A pantoum for parashat Noach
A mother poem published in Earth's Daughters

A little bit of prison ministry

Sky and wire. Outside the local jail.

I've driven by the Berkshire County Jail and House of Corrections for years, but until this fall, had never set foot inside. I had thought that it only housed people who were awaiting trial, for a matter of months at most. (Among other things, it's called a "jail," not a "prison," and in my understanding the distinction has a lot to do with duration of stay.) But it turns out that many of the 400+ men incarcerated there are there for two to five years. This facility was build in the late '90s, and dedicated in 2001; it replaced the old jail on Second Street which had been built by Civil War veterans in the late 1800s. By the time they moved out of the old jail, it was housing twice as many men as it was built to hold.

I was called in some weeks ago by the minister who manages pastoral care at this county jail. Two of the inmates had expressed the desire to see a rabbi and had articulated an affiliation with Judaism, so the pastor called me. Shortly before the Days of Awe, I met with him and we chatted about my experience working with inmates. (Short answer: very little, though when I was a chaplain in Albany, I did occasionally enter the locked hospital ward to minister to prisoners who had been hospitalized.) After my application was approved by whatever agency makes decisions about who's permitted to tend to ibmates, I made an appointment to see each of the men.

I'd never actually been inside a house of corrections before, so the logistics of the process were interesting to me. I put my things in a locker, gave my ID to the officer in charge, stood still for an ID photo, waited for the big metal doors to clang open so I could enter the locked corridor, waited for them to clang shut behind me and for the next set of doors to open, entered the visiting room which was faced with a set of mirrors which I'm guessing were one-way glass. I couldn't help filtering the experience through the lens of books I've read, from asha bandele's The Prisoner's Wife to Ted Conover's Newjack.

After a short wait, the first man entered the visiting room. While we met, another inmate received a visit from a woman and a toddler; they took seats at the far end of the room, and we tried to ignore each other, to give each other as much privacy as possible. I met with each of the inmates who had requested a rabbi, one at a time. Neither of them was born Jewish, but both have felt an interest in Judaism and a pull toward Judaism since their incarceration. As far as I know, they are the only Jews, or would-be Jews, at this house of corrections.

With each of these men I talked about Judaism, about their lives, about what makes them interested in this tradition. We talked a bit about Torah and a bit about prayer. Both of them have active personal prayer lives, and talk with God daily. I promised to send them Reb Zalman's translation of the prayer for forgiveness recited as part of the bedtime Shema. They asked about what's involved with conversion, and about Jewish congregations in Pittsfield which they might visit upon their release.

Both of the men are local, so they're able to receive regular visits from family. I get the sense that this is a tremendous blessing -- though also sometimes difficult. One inmate spoke with me about the challenges of maintaining his relationship with his girlfriend. They run up enormous phone bills each week (the prison charges a few dollars for each call, even if it only lasts for seconds) and they argue, sometimes. It's hard for her to understand what his life inside is like. It's hard for him to imagine all of the choices and changes which face her while he's in.

I don't know whether either of these men will pursue affiliation with Judaism in the long term. Perhaps this will be a comfort to them while they're inside, and once they return to the ordinary world they'll discover that the pull was temporary. Or perhaps their yearning to connect with Torah and to be part of the chain of Jewish generations will sustain them through their time in jail and into their lives afterwards. That's not for me to know. I'll do what I can to minister to them, regardless. It's a humbling opportunity.

I'm looking forward to further conversations, and to this new way of being of service to people in my community who are in need.