Inmate speech given to volunteers

Good evening. I am honoured to be here tonight to celebrate you, the prison volunteers of Mission Institution. I want to further acknowledge the Sto:lo First Nations Territory on which this Volunteer Appreciation Dinner is hosted. An elder who works in corrections, and who has had a profound impact on my healing, once shared with me his belief that Aboriginal culture is fundamentally about relationships. I think your work here as volunteers is also fundamentally about relationships, and in this way your work honours the people and culture of this territory.

For myself, I have been at this institution for 8 months now, and in this time, the quality of my life has been enriched by your presence. Whether it’s in the restorative justice circle facilitated by Daryl, or the creative writing and book club made possible by Cathy and Dave, or the E-Fry storybook program with Leah, or the variety of chapel programs led by Jim, Annette, Doug, Peter, and Ken, among several others – it has been your welcoming and friendly smiles, your encouraging words, your handshakes suggestive of peace and reconciliation which has made my time here meaningful and redeeming.

In these enriching encounters with you, I have learned three things about the character of a prison volunteer and I would like to take this brief time to share what you all have taught me.

First, you, the prison volunteer, are by nature, a world traveller. You travel from your familiar and comfortable world in the community to the foreign world we inhabit here at Mission Institution. Where many citizens would cringe at even the thought of stepping into a federal penitentiary, you have chosen to bravely travel to this unventured land. The world of the incarcerated is one with a foreign language, different norms and values, with different people you may not have come across in your worlds outside, let alone share a common history with. So, when it comes to volunteering your time in prison, you are, as a divine book aptly puts it, “in the world, but not of it.” And yet you enter, and engage us with ease, trusting that somewhere in our broken sphere of existence, there is something redeemable. With this core conviction, you relate to us in a way that opens up another world – a world inhabited by caring community members who have not forgotten us and our place in the community. Our horizons are thus broadened every time we encounter you – the world-travellers you are.

The second thing I have learned about your character is that, by virtue of being a world-traveller, you are also a risk-taker. Now, the word “risk” is a loaded one as it is typically used in corrections to refer to the factors that led us to prison. In this regard, treatment programs are designed to identify our risk factors and to help us learn the cognitive-behavioural skills needed to address and manage them. And so in this context, I need to clarify what I mean when I say you are risk-takers. By volunteering at Mission, you take a risk that we are worth the time and energy you sacrifice. You risk getting close to us, listening to our stories, hearing our wavering voices, believing that we can walk the path of self-discovery and growth. And, most importantly, you risk offering to walk beside us. In this way, your work gives us a new and brighter picture of what it means to be risk-taking in a pro-social, altruistic fashion. Simply put, you teach us that it’s okay to take chances in relationships when what’s on the line is the possible betterment of the other.

The third thing I have learned about your character is how you are practitioners of loving perception. As I’m sure fellow prisoners can understand, the experience of incarceration develops a heightened awareness of being perceived. Daily exposure to surveillance cameras and correctional officers conducting hourly patrols around the complex leaves us with a deep sense of being watched. Your eyes also observe the prison environment, but rather than seeing from a security lens, you choose to see us through the lens of compassion. Accordingly, through your expansive empathy and imagination, you see us from our own perspective. You see our own sense of ourselves from within our own worlds. You see how we construct meaningful narratives out of the fragments of our experience. In this way, your field of vision bears witness to our humanity, our strengths and weaknesses, our joys and pains, our accomplishments and shortcomings. You are a committed and engaged audience, rooting for us to re-author our lives and share a different, more wholesome story of who we were, who we are, and who we can become.

And so, tonight, we celebrate you –the prison volunteers of Mission Institution – for being the world-travelling, risk-taking, practitioners of loving perception that you are. For helping us to pick up the shattered pieces of our worlds and encouraging us to move one step at a time, with a chastened vigour, towards the good and the right, we sincerely thank you.

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