This year, I have been working in a ministry new to me: visiting the prisoners at the Elmwood jail in Milpitas, California, as part of the Correctional Institutions Chaplaincy. This is one of the outreach efforts of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Saratoga, which has supported a variety of jail ministries for many decades. Since last summer, I have started visiting the jail once a month, after going through an extensive application, clearance and training process. Some volunteers visit more often. The Rev. Peggy Bryan leads our group of three in a Sunday afternoon service of song and prayer each week. We use a basic form of the same service used at St. Andrew’s on Sunday mornings. Peggy brings in recorded music chosen by the inmates – and they also sing songs to us as part of our worship.
I have gotten to know a little about some of the prisoners in the group we visit. One inmate is an older man from Iran who mostly speaks Farsi and asked if we could find him books in his native language. My Farsi-speaking friends found him an English-Farsi dictionary a few weeks ago and this week I am bringing him two novels. Another inmate drew the images you see here. The men only have access to short pencils – he does his drawings on envelopes. He told me that he learned to draw watching his mother who is a tattoo artist, and from reading a basic art book that someone gave him. Prisoners make their pencils longer by using string made from plastic bags woven into a long sleeve that grips the wooden casing. The 35 year old native of San Jose, California, said his advice to other artists is “Never give up, keep trying!”
The inmates we visit can be at Elmwood for up to five years and many are still in the justice process, waiting for their cases to be heard or resolved. They live in a barracks-style room with about forty other men, wearing pale green or brown clothes with orange plastic sandals. Some of the men are leaders or caretakers for their community, others are more passive. Their lives are on hold while they are in jail.
16 Nov 2015 Update: I visited Elmwood yesterday and showed the inmates a printout of this blog post. All three seemed pleased and gave me permission to share their stories. If you are interested in serving in this jail ministry, please contact the Correctional Institutions Chaplaincy.
21 Jan 2016 Updated to omit names
Photos copyright 2015 by Katy Dickinson and the Rev. Peggy Bryan