Reprinted from Consortium News
Here in Lexington federal prison's Atwood Hall, squinting through the front doorway, I spotted a rust-red horse swiftly cantering across a nearby field. The setting sun cast a glow across the grasses and trees as the horse sped past.
"Reminds me of the Pope," I murmured to no one in particular. "What's that?" Tiza asked. I tried to explain that once, when I asked a close friend his opinion of the Pope, shortly after Catholic bishops had elected Pope Francis, my friend had said, "The horse is out of the stable! And galloping."
In September 2015, Pope Francis will visit New York City, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. Tiza and I wondered if he would visit a prison.
"If he does, he should come here," Tiza insisted, "and not go to some showcase place!"
I don't think he'll be able to put Kentucky on his agenda, but it's not outlandish to imagine the Pope visiting a U.S. prison. He consistently emphasizes our chance to choose the works of mercy rather than the works of war: to visit those who are sick, those who are in prison; to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bury the dead. Never to turn our heads, say "it was their own damn fault"; never to choose wars and weapons, the burning of fields, destruction of homes, slaughter of the living.
Women here pray for the Pope every week, their prayers guided by a Jesuit priest, a tall, balding man with a long, white beard and a kindly manner. "He's the one who looks like a mountain man," Tiza once told me.
At the beginning of a 40-day season of atonement called Lent, the priest's message was stark and simple: "Our world is very sick." He asked the women before him to recall how each might feel, as a mother, if her child is sick. "Nothing else matters," said the priest. "You're focused on your child."
He urged us to focus on healing an ailing world with just as much fervor. Following his words, we joined in prayer for the Pope, a symbol of unity, collecting our desires for a world at peace, where people's basic needs are met and all children can thrive.
A few evenings later, while walking up the stairs toward my third-floor room, I heard a woman wailing. "Not my baby!" she cried, in pure anguish. "Not my baby!" She had collapsed to the floor in the middle of a phone call telling her that her four-year-old child had been rushed to the hospital, unconscious. Her closest friends were soon at her side, holding her, soothing her.
Word spread through the prison. After the 9:00 PM "count," women did what they could. Dozens of women filled the first-floor chapel, praying for hours for the prisoner, for her child, for the child's caregivers, for the hospital personnel. Word arrived, the next day, that the child had regained consciousness.
The good priest had chosen a metaphor that women here could readily understand. Gypsi, one of my roommates, saves her funds for phone calls, twice a week, with her small daughters, age 3 and 5. Prisoners can make 15-minute calls, at 21 cents per minute.
One night, Gypsi came back from her call, red-eyed but smiling. Meekah, her younger daughter, can trade song verses with Gypsi. "Momma, let's sing one more!" Meekah had cried. "Please sing another song!" But, instead, a loud beep signaled that the call was over.
I just finished reading an exquisite book, Yashar Kemal's Memed My Hawk (2005, NYRB Classics 50th Anniversary Edition), with a subplot about two women wrongfully imprisoned. Iraz thinks longingly of her son Riza, while Hatche remembers Memed, the young love of her life.
"As the days passed, Iraz and Hatche" shared everything, including their troubles. Hatche knew Riza's height, his black eyes, his slim fingers, his dancing, his childhood, what he had done as a child, with what trouble Iraz had brought him up, the whole story" down to the last detail, as if she had lived through and seen it all herself. It was the same with Iraz. She too knew everything about Memed, from the day he and Hatche had first played together as children."
Yes, it's like that among women in prison. Tremendous focus. And yet, as Kemal adds, "Anyone going to prison for the first time is confused on entering so different a world. One feels lost in an endless forest, far away, as if all ties with the earth, with home and family, friends and loved ones, with everything, have been broken. It is also like sinking into a deep and desolate emptiness."