A Prison Dilemma – Jim Walton.
The scene can be best described as a “minimally controlled celebration,” as a hundred men of all shapes and sizes, decorated with an assortment of fascinating tattoos and dressed in their best white prison uniforms, greeted us as their special guests. As a volunteer executive, I was surprised by the clapping, cheering and “swinging to the music” as we made our way into the prisoner education room at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Estes Unit in Venus.
The loud, upbeat music echoed off the cinder block walls and concrete floor, giving me the impression that it may have been a long time since these men had an occasion (and permission) to celebrate anything. Some of the volunteers and prisoners took the initial intimidating step to shake hands and introduce themselves. The barriers dropped, and it felt like we all were there to have a great time getting to know one another.
Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) volunteers donate a half-day of their time to intentionally “go into prison,” and, like me, many are reminded — or realize for the first time — how close we are to our incarcerated brothers. It’s one of those experiences that is both hard to forget and hard to describe. Literally, you have to be there.
Wilshire’s budget supports this faith-based prisoner re-entry education and support program, and several Wilshire members support PEP individually, investing time going into prisons to meet with PEP clients to provide real-world, values-based business development skill training. As clients anticipate parole and release, Wilshire’s investment supports staff educators, counselors, textbook purchases, curriculum development and post-release housing. Volunteers provide their time and talent to help prisoner participants develop plans and visions for a post-incarceration life for themselves and their families.
There is a dilemma created by this intentionally designed meeting between strangers. It is too obvious to say the volunteers will get to leave at the end of the day, reestablishing the wide gulf that exists between being “free” and being incarcerated. Furthermore, each new relationship between a prisoner and a volunteer provides a few key moments when it may be slightly unclear which person is “incarcerated” and which is receiving or giving to the other. While making the one-hour drive back to Dallas, it isn’t too hard to understand how powerful Jesus’ message (Luke 4:18-21) really is, setting us all free.
The PEP in-prison experience is something every volunteer should experience, but there is an opportunity for Wilshire volunteers right here in Dallas, on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., when ex-prisoners attend PEP’s eSchool. Every week there is an opportunity to welcome, engage, love and encourage recently released men on their intimidating trek back into society. They need life skills. They need community. They need wisdom, fellowship and discipleship. The people of Wilshire have a tremendous amount of this to give. I believe once volunteers experience PEP at eSchool, the in-prison volunteer experience may become the logical next step of engagement.
■ Jim Walton is a member of Wilshire’s Missions Committee. Look for more entries in this series spotlighting our missions partners in the coming weeks.