News From Terre Haute, Indiana


December 25, 2011

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



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


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    March 12, 2010