My first experience was in a maximum security prison. It "just so happened" that they were hosting a once every five years tour of their facility. The top brass in the Department of Corrections from our State Capitol were on hand as well. Without the timing of this tour, I would not have been able to catch this man in his work environment. The old cliche-"It was a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there"-was exemplified during the two hour tour.
The well manicured lawn and floral beds, which were grown by the prisoners, were the last pleasant sights before we were swallowed by the thick concrete walls. It's not long before you are eager for a glance out a window and hungry for a breath of fresh air. Though housed on a single ground level, it felt as if we were in the basement during the entire tour. Visions of "Escape from Alcatraz" and "The Shawshank Redemption" kept running through my mind. I wondered how long I would be able to tolerate the "seg" (segregation) units with only a few books and magazines as my friends.
Today I was "scared straight," even though I have never done anything remotely close to earning a stay at this iron fortress. I found myself extremely grateful for the fact that, even as an unbeliever, God's common grace kept me out of significant trouble. But I didn't deserve that grace any more than I deserved his saving grace that released me from the prison walls of sin and hell.
Even though this has to be one of the highest stress jobs there are, every staff person we met were exceedingly friendly and helpful. Though this man has always exuded a quiet strength, especially under pressure, this experience gave me a whole new appreciation for the difficulty of his daily responsibilities.
I believe that I may be of some encouragement to the men in our church through this project, but I am expecting to be the person most changed by it. Ironically enough, next week I will be visiting a retired Prison Chaplain.
(This facility and employee are unnamed for privacy reasons.)