The Edmonton Institution is that rather modern, dark brick group of buildings surrounded by yellow lights and barbed wire situated on the Manning freeway on the north side of the road out to Fort Saskatchewan. It is easy enough to pass it by on the highway without noticing it at all—on the other hand, for some people, it is their involuntary home for twenty five years of their lives.
It was something over three years ago that I first had an opportunity to go inside, as part of the Prison Fellowship group that visits for a couple of hours the first and third Saturday nights of the month. To be allowed in at all, with the idea of being allowed out the same evening, involves a fair amount of form filling and screening: once on the ‘approved’ list, there is still the matter of providing identification, signing in, depositing all personal belongings in a locker, passing through a metal detector and no less than four remotely controlled doors, before ending up in the prison chapel.
When all this has been gone through, it is almost a letdown to meet the very normal looking human beings that compose the inmate population. The inmates who attend the chapel services are not monsters—for one reason or another, they tend to be life’s losers, often with a history of alcohol and drug abuse. They behave much as any group of men might be expected to behave, condemned to live in quarters not of their own choosing, with neighbours composed of the worse criminal elements of the population, very limited chances for contact with the opposite sex, even of one’s own family, and a landlord whose best intentions are plagued by multitudes of rules and bureaucracy, and public attitudes that generally would like them to be locked up for ever, and throw away the key.
The services—and they are only one of many from different groups that visit—are simple enough. Typically, a dozen visitors and perhaps a few more inmates (out of a total jail population of around 200). Gather round for coffee and chat: settle down for half an hour of vigorous gospel singing, hymns chosen from the floor, and a certain predilection for numbers with a theme of escape—“I’ll fly away” springs to mind. Then a presentation—a talk, a testimony, frequently a visiting musical group, sometimes a TV video. Half an hour more to circulate, mix, talk and have coffee. Gather round in a circle for a final ten minutes of prayer holding hands together. A lot of hugging and goodbyes, and time to go home. Visitors, with a feeling of relief, to the outside air. Remainder—off to the cell area.
“I was in prison, and you visited me.” I doubt if many inmates recognize Christ living in them, yet repeatedly, I leave that chapel knowing that I have been with Jesus, and Jesus was in the people that I had met. Is it perhaps that in the pain, danger and shame of prison life, just as in the pressure of poverty, or the stress of sickness, our condition brings us much closer in spirit to the ‘man of sorrows’, than when we comfortably roll over in bed on a Sunday morning, and wonder whether we can make it to church or not?