Passing through the barbed-wire entryway of Otisville Prison, it was the flourishing plot of vegetables that first caught my eye. During the five years I worked in the mental health department at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, I saw a lot of things; an organic garden was not one of them. We stopped to admire the tomatoes, zucchini and peppers that peeked out from beneath lush green leaves.
I was with members of Network Support Services, an organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of prisoners, and had been invited to the program’s annual awards ceremony. The Network program at Otisville, a medium-security federal prison in upstate New York, supports about 50 older inmates, who are permitted to live in a communal setting on the prison grounds. I was curious about these older men. The men I had worked with on Rikers were mostly young, many facing long sentences in upstate prisons. Now, I would see the other end of the criminal justice spectrum in the faces of those with decades of incarceration behind them.
We entered a flat-topped rectangular building nestled among a grove of trees and stepped into a spacious common area, where dozens of men were getting seated in long rows of folding chairs. Bespectacled and gray with age, they glanced at us with shy smiles. It was hard to believe the genial men in this room had been convicted of violent crimes earlier in their lives. Afterward, I would learn that James, the enthusiastic master of ceremonies for the day, had shot and killed a rival gang member as a teen.
Passing through the barbed-wire entryway of Otisville Prison, it was the flourishing plot of vegetables that first caught my eye.
Settling in, I glanced around the room and did a double-take. Hanging along the walls were crocheted afghans in soft pastels—baby blankets. Before I could ask someone what baby blankets could possibly be doing in a prison, James opened the ceremony.
With a stack of certificates in hand, he first announced the names of the organic gardeners. A dozen men bounded up to claim their awards, beaming and bowing as if they had won an Oscar. Next was the language club. James asked four men to stand up and state their native languages, and they rattled them off: “Spanish!” “French!” “Russian!” “Chinese!” James explained that these four gave the others lessons in their native tongues. On Rikers Island, violent divisions formed over racial and ethnic differences. Here, diversity was embraced.
The awards kept coming: the breakfast club, the prayer and meditation group, the book club. Every announcement was met with a fresh round of applause, backslaps and bearhugs. Far from the desperation and violence I had known on Rikers, this room was filled with nothing but love. But then again, these men were clearly not the people they had once been.
On Rikers Island, violent divisions formed over racial and ethnic differences. Here, diversity was embraced.
Finally, the mystery of the baby blankets was revealed. Using donated yarn, the inmates crocheted these blankets, which were then donated to needy mothers in the local community. As James read off the number of blankets sent out, everyone was on their feet, clapping and looking over at the group of us from the “outside world” as if to say: See the good I am capable of. I am more than one act. See me.
We did not need convincing. We were on our feet, too, clapping not only for their awards but for the resilience of the human spirit, for redemption, for the capacity in all of us for change. I clapped for a program like Network that would care about the forgotten souls who fill our prisons, and I applauded Otisville Prison for allowing this program on its grounds.
When the ceremony wound down, slices of a congratulatory sheet cake were passed around. As everyone enjoyed the treat, I noticed longing glances at the surrounding mountains, and eyes riveted to a flock of birds overhead. I began chatting with a friendly man named Alejo Rodriguez, who told me he was the pioneer of the blanket project.
Nothing is harder than forgiving the most reviled and disdained among us.
“We were all so excited,” he said, “and we wanted to see if the local paper would write a story about it. The prison officials here contacted them, and sure enough, a reporter called right away. I got on the phone with him and told him all about how we learned to crochet and about the mothers. And you want to know what he said? He said to me, ‘You mean, nobody got stabbed?’”
The local newspaper had no interest in a story about the prisoners who crocheted baby blankets.
“It doesn’t matter what we do,” came a voice from the back. “It will never matter.”
“It does matter,” I said. “It always matters.” Yet even as I said this, I thought of John MacKenzie, who at 71-years-old came before the New York State Parole Board in 2016 for his 10th time. MacKenzie was a model prisoner by all accounts, had earned several degrees and had set up a novel program for victims of crime. Yet once again, he was denied freedom due to the “nature of the crime”—a murder committed in a drug-fueled state when he was in his 20s. Giving up all hope, Mr. MacKenzie went back to his cell and hanged himself.
Like John MacKenzie, these men can grow, mature and pay for their crimes with the bulk of their lifespans, but the one thing they can never ever do is change the nature of their crime. Their only hope is our forgiveness.
As the men quietly filed back to their cots for the afternoon “count,” I was reminded of Christ’s words about forgiveness. When Peter asked him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times but 77 times.”
The message is clear. Yet forgiveness remains one of the toughest virtues to embrace, and perhaps nothing is harder than forgiving the most reviled and disdained among us. But if we are to realize the full breadth of our humanity, then we cannot ignore the hopes of those who have atoned, paid their debt and now wait on us. To do less would mean not only turning our backs on them but turning away from God’s call for us to forgive, no matter the cost.