Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Time Behind Bars

When I was in high school, we read The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. It's a dramatization of the price Thoreau paid for his civil disobedience: He refused to pay his taxes, which he feared would be used to pay for the war against Mexico - a campaign he bitterly opposed.

No, I didn't commit civil disobedience. Nor did I break any laws. Neither was I sent there by a judge. I was simply a visitor.

Valley Mental Health, my employer, runs a program in conjunction with Oxbow County Jail for men whose crimes are related to their drug and/or alcohol addiction. Along with several colleagues, I went to the jail to watch 2 Christmas programs put on by the inmates.

I suppose as jails go, Oxbow is rather nice - it's minimum security - but rather bright and open. The men in the facility have committed crimes related to addiction and Valley's Correctional Addiction Treatment Services, or CATS, is there to help them to recover from their addictions and have a fighting chance once they get out.

The program was done in two parts. The first group of men are still in the early part of their treatment and time behind bars. They wrote and acted in a more relevant version of A Christmas Carol in which greed was replaced with addiction. The message of redemption wasn't lost on anyone in the room.

The second group were those who have nearly completed the program and will soon be released. They mostly sang some beautiful Christmas carols. Had we not been in a county jail, it could have been any men's choir caroling in a mall, church or concert hall. There was something so beautiful - almost haunting- as the men softly sang "Silent Night" while a deaf inmate signed the words for us.

But by far, the most poignant moment came when one man stood in front of an audience comprised mainly of County officials, Valley staff, and correctional officers, and related to us his story as the other men quietly hummed Silent Night.

He told us of how the two most important things in the entire world to him are his wife and his young, 2-year old son whom he had recently taught the universal hand gesture to show "all gone." Then he told us how he'd learn that for two days following his drug-related arrest, his son wandered the house shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Daddy all gone." He illustrated to us exactly what his addiction had stolen from him: Christmas with his 2-year old son...something that he could never have back.

He explained what his time in jail and his graduation from the CATS program have made him realize: that his love for his kid and for his family was stronger than his addiction. It was an incredibly moving moment. And although I teased my boss that in 20 years of professional life I'd never given my CEO my handkerchief, she responded by asking me if I wanted the "unused" half for myself. It's true, there wasn't a dry eye in the place - even the tough correctional officers had to stare at their feet for a moment.

What I find amazing is the lesson I learned during my couple of hours behind bars. Time that was mine, that I freely gave, not forced on me because of addiction. I learned that the time I've got with my boys is the most important thing in my life. Even when they're pains in the butt, maybe especially when they are.