I came to the prison hungry. The club meeting started at 6 pm, so my writers' group had to arrive at the prison for check-in at 5:30, so I met the carpool at 4:15, so I left my house at 3:45, so I scarfed a sandwich at 3:38. To my well-regulated stomach, this did not qualify as dinner.
As I drove to the carpool location, I ruminated on the dinner situation, and wondered briefly if they would have any food to offer us. “Of course they won’t,” I quickly reproached myself, and brought tears to my own eyes thinking about the loss of such a basic freedom as the ability to offer hospitality.
It turned out, I was wrong. The inmates had wrapped cinnamon rolls in paper towels, and pre-poured cups of water and bright red fruit punch. When a cinnamon roll was offered to me, my first instinct was to decline it (didn’t the prisoner-chefs do horrible things to the food on Orange is the New Black?), but then I remembered that I was, actually, hungry.
“You look like you want to say yes,” the club president, Francisco, laughed, as he watched my eyes linger on the sugar-drizzled dough balls.
I nodded. “Okay, then,” I agreed. It seemed rude not to take it; it was all they had to offer me.
I was wrong, again. The men of the 7th Step Club at the Oregon State Penitentiary had much to offer. They offered their respect, listening attentively to our varied essays. They offered generous awards to each of us: “Most Articulate,” “Most Energetic,” “Most Moving.” Most of all, they offered their stories.
I spent most of my time, after the essays were read, talking with two particular prisoners. The first, Dan, was 56 years old. A long, white ponytail hung down his back, and he was missing a front tooth. He had been in prison for 30 years, and had another 27 years to go. He would be 83 when he could be released, but he expected to die before then.
The other prisoner who shared his story with me, David, was 39 years old, and had been in prison for 20 years already. Intelligent eyes flashed behind yellow-tinted glasses as he told me his story. “I did something dumb when I was 19, and I’m never getting out of here.” For killing two men at a shooting range, in response to a perceived threat, David had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, or, as he put it simply, “life without.”
Both of these two men, separately from one another, spoke of similar themes. When I asked Dan what was the hardest part of prison life, he immediately responded, “Non-existence. Feeling like I don’t really exist.” David responded to a similar question, “It feels like I’m not really a person at all.” Both men spoke of having few or no meaningful contacts remaining outside the prison walls. Both spoke of keeping to themselves within the prison community. Both spoke of wanting to kill themselves.
Though they had recently eaten (such as it was – apparently a favorite meal was pork tenderloin, “because you can tell what it is”), these men were much, much hungrier than I. They were hungry for human contact. They were hungry for dignity.
They offered me cinnamon rolls and fruit punch; what did I have to offer them? I had spoken of Jesus Christ in my essay, and Dan confided that he trusted in Jesus, too.
“I don’t like to go to the church groups they have here,” he allowed, “but I do my own prayers that I have to do.”
But David was warier. “I’m a Jew,” he informed me, testily.
“That’s okay!” I responded, too brightly. “Jesus was a Jew!”
David’s eyes measured the distance between us. “It’s fine if what you believe about the next life makes you a better person,” he observed, and it sounded like a sentiment he had expressed many times before. “But what about this life? What about a second chance?” He laid his hands open on the table between us. “I was a first-time offender. I never even had a speeding ticket. I know I took those guys’ lives away, and I can never repay that. But how can you send a 19 year old kid away for the rest of his life?”
I believed that Jesus could make a difference to David’s life even if he never got out of prison, but I also felt in that moment that if I tried to convince him of that, it would only sound hollow. How did the Jesus of my middle-class suburban life translate to a maximum-security penitentiary?
“I’m going to pray for you,” I finally told David as our conversation wrapped up.
“That’s fine,” he replied. “Go ahead.”
“So what do you want me to pray?” I pressed.
He seemed genuinely taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“What do you want me to ask God to do for you?”
The response to that question came right away. “Prison reform. I want a chance to get out of here. I want hope.”
“Okay,” I promised, and I knew I was accepting a burden that would not be easily lifted. “I’m going to ask God for that.”
At the end of the meeting, the club president got back on the microphone to remind the men that the club had to pay for the cinnamon rolls, so member donations were appreciated. David had just informed me that the prisoners’ maximum salary, for working 40 hours a week, was $158 a month. I wondered how much the prison charged for the cinnamon rolls and fruit punch. It turned out that these men had offered me a very costly hospitality, indeed.
I drove home and ate a taco, leftovers from my family’s dinner hours earlier. My hunger disappeared. But the hunger in the eyes of the men I met in prison will stay with me for a long, long time.