When I was in prison …

Alaskan families visit incarcerated relatives in Arizona
April 30, 2005

Haunted by the fact that 900 Alaskans are imprisoned in Arizona, the Diocese of Alaska sponsored a contingent of inmates’ family members to visit Arizona recently. Ten Alaskans made the journey with hope, trepidation and cartons of moose meat, salmon strips and muktuk.

“I will forever remember the faces touched by love and joy,” said Bishop Mark MacDonald after returning from Arizona. “I am sad that we send these people so far away. I believe that both justice and compassion call us to do better.

“This trip connected people separated by time, distance and heartache; it connected Alaska with Florence [Arizona] and it connected the church to a place it is supposed to be, according to Jesus.” The trip was the brainchild of Archdeacon Anna Frank, who previously had visited the Florence Correctional Center with MacDonald. “It touched my heart,” Frank recalled. “Their families were so far away.”

Frank put out the call to Episcopalians throughout Alaska, asking for donations of money and/or air miles so that family members could go to Arizona. They responded generously. The traveling party included a young wife who had never left Alaska before, a mother who hadn’t seen her son in a year and an elderly grandmother wanting to see her grandson one last time.

An emotional reunion

A mother who accompanied the group still gets very emotional recalling the journey. After not seeing her son for a year she said, ‘Touching him and interacting with him, after being deprived of these things for so long, made me think that it is sinful to separate families this way. What is the point?”

It was a nervous group that flew to Phoenix, and then drove 45 minutes to the prison, a huge structure that appears to rise out of the flat, hot desert. “It was kind of scary going through the screening,” Frank recalled. “But once we were in, it was exciting.”

Frank tied the group’s visit to the prison’s annual cultural recognition, an outdoor event that simulates a Native American potlatch. The ceremonies, open to all prisoners and their families, feature a meal with Native American foods, drumming and gift-giving.

Prisoners had made earrings, bracelets, necklaces and scarves for their guests. The meal, which offered a bounty of food, was in great contrast to what the prisoners usually eat, Frank said. Having dined inside the facility before, Frank deemed the typical food nearly inedible.

“It was like we ate 100 years ago when there were no supplies,” she said, referring to her Athabascan ancestors.

Gazing at the crowds in the prison yard, Frank observed many tears. “It was emotional for me to see and to recognize people as human beings wanting love and wanting to know that people do care for them and not to always feel condemned,” she said. Frank said she hoped the trips can be made regularly.

“It’s very worthwhile,” she said with a deep sigh. “Being so far away has hardened the prisoners’ hearts even more. I wish all the churches would get together and raise money to get the families there. It’s hard for one person to pull it together.” She has begun appealing to volunteers to assist in the effort. “I wish someone would tackle this ministry,” she said.

Questioning the distance

While Frank acknowledges that people who commit crimes may need to be in prison, she doesn’t see why they must be behind bars so far from home. “They need their families,” she said. “They lose a lot of dignity by being in jail, and they lose their families too.”

The church has a key role in the project because “the Lord didn’t say to shun prisoners,” she said. “He said to visit them.”

MacDonald agrees. “I hope that Alaska will rise up and reclaim these people as brothers and sisters. We may pretend that they are not our kin, but the truth is they are very much a part of us, and we must bring them home, spiritually and physically. Until we bring them home physically, then we must visit them physically. Christ said that this was an unmistakable sign of an authentic disciple, to visit him in prison.”