I didn’t sleep well. The stench remained in my nostrils so every time I inhaled, I could smell where I’d been. It reminded me of the times I used to serve dinner to the homeless at Better Way in Columbus with my friends Mim and Liz. The smells soak into your clothes so you come home smelling like street grime, urine and spaghetti sauce.
If going to Pollsmoor prison Maximum security was a shock, this night proved to be different, yet just as powerful.
Before we went inside the cells blocks, again we met together for singing and prayer. I love the coloured women. Singing out in all sorts of keys, dancing and clapping, they sing with the urgency and pain of mothers and grandmothers whose loved ones live behind these bars.
A coloured lady next to me with perfect white teeth and olive skin stood up to say something. I expected a hello, nice to see everyone, introduction.
Instead she began with, “When I was in Pollsmoor in 2008, I heard the singing from a prayer walk and that’s when God really grabbed my heart.” Now, here she is, a free woman, coming back to do her own prayer walk.
The pastor who led the opening meeting and met us at the guard shack, sporting a white Izod sweater vest and plaid button down, concluded with, “I was sentenced to 30 years but by God’s grace, I only served seven.” I never would have guessed.
I later watched him dance, jump and sing at the top of his lungs though the dark prison courtyards, waving his arms, proclaiming the same possibilities to this younger generation. It’s one of the powerful moves of God, to return to the captives with the brilliant news from the recently freed.
They didn’t tell us this time that the prisoners would be close enough to reach out and touch us. Of Pollsmoor’s nearly 8000 inmates, 800 are young men between the ages of 14-21. They are housed together.100 to a block. One toilet. 3 to a bed.
If the men were loud, the boys were downright ROWDY. Plus, we were able to walk inside the corridors of the cell blocks. Every shout, yell and whistle bounced between the cement walls like a small gymnasium packed with team rivals. Prisoners on both sides, 60 people and an accordion inside a passageway; all wanting their message to be heard. We behaved like a cramped jar of fireflies set to polka music.
Yet, amazingly, when we asked the boys to be quiet, so we could let them know that we have not lost hope for them; we were here to pray for them, they quieted.
The small square windows to each block inside the corridors stood about 4 feet from the ground, surrounded by brick and cement.
As we began praying and walking through the cell blocks, hands squeezed from underneath the windows, in between the bars. Hands stretched through, grasping for someone to touch. Some were covered with tattoos, others wore jelly bracelets. Their stretched their hands toward us, as if asking the unspoken question, “Could you love me? Could you accept me? Could you show me hope?”
“Please, pray for me, my seestah.” At first, I was hesitant to touch their hands but soon saw it for the honour that it is. Even though I couldn’t see clearly through the bars and the clouded window, I wanted to make sure my hands answered their question. Yes. Yes. Yes.
I held onto those hands. Baby hands. Hands that should have been grasping an xbox controller or a rugby ball. Instead they have inflicted untold pain. Over and over, touching, praying, grasping, soothing, holding.
Outside in the prison courtyards, where the bars are a bit wider, the smaller boys sat on the window ledge, sticking their legs out the window, between the bars, letting their stockinged feet hang down.
One of our ladies walked over to the bare legs, reached up and tickled the bottom of the feet. High pitched giggles erupted as the feet automatically recoiled and kicked the night air.
Over and over, from block to block, until all 800 boys were prayed over, we kept at it. Just when I thought I was too exhausted to continue, there was another cell block, waiting. It looks hopeless. Utterly, despicably, darkly, hopeless. There was so much hunger. But not enough feeding.
At one point I noticed Kevin who, dressed in his black Under Amour hoodie, had a monster grasp on a young pair of hands squeezed through the cell window. With one hand, he was holding hands through the bars and the other hand planted flat against the wall in a football defense stance like a linebacker, as if he was going to pray that wall right down or charge through that brick wall and hold the boy in his arms.
I caught myself thinking, “I’m so glad my kids are not in prison.” And then I realized, these are my kids. These kids are a product of the society in which I live and breathe. These kids are my kids. These are my boys. THESE ARE MY BOYS. These are YOUR boys. These are OUR boys.
As we left one cell block, a row of hands extended out their windows and clapped in unison. “Thank you, thank you!“ they yelled. They applauded as we walked. THEY APPLAUDED. Surely, this must be what the ‘applause of heaven’ feels like.
Love will always pierce through the darkest night. Love has a voice, love has a name. Jesus.*
*Kim Walker Smith lyrics photo cred: texas tribune