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Plexiglas Relationships

My friends always tease me because everywhere we go, I run into someone I know. However, I never expected to run into someone I know in the Orange County jail.

It is my first time visiting someone in jail. I am struck by all the people there: dads and sons, girlfriends and boyfriends, husbands and wives, babies and daddies, mothers and sons- so many people separated by pain, by sin, and by Plexiglas. Getting in is a fairly smooth security process. I pass through to a stark, white, lonely hallway at the end of which there is a line.

As I take my place, I see one of my neighbors. She is at the front of the line holding an infant to her shoulder. We greet each other briefly and she moves ahead, presumably to visit her son. I have not seen her son around the neighborhood in a long time. Now I know why.

He’s a sharp kid, very bright. I went with him once to talk with his math teacher. Since then we’ve always had a bond. I remember thinking that someday I would like to name a son after him, Jesse. He is smart, articulate, and personable, and he played sports in school. I thought he was “out of the woods,” but now he’s in jail. Who knows what went wrong. Some would say he was destined for jail based on demographics alone: single mom, low income, Latino. Some would say it was his brother’s bad example. Maybe the system failed him. At any rate, he fell through the cracks.

As a community developer, it is easy for me to blame myself when kids fall through the cracks. I can think of a hundred ways I should have tried harder or done something differently to get through to them. The truth is that I don’t know what it takes to get through to these kids, to convince them that God has a beautiful purpose for their lives. But I’m pretty sure that jail isn’t the way, that it isn’t the agent of rehabilitation they need it to be. How can they be rehabilitated apart from relationships? How do you have a relationship in this place where you talk to people through Plexiglas and han-held receivers? How do you learn to love in a place where no one touches?

One prisoner hardly looks at his wife. He can’t take his eyes off his baby girl. He has a huge smile on his face and he is clearly captured by her, his hand pressed against the Plexiglas toward her. I watch this scene over and over- just like in the movies- hands pressed against the Plexiglas. One couple even kisses through the Plexiglas. I try to imagine what a kiss would feel like with no warmth--just cold, fake glass.

The younger women come fixed up- hair, make up, outfits and with their babies dolled up in their best clothes and combed hair. They all seem to know what to do- where to go and what to say. I don’t. I am nervous and lost. The regular visitors seem to converse easily. Even amongst themselves there seems to be camaraderie, like regulars at a bar. They come every Friday; they call each other by name, visiting with one another like old friends. I eavesdrop to try to figure out what to talk about. What do you say to a friend in jail?

Apparently these are the things you talk about in jail, at least this is what I heard: Pets- “the dog and cat are getting along now, even sleeping together in the same bed,” racing, commissary accounts, birthdays… And then, after the talk of “outside” there is a transition. Voices lower, torsos lean in, and the deeper, more important things begin to be addressed: your mom’s health, court cases, God’s plan for life, your future…This seems to be the basic conversation outline for jail.

The U.S. has more inmates than any other country. The recidivism rate is 60%-and it’s even higher in California. What hope is there? What rehabilitation is there for these young men in this stark, lonely place? In this place there are 76 visiting booths, all full- full of women with their toddlers and babies, full of people making attempts at maintaining relationships in 30 minute intervals through Plexiglas.

As I sit waiting my turn I am mindful that it is Good Friday. I think of Jesus’ ultimate attempt at relationship with us. He said that he came to bring freedom to the captives and release from bondage to the prisoners. He spent this day in prison years ago- humiliated, beaten, and bound. Then he died. Then he rose again. This is the hope- not punishment, not rehabilitation, but a relationship with Jesus. So now when I sit across the Plexiglas and pick up the hand-held receiver, I will have hope to offer the prisoner. I can speak truth instead of despair, truth instead of denial, and a relationship with the Risen Prisoner that transcends isolation, starkness and loneliness. He is the Savior that calls us into deep relationship no matter where we are, no matter what bars, security and Plexiglas separate us from other relationships.

After 30 minutes, the sheriff announces on the loud speaker, “Booth number nine, your visit is up,” and then the goodbyes start. I observe lots of ways people say goodbye: flat hands against the Plexiglas, standing up while still talking, stretching the receiver

as long as possible. One couple says a quick good bye and then the woman walks over to the window where she can see her man go in. They both blow kisses at the same time. It seems like a long tradition, like it is “their thing”, their way to say goodbye.

As I look around at the other 75 visitors, I think of what Jesus said in Matthew 25:36:
“I was in prison and you came to visit me.” In the midst of this stark, lonely place, Jesus is here. Thankfully He is not bound by Plexiglas. He is present with the prisoners. He is present with the visitors. He is present with me. I guess it is true; everywhere I go I end up running into someone I know.





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I love our world- the sights, noises, and flavors of it all. I've found the best way for me to make a difference globally is to be rooted and engaged in my community. Every day is 1 more adventure in loving God and loving my neighbor.