Shake a Thousand Hands

Uncategorized Posted Dec 16, 2015 by chenpr

As a part of my work as a volunteer with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections I have the opportunity to participate in the distribution of Christmas gifts to inmates at MCI Shirley. There are approximately 1,500 men incarcerated at the facility and the chaplain’s office coordinates the assembly of enough identical packages to make sure that every man who wants one has the opportunity.
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Typically each bag contains sundries including a few sheets of writing paper, a pair of socks, deodorant, toothpaste and other items for personal hygiene and grooming. All the items are approved by the DOC for safety reasons. Lavish stuff.

The distribution process is methodical. After all the inmates have finished with their midday meal and returned to their cell blocks the chow hall is cleaned and the gift bundles brought in. The volunteers all go through security and are escorted through the yard to the cafeteria where we are given our ground rules and take positions behind tables piled with the gift bags. Then the men move, block by block, through the yard and into the building where they check in with administration and pass down the line to collect a single bag.

Nearly 1,500 men of every physical and ethnic description, young and old, move through the line in a procession that is both heartbreaking and uplifting.

For some of the men who come for their bag the event is transactional only. They have no interest in expressing any thanks or interacting with the volunteers. They want what they can get as quickly as they can get it and they want to get out. No eye contact, no communication. This, however, is atypical of the experience.

Most of the men seem grateful. They smile, shake hands, and return a greeting: Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, happy holidays.

Thank you.

That is the one that I enjoy hearing the most, and not because I take any personal credit in what transpires, but because I know that for many of the men visits are a rarity. They’ve been forgotten by family and abandoned by those who might have been considered friends on the outside. With each new day the only people they can count on seeing are fellow inmates and DOC staff.

handshakeYesterday I took my position and offered my hand to every man who came, looked them in the eye and said, “Merry Christmas.” I shook a thousand hands or more.

I do not dismiss the fact that for every man whose hand I shook there was a victim; a story of some measure of undeserved loss. I know that some of the hands I shook were responsible for unspeakable deeds and that in some of the eyes into which I looked there was no remorse. But I also know that there are many men who will spend many years—maybe all of their years—with gnawing regret and that, for those men, knowing that there is someone who is willing to clasp hands without judgment, makes all the difference. Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be one of a dozen or so to be that person.

Perhaps if someone had been willing to do so before the commission of a crime there would be fewer men in that prison…

In a few days people will gather around decorated trees and exchange gifts with one another. Some will be disappointed because of a wrong size, wrong color or not enough. Most will be appreciative, and not because of what they received, but because they are surrounded by people willing to give.

I hope you are among them. Merry Christmas and happy holidays.

charlie brown tree