I went to prison recently. It’s a place I have been twice before. All three times I went to tell the same story but each time I was in a different market with a new audience. Usually, I hate telling the same story more than once. It becomes predictable and, therefore, less challenging and exciting. But this story is different.
The story is about missionaries who play sports against inmates. They are from the Saints Prison Ministry. Through sports, they break down social barriers before delivering their religious messages right on the athletic field or court.
“A federal stat I started using with the ministry is about 10 percent of the guys at a correctional institution will go to a religious service but 90 percent will go to an athletic event,” said Wes Brown, a member of the Saints Prison Ministry.
Even though I know the story of Saints Prison Ministry well, every time I tell it, the different inmates I interview and meet enlighten me. Prison is far from my comfort zone. Prior to my first visit to a prison, I only knew one person from my childhood who had been incarcerated. I really had no idea what to expect from inmates. Would they be nice to me? Would they try to harm me? Are they evil? How did their lives take such a downward spiral?
There isn’t one answer for any of those questions but different answers for each and every situation. When I told the story here in Ohio, I went to Lake Erie Correctional Institution, a low to medium security prison in Conneaut. As strange as this sounds, the prison seemed like the sleep away camp that no one wants to attend. They had different programs and buildings around the institution and in the middle of the all the buildings there was an open field with men walking freely, socializing, playing sports, watching sports and exercising individually.
I was escorted by a corrections officer to the softball game played between the inmates and the Saints. While the inmates pulled up a chair for me, I chose to sit alongside them on a bench to watch the game.
The prison was filled with people who committed all sorts of crimes from murder to rape to drug-related charges. For all I knew, I could have been sitting alongside the men who sexually violated me in high school. As absurd as that sounds, I would be lying if I said for a moment in time such a far-fetched thought didn’t cross my mind. Nonetheless, I still wanted to interact with the inmates. I wasn’t there to judge them. Instead, I wanted to listen to and learn from their contrasting perspectives.
Immediately, several prisoners recognized me from the news and approached me with excitement, which catalyzed conversation. I asked an inmate about the worst part of prison. He told me being away from his family was the most difficult aspect and the second was not being able to celebrate the Cavs Championship with the rest of the city. He was incarcerated for three years for felonious assault after a bar fight. He told me his advice to others would be to keep your head down, take care of your responsibilities and make good decisions.
For the story about the Saints, I interviewed two inmates who played in the game against the missionaries.
“It means a lot to us (to play against the Saints)," said inmate Shawn Hutchings. "It means there is someone out there that actually cares about us that can make a difference in our life.”
While I already knew all about the power sports possesses in connecting people, I wanted to try and further understand a population that is less familiar to me. I asked the inmates what was the biggest misconception about prisoners.
”That they are all bad people and don’t deserve a second chance," said inmate Jason Jendl. "There are some really good people and there are some people that you kind of want to stay away from. But there are people that made bad decisions, bad choices and they had to come here to learn from it.”
Both of the men I interviewed had drug addiction problems, which they said resulted in their crimes and their incarceration.
“I was an addict and currently I am going on 2.5 years clean," said Jendl. "But I needed this time to find my life and find a way.”
Hutchings said his advice for others is, “If someone is offering you help, go get it because you don’t want to do 16 years of your life here like I am.”
After further research, I learned that 65 percent of all U.S. inmates meet the medical criteria for substance abuse addiction, according to a study done by CASA at Columbia University. This statistic supports the inmates’ sentiments that a guilty verdict is not always or completely the result of a bad person making a terrible decision but also an inherently good or decent person who lost their way in life.
When I asked Jendl about his dreams for the future he said: “To be a productive member of society, to raise and grow a family and to have a second chance at life.”
Jendl’s dream was simple but meaningful. In talking to him along with the other inmates I realized regardless of the different choices made and the various circumstances in people’s lives, there is a human element that remains. The same emotions that liberate me from my troubles and, at times, also trap me in my problems, such as feelings of regret, fear and hope, are sentiments that permeate through the high fences and barbed wire and in some way or another connect us all.