Recently I had the opportunity to visit a state prison, functioning as the spokesman for a prisoner who was appearing before the parole board in the hope of obtaining parole after spending ten years in the care of the state’s prison system. Before we met with the board, I sat with this prisoner for nearly three hours, accompanied by his wife, his brother, his sister, his minister, a friend, a former cellmate now freed, and a former schoolteacher — all occupying one large table.
Much of the dining hall where we sat was occupied with tables like ours, filled with groups of family and friends, each group sitting with a single prisoner. The noise level was high, as people shared stories and talked excitedly about the possibility of these men being released from prison after extended periods of incarceration.
Because I was occupied with talking to my friend and his family, I didn’t notice for an hour or so that at one end of the large room was a group of prisoners sitting on folding chairs. They outnumbered the prisoners sitting at the tables and seemed to receive more attention from the guards.
When I asked my friend why the other group of prisoners was segregated from our group at the tables, he explained that the other men had no family or friends with them. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at this, but I still was. This was one of the most important days of their entire lives. After many years of imprisonment, these men were appearing before the State Parole Board, where a decision would be made about their release. Moreover, one of the factors weighing in this decision was the stability of the environment to which these men would be released, so often it made a difference to the Board when a man brought a group of family and friends who demonstrated their obvious support for him.
Despite the importance of family support on this critical day, however — emotionally and otherwise — the men on folding chairs outnumbered those at the tables five to one. There were fewer than twenty of us at the tables, while there were more than a hundred men who didn’t have a single soul who cared enough about them to show up on that day to offer support. Is it any mystery how so many people end up in prison? With such an obvious lack of love in their lives, they reach out for anything that will fill their emptiness, and it’s regrettable that so many of the things that fill that void — anger, violence, money, sex, power, and so on — stretch or break the limits of social and legal acceptability.
A great many of us feel tragically alone. But there is hope. We can learn to see this condition in each other, and as we reach out to connect, this deadly sense of separation vanishes. Our emptiness disappears, and we no longer act out in the ways that bring us before the courts and cause us to be taken to prison. Nor do we act out in the ways that destroy marriages and children.
Wherever I go, whether I’m counseling couples or talking to children or visiting men in prison, I’m impressed with how consistently it is “always about Real Love.”