They come from many different backgrounds but they’re alike in certain ways. At least three out of four are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Many are “co-occurring” as well, meaning they also have a diagnosed mental illness of one kind or another. I never ask them what they did to get in there, but it often comes out in conversation. Every Thursday afternoon for the past eighteen months, I’ve been going into the Cumberland County Jail in Portland, Maine to lead a one-hour bible study.
The jail is divided into pods with about eighty-five inmates in each. Security cameras cover everything. After passing through a metal detector in the lobby and signing in, someone is always watching me walk through the corridors, each separated from the next by a heavy steel door which unlocks with a loud metallic click that echoes down the hallway as I approach. The fourth accesses my assigned pod.
Each oblong, six-sided pod is identical with twenty double cells below and twenty in the upper tier that are accessed by two staircases, one on each end. In the middle of a large open area below is a station for the Corrections Officer, or CO, on duty. That is surrounded by steel tables bolted to the floor and plastic chairs stacked nearby. When I come through the sally port the CO will press a button to unlock the little classroom I use, then announce the Bible Study to all the inmates. I stand by the classroom door watching dozens of men playing cards, watching television, or doing pull-ups on bare-bones gym equipment. There’s an outside basketball court surrounded by a very high cinderblock wall with coils of razor wire on top, but few go out there in cold weather.
Anywhere from four to sixteen men will saunter into the classroom, two or three carrying Bibles. Some have tattoos going up to their chins and occasionally beyond. They’re dressed in orange or blue — blue if they’re trustees who work in the kitchen, library, or on the grounds. For most, their times in jail are intermittent periods of sobriety in lives dominated by substance abuse. They’re in and out a lot and discuss that freely. I listen.
The rest is here.