A Life Contained

A Life Contained March 9, 2006

I went to jail yesterday.

I know the whole concept of me going to jail is probably not so shocking to some of you, but let me clarify that I was there as a non-incarcerated person to visit someone who is, in fact, incarcerated.

To further clarify, I actually do not have much personal experience with jails, so the whole adventure was new to me.

It also involved a lot of waiting in very small contained places, which gave me some time to reflect on my experience.

(And I believe it only fair to confess right here that I started my adventure with a little bit, just a very, very small, tiny bit, of smugness. How cool is it, the thought crossed my mind, to actually be living out a directive of Jesus to visit someone in prison? Alas, I’ve never claimed to be a totally virtuous person; sometimes my limited self is so glaringly obvious . . . ).

So, anyway, I arrived, accompanied by my self-righteousness, at the Arlington County Detention Center (this would be another name for JAIL—not the same kind of “detention” I am quite sure that many of you—not me personally—remember from high school).

After going through quite an elaborate process to be allowed into the waiting room, I was eventually escorted to a very small visiting cell where I waited for about an hour. (The cell under discussion measured about 3 feet by 9 feet. I know this because after a few minutes of waiting patiently I started getting antsy and did things like pace along the edges of the room estimating measurements.)

Very soon into my waiting the other cubicles along the block (that’s prison slang for you inexperienced folks) started filling up and, as I waited all alone in my tiny little space, strangely enough the whole situation became almost like a group exercise.

See, in my cell the imposing cement block walls were broken up with large windows, one facing a booth on the secure side of the facility (where the prisoners sat) and one on each side of the small room in which I sat, allowing everyone of the visitors down the row to see into your booth.

And while the concrete and steel gave the impression of containment, conversations were easily overheard.

As I watched and listened to what was going on around me (honestly, you couldn’t NOT listen—voices bounced off the concrete and echoed down the hallways, amplified beyond any level even vaguely polite) I started to think about how very strange that reality was.

Over the din of conversation I was startled to hear the voice of a little boy two cubicles down. He must have been about 4 years old. Soon after the sound of a heavy door slamming announced the delivery of a prisoner I could hear the little boy’s high, sweet voice call with excitement, “Daddy!!!!”

Their conversation continued from that effusive beginning and it sounded to my ears utterly and heart-breakingly ironic . . . the father asking the little boy if he was being good and following all the rules and the little boy assuring his father, who was decked out in prison garb, that yes!, he was being a very good boy!

As I sat and waited for my own visit, I could see (through two layers of glass) this curious effort to connect. Here were two people who clearly loved each other, engaging in conversation and interaction, talking and listening face to face . . . but at the same time completely cut-off, utterly disconnected from each other.

This strange soundtrack was suddenly and powerfully illustrated when the little boy pressed his four-year-old hand up against the glass and said, “I want to hold your hand, Daddy!” I could see a large man’s hand, green prison sleeve bunched up at the wrist, press hard on his side of the glass, trying desperately to connect.

Even though I myself was sitting in a cell when I observed this, the whole experience made me think that you don’t need to be in prison to live a contained life, a life that is separated from others. That separation may not be a thick piece of bullet-proof glass but the division can be just as impenetrable.

If you live a contained life like this you can pretend, of course. You can say the right words and do the right things, but in the end it’s all just as ironic as a convicted felon telling his son to follow the rules . . . .

Containment limits connection.

I think Jesus knew that anybody in prison might appreciate the opportunity to connect with the outside; maybe that’s why he took the time to specifically remind us to go to jail every once in awhile. But I’ll bet Jesus also knew that prison doesn’t have to be concrete block walls, iron bars and cold glass. Someone just as free as a bird can live a life contained.

I learned from my visit to jail that I don’t want to live this human life of mine like that.

I really want to taste the warm salt of tears . . . I need to feel the brush of another cheek against mine. I want, more than just hearing an effusive Mommy!”, to feel the accompanying tight hug. I want to run toward an old friend and to hold a baby and to feel another hand slapping mine in celebration.

I hope (though I can’t guarantee) that I never end up on the other side of the glass, in jail. But in the meantime . . . for the rest of life on the outside . . . please, no cold glass of separation and containment.

I want to join my hand with another’s in tangible assurance that our lives are connected . . . and that I am no longer contained.


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