I spent my 23rd birthday in jail

OK. So technically it was the day after my birthday, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it. I’ve been in Louisiana for the past week, visiting an assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents before leaving the country for a couple of years.

Being around family so much, I’ve noticed a number of similarities: brown hair, green eyes, height deficiency, a love of story telling, and a penchant for prisoners.

From an early age, I was fascinated by the criminal justice system. My favorite vacation growing up was our trip to Alcatraz in San Francisco. I bought a book in the gift shop written by Jim Quillen, a paroled prisoner, and read it multiple times. My fascination graduated into a desire to understand crime rates, and I’ve written a variety of pieces on the prison system, death penalty, and root causes of crime.

While most people are confused by my empathy for criminals, my 79-year-old grandmother is not one of them. She has been holding Bible studies in Louisiana jails for years. I’ve heard her stories of broken lives, abuses of all kinds, and, sometimes, restoration and healing.

But I wasn’t ever able to go myself, until today. Getting into jail is hard work. My grandmother has an ID badge stating she is an official clergy of Louisiana parish jails, but I carry no such authority. If I hoped to make it behind bars, I would have to be interviewed and approved by the warden. The entire process took 46 minutes. Forty-five minutes of waiting, and exactly one minute for the warden to glance up at me from his desk and approve the transaction.

From his office, we were whisked away by a uniformed guard and brought through several sets of heavy doors that locked loudly behind us. Then, we were passed off to a sergeant, who inspected our bags and Bibles and led us to the female cellblock. Much to my surprise, she did not accompany us inside. Instead, she opened the door and locked it behind us. I was starting to think my heart for prisoners was akin to a love of stars— best observed from a great distance.

A few of the inmates looked in our direction, most slept. A small group left cards on a table and headed into their cells, presumably to get away from the religious nuts that had voluntarily put themselves in here. While that was true for a couple of them, most were getting their Bibles and pens.

Feeling a little braver, I sat down on the cold metal bench and tried to look friendly. I felt like a voyeur, but I put my hands on the table and made myself feign being comfortable in this environment. A woman brought out a bag of peppermints and passed one to each of us. Prison candy, I thought, what a paradox.

After my grandmother passed out booklets and tracts, which were eagerly accepted, she started the lesson. They listened intently. One woman periodically nodded her head, and finished my grandmother’s quotes of Bible verses. A few looked at me and smiled. As the lesson on perseverance through trials continued, two more women joined our group. We had a full table, and, quite literally, a captive audience. My grandmother preached about how when we are weak, God is strong, and when we fill empty, God can fill us up.

One of things that struck me about the inmates was how exceedingly normal they were. One woman had three college degrees, many had children, and they all had families of one stripe or another on the outside. Their humanity was hidden by orange jumpsuits and unkempt hair, but their sheepish smiles revealed a common decency. As we exchanged pleasantries, I could tell they felt embarrassed. Our conversations could have occurred anywhere in the world but here and seemed normal.

Sitting in that drafty cellblock, I felt the love of God radiating around the room. When Jesus said “whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me,” I think he meant it. And when he talked about setting the captive free, he meant that, too. But we don’t usually live like the Gospel means what it says.

Instead of taking the message to the oppressed, we carve verses in wood and hang them on the mantle in our middle-class homes. But the Bible wasn’t written for decoration but for action. When Jesus talks about visiting prisoners in jail, he means it. While those trapped in metaphorical prisons of addiction and anxiety need Jesus, we can’t stop there. More than 2 million people are imprisoned in the United States, the most in the world, and they, perhaps more urgently than anyone else, need to hear words of hope, grace, and peace.