By Julie Anderson
Is this shirt ok? How long is the visit? What will we talk about? These were just a few of our questions as we prepared for a visit to Menard Correctional Center.
No one in our group, board members of Restore Justice Illinois, had ever visited a prison, certainly not a maximum-security prison, and everyone was nervous and apprehensive.
Restore Justice Illinois is working to change the laws that permit life without parole and other long sentences for young people convicted of crimes.
Precious Blood Ministry organized the trip so that the board could meet the people they are fighting for. In September, we headed to Ruma, Ill., and stayed with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ at their Center for Peace, located 20 miles from Menard prison.
The night before the visit, our group expressed concerns. They wondered: would they have anything in common with men who had been locked up for 20 years? What could they possibly talk about?
We made our way through security and headed down a narrow walkway surrounded by tall razor-wire fence to a series of three locked doors that we buzzed for entry.
When we arrived to the visiting room, we sat at tables and awaited an inmate who was assigned to each of us. One by one, the men entered, were seated and introduced themselves. With that, the visiting room became alive with conversation and laughter. We bought them food from vending machines and enjoyed a soda together. The two hours flew by without pause in conversation.
Each of the men we visited was sentenced to life without parole before his 18th birthday, and all of them by now have served more than 20 years. None had ever had a visit from a stranger. They were nervous and excited and eager to make a good impression.
Afterward, board members expressed how impressed they were with the inmates, sharing what had been discussed. One of our group, a retired corporate attorney, discovered that he and the inmate he had met had attended the same high school. Friendships were made, letters have been exchanged and several of the visitors have sent their new acquaintances books. Everyone wants to visit again.
I received a beautiful thank you card from the inmates, and each wrote a few lines thanking us for including them in the visit.
One inmate wrote: “I had a great experience Saturday. Thank you so much, it makes my burden feel lighter knowing that there are crusaders out there fighting for our cause. It truly warms my heart.”
Mine too. My own son, Eric, is serving life without parole for a crime he was convicted of when he was 15 years old. He is now 35.
Reprinted with permission from the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation.