Life Lessons I Learned from Jail Visitations


pope francis

On September 27, 2015, Pope Francis took time out of his 6-day, super-packed trip to meet with inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. His gentle disposition and touching message inspired me profoundly. Pope Francis told the inmates that he was visiting them “as a brother, to share with them, and to make their cases his own.” When it comes to the human experience, he told them, “all of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from. May the knowledge of that fact inspire us to live in solidarity.”

Following his speech, he shook the hands of every inmate in attendance. A number of them hugged him. As he made his rounds, he paused to listen to those who held his hand a little longer. At the end of the visit, he blessed their rosaries, and thanked them for the special chair they made for his visit. A big fan of Pope Francis (I’m Argentinean, and one of those “progressive,” Catholics), I watched every hour of “el Papa’s”historic visit to the U.S. None of his visits moved me more than his time with the inmates in Philadelphia.

The topic of jail visitations is close to my heart. I am a volunteer with a heroic group, Friends of Orange County Detainees. The mission of the group is to help end the isolation of immigrants in detention; the purpose of the visits is to show detainees that someone on the outside cares. Although most of the people we visit end up being deported, the visits help them to feel less lonely.

Immigrants in detention get extremely bored. They are unable to take classes, or work, and some get no visitors at all, especially if their family members live far, have no transportation, or have to work multiple jobs. This is also true if they do not have local families, or if they have young children who cannot travel to see them.

I joined the group two years ago, and the experience has been life-changing. Visiting people in detention has allowed me to see the world through another’s eyes. It has also placed a face with a myriad of social problems ranging from drug addiction, poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity. It has grown my heart and deepened my empathy. It has also taught me gratitude, inspiring me to do things I did not think I could do. It also unleashed an advocate that lived quietly within.

Over the past years, I visited three women consistently until their release. I also met two others who had regular visitors, and I recently started visiting a new detainee. The weekly conversations have taught me invaluable life lessons. Among them, to give– within boundaries–and to know the difference between what I can and cannot change.

Below are some of the many lessons I have learned.

You are Stronger Than You Think:

I stumbled upon this volunteering opportunity as I walked through a student fair at Soka University, where I was a teacher at the time. Strolling leisurely, a special table caught my eye; a friendly student awaited visitors and conversation. He was surrounded by books on immigration. Flyers from Friends of OC Detainees were spread across the table. I was intrigued.  I pulled up a chair, sat down and had so many questions…..How did a young man get involved in such a cause? Was it difficult? Intimidating? Was it worthwhile? I grabbed the flyer, took it with me, and thought about it for a few weeks before deciding to act.

As I contemplated doing jail visitations, a number of fears kept creeping up– How will this affect me? My feelings? My mood? My safety? My personal time? I was afraid of feeling sadness and taking home other people’s hopeless stories. I did at first, but got better with time.

I remember the first day I went to the jail. Sitting in the parking lot with the engine running, I wondered if I should walk through the metal detector and commit, or turn around and find an easier cause to support. After thinking about it, I turned off the engine, grabbed my keys and ID, and headed to the barbed wire fence. I was in.

A Visit and a Smile Can Go a Long Way:

A 30-minute visit with a detainee will not speed immigration reform, or solve their legal or life challenges. But what a conversation will do is make them feel cared for. Someone has taken the time to visit with them and to listen. Your conversation may be what gets them through the next week, and you will have definitely made their day.

Listen More, Talk Less:

You don’t have to give advice, or talk about yourself (unless they ask and you feel like sharing). Sometimes listening is enough. Last week, I met a new detainee. After I briefly introduced myself, she started smiling and crying all at once while excusing herself for the outburst. Gracias por venir!, Thank you for coming, she told me. For the next 30 minutes, she shared her story. She told me she was from a little village in Peru. We were happy to learn that we were “neighbors,” South American neighbors. Sometimes, it’s the little things.

