s what is called a “camp,” and it is a lower security-level place. The other chaplain was female, and the enthusiasm for a new man with fancy clothes walking with her seemed greater than at the other facility. Again, I thought it was because of hormones.
There we didn’t walk the units but saw them in common areas. Their approach was cautious as if they thought they might get in trouble for acting excited to see me. Still, it was obvious it made them happy I was there — even though they didn’t know me.
Fast forward to recently. I facilitated a large event at a major facility for men, and it was considered quite successful. One of the contractors told me their organization went all out at the women’s facility in Purdy this year, so it was even better than the one I orchestrated. I asked why they went all out for that one, and the answer troubled me, greatly.
He explained that few people actually visit women in their facilities. You see, for some reason, the men have lots of visitors in their facilities, but it’s extremely rare for women to have visitors. It’s like they are forgotten once they are locked up.
Look, I understand women can be so powerful with their words, and when they are angry, they can say things that can seriously drive others away. They are generally more skilled at saying harsh things with grave consequences. I realize some of the incarcerated women might have said things to drive others away. Still, it is very troubling to know incarcerated women tend to get forgotten.
My presumption that they were excited to see me in both facilities was due to hormones might have been partially true. Still, it turns out they were glad to see anybody visiting them. It’s so rare they get a visitor anytime. So, it feels like no one ever comes to see them most of the time.
I would have guessed women get more visitors than men. We would assume they need more emotional support because they are generally more emotional creatures. (Yes, I know people will judge me for writing such truths, but doesn’t that prove my point?) If women have more emotional needs, then they should have more visitors. The unfortunate reality is they don’t. They wind up with even more emotional trauma because they feel forgotten, with few if any visits while incarcerated.
Christians, is there a ministry opportunity here? Certainly, one thing we can all do is pray for incarcerated women, but is there more we could do? Could we join or create a letter-writing thing? Could we join or create a ministry group which goes in and provides a Bible study or support group meeting of some sort? Could we reach out to people we know who have incarcerated women in their families we could encourage in some way?
And if we are neglecting incarcerated women, and they feel forgotten, are we neglecting women in society, similarly? What about busy moms who inadvertently push us away because they keep telling us they are too busy for anything other than mothering. Do we stop reaching out to them and make them feel forgotten? What about the younger ones who go off to college? Do we get so busy we fail to write letters, send care packages, etc., making them feel forgotten by those they used to think loved them? What about the widows we think are “over” the deaths of their husbands after weeks, months or years? Do they, also, feel forgotten?
It would be foolish of me to not think someone might read this who is one of these women who feels forgotten — like nobody cares. If this is you, I’m sorry you’ve been neglected like that. We should be doing better. Still, you can pull yourself out of the funk you might be in by knowing others feel just like you, and taking action to reach out to some of them you know. You can find a new purpose and fulfillment by becoming a source of encouragement for others, and soon you could feel so fulfilled you won’t have time to dwell on your own issues.
From doing full-time ministry for over three decades, I can attest to the fact people can pull themselves out of sadness by choosing to become consistent encouragers to others. If you choose to spend your energy on that, your problems quickly become secondary. Putting God and others first is a fantastic therapy for anyone, struggling with sadness.
Besides, others need us. Let’s find the forgotten ones, and fulfill that need for the glory of God.
“I was in prison and you came to visit me… I was in prison and you did not come to visit me… Whatever you did or did not do for the least amongst us, you did or did not do to me, personally.” – Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 25
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