Holy work at Parchman Farm
Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness — Desmond Tutu
Hard time seems to snuff out hope — Richard Mason
Is there any place in Mississippi that is darker than Parchman Penitentiary? I seriously doubt it. Where in the world would a person doing time in Parchman find something as important and elusive as hope? As Richard Mason wrote, “Hard time seems to snuff out hope.”
Who is Richard Mason and why am I quoting him? Mason is an inmate at Parchman Penitentiary and a graduate of the Prison Writes Initiative. The PWI — the first of its kind in Mississippi — is a program that teaches creative writing. Through PWI, not only are the incarcerated becoming more skilled at writing, but they are also able to think about and share their stories, memories, hopes, dreams and regrets.
PWI is one part of VOX Press, Inc. VOX is a 501 (c) organization based in Oxford, co-founded in 2004 by Louis Bourgeois and the late J.E. Pitts. VOX’s mission is to challenge diverse audiences to engage in experimental literary arts. In 2014, PWI published “In Our Own Words,” its first collection of works by inmates. The second, “Unit 30: New Writing from Parchman Farm,” was released this past spring.
In a December 2014 interview with a local newspaper, Bourgeois said, “… our point is to give another human being a sense of self-worth. So many of these people have never had the experience that they are worth listening to …”
That’s why I think PWI is holy work, even though it’s not affiliated with any religious body and it has no overt spiritual emphasis. When a person whose future is as desolate as a Parchman inmate’s is, self-worth and hope can be Eucharistic.
When a person goes behind bars to “pay their debt to society” they do not cease to be human. In fact, some of the incarcerated become more human than they have ever been. In their brokenness, these fellow souls may be more able to receive help than at any other time in their lives.
Why should we “free people” care?
Practically speaking, teaching and training prisoners is important because most of those who are incarcerated will eventually be released. Numerous studies show that education programs in our prisons reduce recidivism, lower costs to prisons, and increase the odds that a former convict will get a job.
From a spiritual perspective, it is the call of all love-based faiths to care for and aid those in need – the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the infirmed, and the imprisoned. Yes, the imprisoned. And it doesn’t matter whether they are in prison for a crime they actually committed or not. They still count and they have as much right to hope and grace as anyone else in this world.
The stories from the men in Unit 30 reveal many of their hurts, as well as the ways they are trying to better themselves. Randy Jackson wrote, “Sometimes prison saves our lives from an early death … If it was not for me coming to prison I would be dead by now … Sometimes it’s a wake-up call to reality.”
Nelson Bailey wrote, “… I still find myself thinking of life as being dead to the world, so I come to life through my writing.”
They say that prison is hell. If that’s true, and I believe it probably is, PWI gives inmates a chance to touch heaven from time to time. If we begrudge them that, then maybe we’re in our own hell and just don’t know it.
Most believe that more of those who are released from prison leave as criminals, more highly skilled in how to commit crime than ever before. Through PWI and other programs these very same people have a chance to come out with a healthy sense of purpose and meaning. When that happens how could it be anything but holy?
“I was naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me [with help and ministering care]; I was in prison, and you came to me [ignoring personal danger].” Jesus, Matthew 25:36, Amplified Bible.
Randy Weeks is a minister and a counselor. He lives and writes in Oxford. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.