Home Issues and Culture Generosity from behind bars

Generosity from behind bars

It’s always a bit unnerving to walk into a state prison. There are the security checks, the storage of keys and wallets and cell phones, the multiple gates to walk through.

All of that was offset at Fox Lake Correctional Institution on Monday when three of us entered for a program with nearly 200 inmates and staff around issues of domestic violence.

This was a small but powerful piece of the work prison chaplain Deborah Mejchar is doing to connect the men at this medium security prison to the wider community they will return to one day. More on that in a moment.

This day, the men were gathered to present a $1,000 check to Domestic Abuse Intervention Services. They raised the money through a couple of food fundraisers at the prison as well as individual donations from their accounts. Keep in mind that prison wages range from a low of 8 cents an hour to a high of $1.50 an hour, with the average around 30 cents an hour. It is no small thing to raise $1,000.

Nor is focusing on domestic violence a small thing. Many men in prison grew up in homes where domestic violence swirled around them. Others may have been batterers themselves. This is tough territory.

Yet there they were on Monday with a powerful program surrounding their donation. Military veterans formed an elaborate and disciplined honor guard to present the colors. Two men sang a jaw-dropping version of the National Anthem. Native American drummers played and chanted “Women’s Healing Song.” And a prison rock band concluded the afternoon with a poignant original composition by Aaron Harris called “Don’t supposed to be this way,” mourning the pain of domestic violence. “Love can never be the same,” he sang of the broken hearts.

In between, Faye Zemel from DAIS along with Jerome Flowers and me from the Power of One initiative to engage men as allies talked a bit about trauma, masculinity, power, control and the work of DAIS. We thanked the men for their commitment to the cause of ending domestic violence and for the generosity of their contribution.

Mejchar, the chaplain, knows this world well. She was an inmate in the Wisconsin prison system for 20 years. Now she has been a chaplain at Fox Lake for about a dozen years, working to help this generation of inmates transform their lives.

“Criminals are not givers,” she said. “We’re takers.” Yet in the process of doing something good, they get a good feeling and as that is repeated, the good feeling leads to a desire to do more good.

There are a restorative justice program and a diversity enhancement program, mindfulness and forgiveness programs. And then there are the efforts by the men to help others.

They recently made 100 canvas tote bags; knit hats, scarves and mittens; used some of their accounts to buy toiletries and then last week, Mejchar delivered 25 bags each Access to Independence in Beaver Dam as well as services for the homeless in Madison at Porchlight, the Beacon and Grace Episcopal Church.

Some of the Hispanic men at Fox Lake send a contribution every week to Lighthouse Church in Madison. Rev. Alex Gee from Fountain of Life church has done leadership sessions for the men. The Prison Ministry Project based at First Congregational Church in Madison runs the restorative justice program. And New Life Church in Madison donated the instruments that the rock band uses.

As the program on Monday ended, the men filed past Faye and Jerome and me so we could shake their hands and thank them for their efforts to help others. That good feeling that Chaplain Mejchar was talking about was palpable in the energy in the room.

Unnerved to visit prison? Not on this day.