June 8, 2012
They dont make it easy. The Bureau of Prisons (BoP) doesnt try to make it easy. For several years now, my friend Phil and I have been visiting Jim, in prison. It was hard enough driving three and a half hours from our home in Maryland to the Medium Security facility at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We had hoped it would be easier when Jim was transferred to a LOW Security prison in Hopewell, Va. For some reason, though, the BoP there allows regular weekday visits only from 5 pm to 9 pm. This guarantees the worst traffic on I-95. It means many elderly family members who visit prisoners will have the added expense of an overnight hotelor else drive home late at night, endangering themselves and others.
Fortunately for me, my friend Phil, a former college professor and successful businessman, is the liveliest of conversationalists. Eight hours in the car with Phil is sure to be like a graduate tutorial in political science and entrepreneurship. Better yet, Phil is a brother who knows that all politics and all business are under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
The weather was perfect in Virginia. High, puffy clouds, 70, low humidity. Good thing, too, since we would be marched around in the open. At the entrance to the facility, we signed in. We were each required to fill out BoP questionnaires. We know the drill, or think we do. No wallets, no pens, no cell phones. Only our drivers licenses and a zip-loc bag of quarters for vending machines. No, we are not bringing in guns, knives, explosives, drugs. Sign and date. Give us the register number of the prisoner you are visiting. Stand here. Take off your belt, your shoes. Get wanded. After sullen guards spend some fifteen minutes, they inform us: This is the Medium Security facility. You must go 14 mile away to find the LOW Security unit.
Phil and I go through the whole routine again. This time, they hold Phil up for a pat down. They need a male guard for this. He urges me to go on. Weve already consumed one hour. Finally, Phil joins me in the Visitor Waiting Room. Its bright and cheery. Good thing. Well be waiting there for another hour.
Phil is an irrepressible source of humor in any situation, though. He jokes with Orville, the gentle giant of a prison guard. Do you think our inmate went over the wire? Good grief, Phil, I grimace. Dont joke like that. They may kick us out.
Finally, Jim arrives. The speakers in the cell area are defective. He didnt hear when his name was called. They had to find him out in the Rec Area.
Seeing Jim makes it all worth it. He is beaming with joy. Whatever has been troubling us that day, the long drive, traffic tie-ups, the BoP petty harassment, fades into insignificance.
Jim has just returned from his first trip outside the wire in six years. He had been summoned to the lieutenants office. This is almost never welcome news. But on this occasion, they took him to an outside doctor for a special consultation. First, Jim is put in shackles. Then, hes placed in the back seat of the police car.
Jim is entranced. So this is what America looks like these days. He describes rivers and streams, bridges and highways. He remarks on the new model cars. He last saw a car up close in 2006. He expresses great joy in every detail of his first trip outside the wire.
We talk and talk. Phil leads, then I lead, then Jim leads. Its a round robin conversation. Jim is absorbed with Phils story of his recent 10-day trip to Israel. Its the third time Ive heard Phil on this topic, and Im still fascinated.
Jim was not a believer when he committed his crime. He isnt happy to be in prison, obviously, but he counts it all gain for it is behind this wire that he has come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
What does he want to do when he gets out, God willing, in 2014, Phil asks. Jim explains that he will have to be on probation one year before he can travel outside the U.S. But then, he hopes to go to Israel.
I will pay for your ticket to Israel, Phil says. Jim is floored. So am I. Phil is in that evil one percent weve been hearing so much about. What an amazing and gracious act!
The trip home is a mess. Late night traffic jams, highway repairs on I-95. Down to one lane. And yet, I am elated. I have seen the love Christthere in a prison visitors room.
In HOPEWELL, Virginia.
This morning, bleary-eyed, I read my online devotional from Martin Luther. He sums it up for me:
Let not sorrow dim your eye,
Soon shall every tear be dry;
Let not woe your course impede,
Great your help, if great your need.