Why I Care About the Incarcerated (And Why You Should Too)

As of this writing, 220 people are incarcerated in Olmsted County in Southern Minnesota. Some are held at the Adult Detention Center, others are on work release and the remainder are on home monitoring. Here's a breakdown of the types of charges for those currently incarcerated:

Breakdown of Current Charges in Olmsted County

Source: https://www.co.olmsted.mn.us/sheriff/divisions/lec/hottopics/Pages/incustody.aspx

Over the past 2.5 years, detainees have graciously shared their stories with me as part of a program I began called "Your Story / Your Song."

I've met with a wide variety of people through this program and in all but one case, each has struggled with drug use or addiction. Either this is because a significant portion of the incarcerated population struggles with addiction or incarcerated people who struggle with addiction are more likely to take advantage of whatever tools/programming are available to them while they are incarcerated. At any rate, it's estimated that 80% of the incarcerated population are drug users.

Common Threads

Three common threads weave their way through the stories of the incarcerated who struggle with addiction. On their own, each of these threads doesn't necessarily lead to drug addiction or criminal thinking, but all three combined form the perfect storm. In every case of drug users with whom I've worked, drug use began in childhood or in the teenage years.

1) An unstable home.

Conditions leading to an unstable home:

  • Divorce
  • One or more parents use illegal drugs
  • Child is often abandoned or feels unloved
  • One or more parents suffers an untreated mental health condition
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Poverty

Whatever the scenario, an unstable home can create the foundation for significant problems for the child. Often, providing a stable home isn't possible for some parents. Mitigating that damage is so important when children are involved. 

2) A catastrophic event occurs.

Very often this catastrophic event is the death of a loved one. One detainee witnessed her mother die of a heroin overdose. Another was enjoying a day at the lake when her twin sister drowned. Another was the lone survivor of a house fire that killed the rest of his family.  Additionally, sexual or physical abuse creates a similar negative pattern in a young person as the death of a loved one. And then, for some, that catastrophic event is mental illness that goes untreated. 

3) Lacking a suitable support system.

When a child is surrounded by chaos and they suffer a catastrophic event - pain, anger, fear, and mistrust are often the result. All too often, the need for healing goes unmet as those negative emotions are internalized. The child searches for comfort in whatever way possible. Drugs become an easy choice. 

Of course, there are people who have experienced all three of these conditions and go on to lead healthy, whole and happy lives. They are the exception rather than the rule. 

A Nighttime Dream

It was a dream, but it felt very real...

I was in the home of a family that included a husband, a wife, and three children. As I sat on their torn and tattered couch I observed the wife in the kitchen doing the dishes. There was a sense that she was the one who held the family together. To my left, was the husband sitting at a very old piano; its keys were yellowed and chipped. The children were seated cross-legged on the floor necks bent upward as their father played. 

For some reason, I was there to support them somehow.  The dad was an alcoholic who wasn't able to hold down a job, but he was one heck of a piano player. Lively music poured from the out-of-tune piano and the kids began to dance; smiles on their faces despite their ratty clothes and bare feet. 

I enjoyed my time in their home - the music, the laughter - it all cheered an otherwise depressing situation. 

Then I was outdoors working in a wheat field.  The stems were tall and the heads of the grain were green; not quite ripe. Next to me, on both sides, were other workers working.  

As I was working, the piano-playing father approached us from the road.  In his hand he carried five stems of withered roses. The man was frantic.  He’d been to the doctor and had been diagnosed with a disease.  He showed me the disease.  It was inside the heads of the decaying flowers.  He was very sorry, but I had been infected with this disease as well, and that I should get to the doctor as soon as possible. 

I was filled with dread.  My stomach was in knots.  I was angry.  How dare he give me this.  I yelled at him to get away from me; to take his disease and back up so others wouldn’t be exposed.  

The man left, and the other workers around me began raising their voices.

“Why can’t he get a job?” 

“Why does he live on welfare?”

“I’m so sick of people like him.”

Despite my anger with the man I became defensive.

“You don’t understand,” I said, “he is a very complex person who has dealt with more than you could ever imagine.  You could never understand.”

What does my dream mean? For me, the dream expresses the struggle to find balance between compassion and justice.

How do we care for the incarcerated yet hold them accountable for their actions?
How do we combat the misperceptions that the incarcerated are to be looked upon as if they were a disease with which we could be infected? 

Why do I care about the incarcerated?

I care because incarcerated people are people like you and me.

The complex lives and emotions of detainees are evidence of their humanity. They have deep struggles which they cover up with negative behavior and addictions. Many have children, many have relationships they long to heal, many desire sobriety, many fear they are too far gone, many have found hope. Like you and me they simply want to be happy.

I care because I have heard their stories. 

There have been times I've walked away from the detention center struggling to hold back tears. What if I were faced with the same circumstances as those who are incarcerated? I shudder to think.

I cannot turn away from these people. Their stories impress upon me a need for action; to somehow go about addressing the very real issues our communities face.

In Minnesota, we are facing a mental health crisis and an opioid epidemic. How shall we respond? Let's begin by changing our perceptions of the incarcerated. 

I care because I want safe communities

As much as I care for the incarcerated, my heart breaks for the victims of violence and crime. Crime profoundly affects all of us. For me, the best type of justice is restorative justice where the victim and the assailant are brought to health and wholeness. Only then will the cycle of abuse and criminal thinking be broken.

I care because every life has worth

If we don't say that the lives of detainees have worth then we have to draw lines and put some people on one side of that line and label them "worthy" and some on the other side that says "unworthy." I can't do that. At least not to the people I have met and talked with. 

However, don't confuse my care for detainees as blind trust. I acknowledge there are people who, even though they have inherent worth as human beings, will never be able to be productive and healthy members of society. Sometimes, separating a person from society is the only way to keep our communities safe. That could even be the most merciful thing for that person in that we keep them from the violence they do to their own soul when they commit acts of evil. 

The Worthy People Project

The stories of the incarcerated, the victims of crime and those who serve and protect will be a part of The Worthy People Project. In fact, the idea for this whole thing began as a result of the need for a platform in which to share those stories. In addition, a number of the songs from the album are the stories of detainees. 

Join me on this journey as I share stories "From the Margins." I hope that somewhere in the process you may gain a new understanding of those behind bars. Or, at least, I desire to bring to light the lives of those we've tucked away into the margins so that they will have a chance to shine.