[Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a two part blog series. To read part 1, click here.]
Several years ago, a couple in our church asked me if I’d like to take part in their prison ministry. In our town, there’s not only a county detention facility, but a private for-profit prison. I must have had a look of terror on my face because they hastened to say that I’d be talking to women prisoners, not men.
In our rural community, drugs are likely to be the primary reason why women are incarcerated, followed by other non-violent crimes like fraud, larceny and driving while intoxicated. You may not be aware of it, but incarcerated women are disproportionately stuck in jails. According to the Prison Policy Initiative:
Avoiding pre-trial incarceration is uniquely challenging for women. The number of unconvicted women stuck in jail is surely not because courts are considering women, who are generally the primary caregivers of children, to be a flight risk. The far more likely answer is that incarcerated women, who have lower incomes than incarcerated men, have an even harder time affording cash bail. When the typical bail amounts to a full year’s income for women, it’s no wonder that women are stuck in jail awaiting trial.
Even once convicted, the system funnels women into jails: About a quarter of convicted incarcerated women are held in jails, compared to about 10% of all people incarcerated with a conviction.
So, what does it mean that large numbers of women are held in jail — for them, and for their families? While stays in jail are generally shorter than in stays in prison, jails make it harder to stay in touch with family than prisons do. Phone calls are more expensive, up to $1.50 per minute, and other forms of communication are more restricted – some jails don’t even allow real letters, limiting mail to postcards. This is especially troubling given that 80% of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children. Thus children are particularly susceptible to the domino effect of burdens placed on incarcerated women.
I didn’t know any of this when I was asked to come along on a visit with our church’s prison ministry, and I wish I had. It would’ve helped me understand how I could help these women, many of whom lack the tools and resources to work their way back to society. Even worse, the level of despair and the lack of hope was overwhelming.
I did go, and it was very hard, but not for the reasons I expected. I expected to be frightened of these people, and I wasn’t. Not only was I protected by the guards, I doubt seriously if any of these women would have hurt anyone physically. What made it hard was the hopelessness, and the family separation.
We are a religion of hope. Hope and faith are the key to helping these women (and men) find the strength to redirect their lives. We can’t do it for them. Yet if we want to show love and do “to the least of my brothers and sisters” what Christ would have us do; we need to share our own abundant reserves of love. And hope.
Muster up your courage and phone your local jail. Explain that you’re a Catholic and you’d like to visit any of the women who would appreciate some prayers, perhaps a few Bible readings, and some hope.
— Liese Peterson lives in Nevada with her husband and three swimming dogs. She is an international businesswoman and enjoys writing about her experiences as a convert to Catholicism.