The women file past me into the room. They all wear the same bland prison whites, a pullover top matched to loose pants with an elastic waistband. Most of the women are in their twenties and thirties, and not attractive in the conventional sense. Their collective presence jars me, though I do my best to appear nonchalant. The prison unit, a substance abuse felony punishment facility in Texas that offers treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, claims them for seven to twelve months because of drug possession or DWI conviction. A number of the women are missing teeth, due to crystal meth abuse. Some of the women’s faces betray hard decisions and painful memories – of which I will hear when they begin to speak.
I’m at a graduation ceremony for Bridges To Life (BTL), a restorative justice prison ministry that joins surrogate crime victims and perpetrators face-to-face. All of the women in the room have completed the ministry’s fourteen-week program that coaxes forth self-awareness, accountability, and restoration by requiring participants to engage in rigorous self-evaluation. Small group discussions allow participants to honestly share their stories with one another. The traditional healing practices of confession and forgiveness are used to help inmates examine the effects of their crimes upon themselves, upon their relationships with family and friends, and upon the relationships their offenses have created with the victims of their crimes. (BTL is a volunteer program that is not part of the prison’s in-house drug treatment efforts, but it buttresses those efforts all the same.)
It’s open-mic for this evening ceremony of graduation. Three questions will guide the women’s remarks: 1) How have you changed in the last fourteen weeks? 2) How do you feel now? 3) What do you want to say to the group?
A woman slowly steps up to the wood podium in front of six neat rows of folding chairs, from where her fellow inmates, ten BTL volunteers, the prison chaplain, and I watch her intently. She tries to speak but can’t as tears well up in her eyes. Immediately, a chorus of fingers snapping in-time and raised in the air – as I’ll learn, their particular expression of support – fills the room. The woman covers her face with her hand and wipes her tears. She takes a deep breath and begins: “For the first time in a long time, I’m living actively and not passively. I feel alive again and my attitude has changed immensely. I’m letting feelings about my past go as I’ve learned I need to forgive myself. I feel important to myself again.” This last phrase jars me, but in a distinct manner from the jarring that internally shook me when the women filed into the room. I feel important to myself again – this particular description, the tip of an iceberg of human darkness and light, sets the stage. I will hear variations on the same theme of transformation for the next seventy-five, tear-inspiring minutes.
Released emotions, more tears, and at-the-ready snapping fingers accompany the ensuing testimonies, each one upon its conclusion met with cheers and applause:
“I didn’t feel like I was worthy of change before, because I came here with a lot of guilt and shame . . . but now I have acceptance.”
“My everything has changed – the way I look at others and the way I look at myself. I’m proud of myself. I haven’t been proud of myself for years.”
“For so long, I hated myself and couldn’t forgive myself. But I feel lighter and freer now. The more I tell people about my weakness, the more restored God has made me feel. I have hope again.”
“Before I started this program, I felt like I was a victim. But when we wrote our letters, it occurred to me that I had harmed other people. I was blind, but now I see.”
The letters to which the last speaker refers are confessional letters of apology to those harmed by the offender’s actions. Letters are written to a family member and a victim of the offender’s crime – the letters are not sent but used for small group discussion in the weekly BTL sessions, for the purpose of the offender claiming responsibility and accountability.
Another woman, who will be the final one of the evening at the podium, lowers her head and fights back tears like so many before her. She then gazes up to the ceiling and takes a deep breath. The finger snaps fade and the room is absolutely still. In a voice quiet yet saturated in determination, the woman speaks the following words of profound self-understanding:
“Because of this program, now I remember who I am . . .”
By this time, I’ve come upon an eye-opening realization myself. I see that what these women are sharing, straight from their souls, is the most beautiful thing I’ve witnessed in some time. Now I remember who I am. As a male in the yet male-dominated twenty-first century world, my first glance at women often times, almost instinctively, is one of simple examination for what my eye understands to be beauty or good looks. I don’t say this in a braggadocious way, but in a truthful and confessional way. The women this night – some with missing teeth, and others unkempt in prison whites and freed from having to present themselves to the outside world – remind me that what binds us together more than anything is the common humanity we carry inside consisting of feelings, emotions, and experiences. All of us are in need of the inner gifts of love, acceptance, and support. Outward displays of possessions, accomplishments, and good looks – all of these having positive attributes – are overemphasized in popular culture, often to the detriment of the more important inner gifts.
The woman who invited me to the graduation, Ellen Halbert, told me ahead of time: “You’ll see. The graduation ceremony is incredible.” She was, and is, absolutely right. Ellen is a crime victim and a prominent restorative justice proponent – the prison unit in Burnet, Texas where we’ve gathered for the graduation, is named for her. A volunteer for BTL since its inception the late 1990s, she shared her story with the women during an earlier session of the fourteen-week program. The women were so moved by hearing Ellen’s story that they insisted she come back for their graduation.
As we linger in the room and share refreshments with the graduates and volunteers, I – a preacher – share with Ellen my evaluation of the evening: “You’re right, Ellen. This was great – better than church.” She smiles and nods her head. She’s seen it before and she’ll see it again: The healing power of shared story and testimony to make a new way forward, for bearer and listener alike.
I originally wrote this post after making the prison visit with Ellen Halbert in July 2017. It was published in the Austin American-Statesman later that same year. In 30 years of ordained ministry, this is the most impactful ministry event I’ve witnessed.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”
I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”