By Aaron Pierre, SJ
The prison guards guide our retreat team down the whitewashed corridor of a “supermax” prison in California. We’re doing cell-by-cell visits to inmates in solitary confinement, and it is eerily silent. Within these walls, nearly 1,800 men wake each morning to spend their day with little sunshine or human contact.
I am reeling from the harsh reality. The men are on “lockdown” 23 hours each day. They spend one hour of “recreation” alone, pacing a 25 ft. x 10 ft. room.Meals are passed through cell doors. No communication and no visits.
With every move, I feel painfully aware of differences that seem to separate me from these inmates. I’m a Midwestern white male from a middle class Catholic family, who has been offered boundless opportunities. I’m grateful, but in this moment my privilege steals my attention. Unsure what to do with my hands, I jam them into the bulletproof vest all visitors must wear. A safety precaution, I’m told.
||Aaron Pierre, SJ, joins two formerly incarcerated men outside the California State Capitol in Sacramento, for advocacy work on behalf of restorative justice legislation.
The man approaches me hesitatingly, with a look that searches my intentions. Visitors are rare here. I stumble through a quick introduction and blurt out, “You’ll never believe this, but I was born and raised in Green Bay, and I attended Notre Dame!”
He lights up: “Not many cheeseheads out here in Cali!” As he dives into his thoughts on the upcoming Packers season, we quickly move beyond my limited sports knowledge. I shift the conversation to Notre Dame. One of his uncles attended the university. In two steps he’s standing next to the cinderblock shelf, pointing out several books. He eagerly shares details about the university’s history that I had yet to learn. No question, he’s a fan.
The following messages
“Your reflection is remarkable; I’m impressed with your efforts for restorative justice. Wishing you well in your Jesuit formation! Thank you for serving.”
“Thanks for your message about visiting in prison. We are all together in suffering and in bringing Christ on the cross to others.”
“Aaron - every one of us needs something or someone to hang on to. The Holy Spirit has helped you play this important role. May God bless and watch over you.”
“Our humanity can only be seen when it is reflected back at us from the heart of another and we have the strength to look. You have this strength. God is with you.”
The guards interrupt: our eight minutes are up. Before I walk out of this man’s life forever, we look each other in the eye, briefly allowing the moment to sink in. “Thank you,” he says with a sincere smile. “I needed this.”
I needed that encounter, too, maybe more than he.
When I began working in restorative justice last summer, my mind was full of stereotypical images of inmates. These high security prisons are described as housing California’s “worst of the worst”: killers, thieves, and gang leaders. Men entirely defined by their criminal actions.
This inmate offered me a glimpse of his humanity and reframed my approach to the work that summer. Through this man’s openness, God revealed Godself and loudly communicated I’m not that different from the people caught in our criminal justice system. With God’s grace, I searched for those inevitable points of human connection that eclipse the imaginary chasms separating us from each other.
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