Friday, October 2, 2015

Eyes to see

My Dad taught me at a young age to give a firm handshake and look people in the eyes when speaking to them. It's perhaps the most important thing he ever taught me. People want connection. They want to be seen and known. Giving someone your attention by looking them full in the face, whether a good friend or someone you've just met, shows them that you care for them. But it's hard to care for someone if you never actually see them. 

Back in college I did a short internship in a correctional facility in Jackson, MI. I was taking an abnormal psychology course my senior year at Albion College and the professor worked at the prison. He was looking for brave souls to help tutor inmates. He offered extra credit. Ever the overachiever (but not really in need of the extra points) I raised my hand eagerly to participate, then looked around the room. The room was full of men (like, big football player dudes) with a small scattering of women. One other female had her hand up, too. I recognized her from the education program. I was in the elementary cohort and she was in the secondary group, so we didn't have many classes together, but I'd seen her around. None of the men volunteered. After class was over we got the details from the professor and prepared for our first experience in prison. We were instructed to wear professional but non-revealing clothing, no ponytails, and no jewelry.

My classmate and I drove up to the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility on a beautiful fall day. We were told to wait in the family waiting room and that the professor would come to get us. I remember scanning the room and feeling eyes on us. Everyone kept to themselves, no small talk or chit-chat, just silence and shifting on squeaky plastic chairs. There were young women, mothers with small children, and grandmotherly-types sitting against the cinder block walls. My classmate and I heard the click-clack of the professor's wing tips on the tile and moved with purpose to meet him.

We were ushered through the metal detectors and patted down. We were outfitted with personal protection devices (PPDs)--they're like a pager with a pull-cord. If you're in danger, you pull the cord and a guard comes to get you. Why the device? Because we would be in a large classroom with many inmates at once, and the guards stay outside. It's a law in Michigan that inmates must earn their GED before being eligible for parole, and because many inmates do not have appropriate education to find jobs once released, my classmate and I would be assisting them in preparing for their GED test. These men were highly motivated to complete their work so they could take another step towards release, so they weren't considered dangerous. 

I remember entering the empty classroom after taking a rather humiliating walk through the yard where my classmate and I were relentlessly catcalled. Our professor shrugged and told us to just keep walking. We met the instructor--a woman--and were given a run down of what we needed to do that day. The inmates filed in a few minutes later.

I remember trying to make eye contact, but I was largely unsuccessful. The men kept their heads down. The room was a mix of guys in their late teens through what I guessed was mid-forties. What was most notable to me was the number of vision and hearing impaired men in the room. They got their materials and took their seats. They raised their hands if they needed help. Most preferred to work alone. Some could barely sit still. Many could not read their materials. 

I remember helping a man who was probably near my father's age. He attempted to make small talk and wanted to know about my family. Having been instructed to not say anything about my personal life, I redirected the conversation to the inmate's life outside of prison. He had two teenage kids whom he adored and couldn't wait to get back home to. I soon realized that the small talk was an attempt to divert him from his work for the day: a workbook page on Roman numerals. He couldn't do it. It took every elementary teaching trick in my repertoire to help him through it, and I'm not sure he fully understood it once the page was complete. Roman numerals. Not advanced chemistry or Shakespeare--decoding and adding numbers. 

Age has faded many of the memories of my short time at the Cotton Facility, though I do remember that I got a 4.0 in the class. But I've never forgotten the lessons I learned there: the stakes are high for missing a child's learning difficulties, there are many reasons people end up in jail, and everyone deserves to be seen. 

All of this is to say that before my brief experience volunteering in the prison system I would have written these men off. I would not have looked in their general direction, let alone into their eyes. They were not real people to me. And I'm fairly certain most people would feel the same way. 

This week the question of whether or not states should be allowed to execute criminals came front and center. Kelly Gissendaner, a woman who did not pull the trigger in the case she was sentenced to death for, was executed in Georgia. Alfredo Prieto, a man who's IQ was 66, was executed in Virginia despite open appeals filed by his lawyers. Richard Glossip was granted a last-minute stay in Oklahoma due to a mix-up with the drugs used in the lethal injection. He is scheduled to die in November.

The crimes these three were convicted of were heinous, even evil. And there is no doubt that there should be consequences for the perpetrators of these crimes. That's what our legal system is for. But how can you look someone in the eyes and tell them their life is not worth anything? That an eye for an eye is the only way to right a wrong? Most victims' families will tell you that the execution of the perpetrator does not help them heal. And there is still no proof that the death penalty deter criminals. 

Can Christians who proclaim to be pro-life still be pro-death penalty? And in the wake of yet another school shooting this week can we be pro-guns, too? The culture of violence in this country takes my breath away.

Jesus himself stopped an execution (John 8: 1-11). And I imagine Jesus bent over, drawing in the dirt, as the Pharisees tried to justify her stoning and catch Jesus in a theological trap at the same time. Jesus recognized the woman's sin and did not soften that her actions had consequences. But he would not allow the religious establishment to take her life. And then I imagine that Jesus straightened up, wiped his hands on his robes, looked her in the eyes, and released her to sin no more.

I have intellect and experience. I am capable of grace and compassion. I don't have all the answers. But I do have scripture, ears to listen, and eyes to see. It's time to have some serious conversations in this country. We need to start seeing each other. And maybe we should start by looking inside ourselves. 


  1. Well written, Christina. Much here on which to reflect.

    1. Thanks, Judy! I always know I can count on your encouragement.

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