News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 25, 2011

STEPHANIE SALTER: Making room for the least among us — and their kin

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

— Hebrews 13:3

Christmas. Quiet time. Down time. Not exactly the kind of day most folks tend to contemplate their fellow Americans behind bars. And yet, the United States leads the world in percentage of population in jail or prison, far ahead of second-place Russia. About 2.3 million people — nearly one in 100 adults — are incarcerated in this country.

Most of those inmates have family and close friends who still care for them. That’s a lot of lives, inside and outside, that are touched directly by a corrections system that has become an “industry” in every sense of the word.

I have three such friends to remember this Christmas Day, two women and a man. One has been in federal prison for a few years, one has been in a state facility nearly 30 years and one is a new arrival in a county jail. All three would be the first to tell you they deserved to be locked up for their various crimes.

All three would turn back the clock and take a much different path if they could. Remorse and regret are their constant cellmates.

Neither woman likely would be an inmate if she’d never taken drugs. The one in state prison got her first fix of heroin in early adolescence, the one in jail self-medicated her erratic mood swings with methamphetamine. My friend in federal prison isn’t a drug addict, but he is deeply, mentally ill and needs psychotherapy for the anti-social behavior that landed him behind bars. The only programs available to him so far, however, have to do primarily with job training: A college graduate, he now can take apart a car engine.

As my friends can attest — and as prison ministers will affirm — the person behind bars is not the only recipient of punishment. Family and friends pay almost as dearly — literally and figuratively. The emotional and social costs are obvious, but the financial costs are not, particularly in a system that requires more than $50 billion a  year in public funding to maintain.

From collect telephone calls that can start at $10 or $20 and cost more by the minute, to gift boxes that must be purchased through a for-profit monopoly vendor under contract to a prison or jail, families pay through the nose to stay connected to someone they love.

Often, the rules of connection change. One week it’s OK to buy a U.S. Postal Service money order for $1 or $2 and send it by mail to an offender so she or he can bank it to buy spare items such as soap and decent (or medically necessary) food from the prison commissary. The next week, money orders are no longer accepted. Instead, a prisoner’s family must establish an online account with the only for-profit vendor of money and email that the correctional facility recognizes. The cost to transfer funds in most prisons is $6.95, whether $200 is being given or $20.

Want to send an email? That depends on the facility. Jails rarely allow them. If a prison permits emails, they also must be paid for in advance, online by credit card, and the guaranteed delivery time is “usually within 48 hours.” That’s not much help when the message you need to convey is, “I know I promised, but I can’t make it for our visit tomorrow.” The inmate can only guess what’s happened and swallow the disappointment.

Neither can you do much for the person you love if another offender steals his or her few belongings. That has happened to my friend in state prison and to my younger friend in jail.

The woman in prison got cleaned out (by a cellmate) while she was in the hospital for several days. My friend in the county jail has no idea who robbed her. Whoever it was took new underwear she had just managed to buy with money her parents had put in her commissary account. The thief also took the pen my young friend had bought so she could do something her mother had suggested to keep from going  crazy — write about what she is experiencing.

“So, just get another pen,” you might say if you know no one behind bars. It’s not that simple. Commissary items can be ordered only on specific days. In the case of the pen, my friend had to wait two days to order and pay for another. She then learned she would receive a replacement pen … in five more days.

Along with my three friends and their loved ones, I think Hebrews would include for compassion the people who work in jails and prisons. Most of those women and men are decent, earnest people, working difficult or soul-numbing jobs for barely adequate wages and benefits. Most work in facilities that house hundreds more inmates than the buildings were designed to hold. From the warden to the lowest-ranking employee, prison staffers are battered weekly by the most powerful entity in the nation’s corrections industry: The bottom line.

Whether it’s a prison physician who must argue for the medical treatments he or she prescribes, the head of “nutrition,” who routinely is ordered to do more with lower-quality or less food, or a guard with a raging flu who has no more paid sick days, the system is so overstretched, staff members must struggle to maintain their own humanity, let alone to see the humanity in those who live in cells.

And maybe that is all I’m really asking. If you can spare nothing more in this predominantly Christian nation on the day we mark as Christ’s birth, might you make a conscious choice to simply acknowledge that the millions behind bars here are human beings, and most of them are loved by people whose hearts are hurting.

Stephanie Salter may be contacted at