As you all know from my Go Fund Me campaign, I am trying to raise money to attend Unitarian Universalist Women’s Spirit, a women’s retreat at the end of October. In addition to UU Women’s Spirit, I’m also attending the annual conference for an organization called PVS, Prisoner Visitation and Support Services.
PVS is an organization that has been around since the 1970s. It originally began as an organization that visited people who were arrested for being conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. Since then, the mission has changed, but the general function is the same. Once a month we visit up to four prisoners at our local Federal prison. Prisoners may be men or women, depending on the Federal institution closest to you. The Federal Prison in Butner houses men only, and currently I am visiting three guys.
Before joining PVS I had to have an interview, fill out an application, and attend a training program at the Federal Prison. I was fingerprinted by the FBI (twice!) and even have my own prison badge and number. When I enter the prison I have to sign in, go through a metal detector, and wait to be escorted back to the visit room. Sometimes it’s just me and a guard, or I’m there with other PVS people, or sometimes I get escorted back with friends and family and loved ones who are excited and nervous to see their family members.
December will be my two-year anniversary with PVS, and one of the guys I visit right now was my very first visitor at the prison. We were both so nervous! I was terrified as I walked down that long, stark hall, and then into the visit room where all of the visitors sit in neat little rows on flimsy, plastic chairs that remind me of stuff you’d find in a kindergarten classroom. Some of the guys I greet with a hug, and some of them get a warm handshake. Some of the prisoners have not had a hug in years or even decades. Some of them haven’t had visitors or post cards in that long or even longer. One of the guys I visit has been in prison longer than I’ve been alive.
Research shows that when prisoners get visitors, it helps maintain order and balance within the prison itself. My guys can only come visit me if they are verified by the chaplain and have a history of stellar behavior. (Not just good behavior, but the best of the best. This is for my own safety and protection.) So, the guys who get PVS visitors have an incentive to be on their most perfect behavior because if they mess up, then they won’t be able to visit me.
Research also shows that prisoners who get visitors are less likely to return to prison or incarceration after release. So, prison visitations can potentially help with the problem of prison overcrowding, as well as helping to prevent future crimes from being committed.
Aside from all of the research-based statistics regarding prison visits, I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a kind thing. Even though my visits are only an hour long with each guy, they look forward to visits and postcards every month. PVS tries to provide visitors to people who don’t get visits from friends or family, and so out of the three guys I have, one sees his family about once a year, and the other two haven’t seen their families in five or even twenty years.
The Annual Conference will provide me training and education regarding incarceration, the prison system, listening skills, active listening, non-verbal communication, and even my own safety while being in a prison. (Watching for con-men, setting boundaries, personal safety, etc.) It will give me a chance to tour another Federal prison in Florida, to connect with other PVS visitors from around the world, and to meet researchers and prison staff. I’m required to attend every two years, and since I was in my third semester of social work graduate school last fall, this is the first year I’ve been able to attend.
I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve been awarded a FULL scholarship to attend the conference, but unfortunately it’s in Florida (near Orlando) so I’ll have to drive down in order to attend. I plan on leaving Wednesday, getting a hotel, and then being at the retreat center near the prison in time to attend the 4pm “Newbie” PVS presentation. The conference lasts until Sunday night, so I’ll drive a bit, get a hotel, and then hopefully be home on Monday night. PVS accepts donations, so I look forward to the time when I’m able to donate money to this great organization, and when I’ll be able to help someone else attend this conference. The 2015 conference is in Fort Worth, Texas, and I’m considering going to that one, too, to visit some friends and family who are in the area.
I love my time spent with PVS, and it has changed my life immensely. The guys I visit have taught me a lot about culture, prisons, socio-economics, mental illness, and aspects of life that I had no idea about but are a daily reality to those who have not been as fortunate as I have been.
And I understand that these guys are criminals. They are. But they’re humans, too. The law has judged them and they are being punished, but that’s not my job. My job is to just be a friendly visitor, to talk to them with no strings attached, to give them a glimpse and a hope of a better and more wholesome life. And honestly, I’d say that the visits have probably helped me more than it has helped them. PVS visits have changed me as a person, they have opened my eyes, and I look forward to this year’s retreat, future retreats, and future visits with “my guys.”
If you're interested in reading more, please follow this link to a PDF copy of a letter sent to PVS from one of the guys I used to visit. Walter was released last year. I think of him often.