I like to bring simple card-making supplies into the secure unit of the Edmonton Institution for Women. The inmates enjoy the chance to be creative but, more than that, they crave an opportunity to make something to send to family on the outside. Life stories bubble up as they write in the cards, and I listen.
I’ve heard heartwarming and heartbreaking things but, during a visit this past July, something startled my eyes open anew. As I pulled supplies out of a clear plastic tub, I set a packet of baby-wipes on the table, intended for cleaning stamps.
The women immediately focused on it with an obvious hunger.
“Can I smell them?” one twentysomething asked.
My heart shattered with sudden understanding. Most of these young women are mothers, separated from their babies by prison walls and painful histories.
The young woman continued: “We don’t get any smells in here. The only thing that has any smell is my shampoo.”
Unfortunately, the wipes I brought were unscented.
“But they still smell like babies,” another woman told me as she pressed a wipe to her face and closed her eyes.
Prison life is deprivation. In the secure unit, there are no perfumes, no smells of cooking, no air-conditioning when the sun beats in and no air movement in the bedrooms. It is a loss of control of your body as you are “patted down” each day. It is absence of safety in tight spaces full of volatile people. It is isolation from family and friends. Connections with nature are missing in the too-small, brick-and-wire yard, where you might get to spend an hour.
I can understand why no one pulls a lonely yellow-flowered weed out of a crack. It is the only spot of living colour other than the empty sky above.
If your family does not visit, you also carry the pain of abandonment. I haven’t yet heard an inmate say she doesn’t deserve prison. Most understand their need for separation from the situations that resulted in their crime, but they still want to love their families.
What good does all this extra deprivation accomplish when the incarcerated are so often already damaged from the lack of safety, healthy relationships and positive opportunities in their lives on the outside?
How can healing happen when all that gives life fragrance, colour and good connections is withheld?
“I like it when your group comes; otherwise I don’t get visitors,” a young inmate told us.
We will continue to show up and bring a few moments of laughter over a game, a listening ear and a chance to create cards, in order to help a woman connect with her family.
Perhaps our visits can bring just a bit of “colour” inside, a bit like that flower growing in a crack in the prison yard.
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld serves as a volunteer visitor in the Edmonton Institution for Women.