Judge Less, Love More

It’s not about what people have done, or whether or not what they tell you is true. It’s about giving a human being a chance for catharsis, for sharing whatever is on their heart. This lesson wasn’t the easiest to learn. I remember visiting my first detainee, and later walking toward my car, thinking deeply about her hardships. On consecutive visits, sometimes her stories changed. I remember feeling confused and even hurt. What had really happen to her ? With time I made the realization that the veracity of hardships or omission of events were not the point. Who was I to judge? Would I trust a complete stranger with all of my truths? The point, I told myself, is to offer unconditional love without judgment. Whether they made mistakes, or mistakes happened to them, my role as a visitor is to bring a smile and a friendly ear, not to fact-check or judge people’s choices. This was a freeing realization. All I had to do was be there.

Boundaries- They keep you sane, and allow you to keep giving without losing yourself.

This was probably the hardest lesson for me to learn. When I first started visiting I wanted to “save” everyone, including their extended families and those who assumed childcare duties when the detainees were sent to jail. After various superwoman attempts I realized that more, did not mean better. When I was trying to juggle multiple visits and keep up with all of their families, I felt overwhelmed. My intentions were good, but my abilities were limited. I wanted to help everyone, especially the teenage youth who lost their mothers to detention. I made phone calls and checked on kids, called comadres, drove to LA and back, called lawyers, and wrote to judges. None of this is expected of a volunteer, but I found myself unable to draw the line. The result was burnout, and pulling back. The realization here for me was that visiting one person at a time was probably best. Drawing the line in terms of what I could and could not give would be very important to the longevity of this mission. If I wanted to volunteer for years to come, I would have to grow some boundaries as I continued to give.

Detention Hurts Children Deeply:

One of the hardest things about visiting detainees, is learning about the hardships experienced by their children. Immigrants who are detained do not get an opportunity to put their affairs in order, and that includes the most important one: The loving care of their children. Who will hug them everyday? Who will make sure that they go to school, eat, shower?  Who could ever provide the comfort needed to cope with the emotionally-wrenching experience of having their mother taken, often times, in front of their eyes? All the detainees I have visited are mothers. One of them, had 8 children by the age of 35. The little ones ranged from the age of 4, all the way to their teens. Due to her detention, dad was left to care for all 8 of them overnight. Struggling to survive, he relied on neighbors to help. Shortly after she was detained, her children started “acting up” and missing school. They needed so many things, food, clothing, love. It is difficult to hear stories such as this. It makes one want to box everything you have and send it to the children. I was keeping up with this family for a while by calling different cell phones. But one by one, each was disconnected. I do not know what happened to this family, and this is hard to deal with.

Undocumented immigrants  are perceived as a charge to society. However, the true “charge” happens when a main provider is removed and  8 American children have to rely on government assistance of all types to survive. These children will have material needs, but also, costly emotional and educational ones that will affect, not only them, but society as a whole.

Poor, emotionally traumatized children, don’t dream of going to school and becoming somebody. They are likely to drop out, turn to crime and become a “charge.”

People Surprise You–Creative Giving and Making Gifts out of Nothing

After visiting detainees I always feel a blend of melancholy and happiness. I feel needed and happy, because I helped someone. I also feel heavy because what I am able to give is very limited.

Some of the sweetest moments have involved gifts I have received from detainees. These come in the form of drawings, sweet prayers, stories, profound expressions of gratitude, drafts of flowers and faces. I cannot explain the joy of opening the mail and finding such sweet and thoughtful treasures. The biggest gift of all is their smile when they see you come in. That is priceless.

My heart has also been moved by the way women in detention build community and celebrate special events, like birthdays. One of the detainees I visited told me that on her birthday the girls had “thrown her a party.” Knowing that their access to items is limited, I asked, how? She told me that some of them had money in their accounts usually used to purchase small food items since many get hungry by 8pm. That day, they used the few dollars they had to purchase ramen soups. They combined the packages by mixing them inside a trash bag they had rescued from yard duty, (and thoroughly washed), prepared a special “Chinese dinner.” This was followed by “birthday cake,” which was made out of peanut butter/jelly sandwiches saved from lunch, and decorated with Oreo cookie crumbles and coffee grains. The women set a festive stage by surrounding the plates with the birthday girl’s family photos. They also decorated her bed with birthday strings made out of old magazine pages. As a gift, the “stylist,” a detainee who is good at braiding hair, fixed her hair in a special way.

The story of this birthday celebration was incredible to me. I found it so creative, thoughtful and sweet; a reminder that individual lives matter, and people can make community and show support under the direst of circumstances.




Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: