On an unseasonably warm January afternoon, I took my dogs for a walk. We made it a long one. I was done with work for the day and didn’t have any other obligations except to feed myself and them at some point. We walked downtown, taking in the sights of the city that I’ve come to love.
But of course, like in all cities, there are sights you’d rather not see. Like the downtown jail. It’s a big, red building, not aesthetically pleasing by any stretch of the imagination, but not so ugly that you’d look at it long. Up and up the steep walls are narrow windows, long, horizontals strips of glass, not proper windows, not big enough to escape through.
As we walked past and I looked up, I had a thought. I waved. And there, many stories up, I saw two hands waving back. They were little waves, in a small range of motion that would keep the hand visible through the thin opening. But for a moment, I connected with at least two people on the inside.
It made me wonder how many people a day walk by that building without even looking up. It made me wonder how many of the few people who do look up even really know what they’re looking at, whether those narrow windows represent people to them, or if they even think that long about it.
Not long ago, it would not have occurred to me to wave, because I did not associate those windows with people. I suppose a line of questioning about the building would have led me to realize that there was probably a human being behind each of those slits. But, like I assume it is with the countless people who pass by daily, I didn’t put that much thought into it.
That changed when I participated in a prayer circle at the jail with a group of church members. Faith communities from all over the city gathered at the jail and literally encircled it. People ringed the sidewalks all the way around the big, red building, and each group lifted up their own community’s prayers for the people inside.
But even as we prayed, the windows still did not mean people to me. Not until the tapping started. As the inmates became aware that we were outside, they started to rap on their windows, banging their knuckles against the glass so that we would hear. The prison chaplains told us it was their way of saying–we see you. Thank you for seeing us.
I spent several minutes just staring up at the windows, watching and hearing the fists tapping, tears in my eyes. I still can’t quite put into words what it was that struck me so deeply about that moment. But it forever changed how I see those narrow windows. Now, they are not just windows. They are people. And people, especially when they are cut off from other people, need to be seen.
At that prayer vigil, we prayed for the inmates; we prayed for their families; we prayed for the communities that would receive them on release; we prayed for their victims; we prayed for the prison employees; we prayed for law enforcement officers. As I walked by with the dogs months later, all of those people and more came to mind.
I wondered why each of those people were in jail–not just with their crime was, but what bad decisions, what desperation, what systemic inequities, what personal and mental and family and community brokenness had brought them there.
I wondered about their time in prison, whether the rehabilitation our system promises is a pipe dream, whether release will really be release or just another dead end, whether they will live the rest of their lives defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done, whether some of them are so deeply broken that they really need to stay there.
I wondered about their victims, if there were any, whether they felt justice had been served, whether they had healed, whether they had found their way to forgiveness, what those narrow windows represent to them.
I don’t know what good any of this wondering does, except that I suspect it is good to be wondered about when the world has forgotten you. The next time you walk by the jail, look up. Wave if you feel like it. Wonder about the people inside, about why they’re there, about who else was hurt by their “why.” Wonder about who and what might have been forgotten, in their lives and in yours, in our communities and in our country, and see where that leads you.