Photo: Andrew Bardwell, CC license. https://flic.kr/p/8hbbe

Photo: Andrew Bardwell, CC license. https://flic.kr/p/8hbbe

I went to prison last week – for good cause.

I went to prison for the same reason I went to the White House two weeks before: to meet with people who are dedicated and WORKING, to help end veteran homelessness simply because veterans do matter.

The good cause was to thank the facility’s inmate veterans group for their help in housing our nation’s heroes who are still on the streets. These inmates are also heroes who fought for our freedom, but have now lost theirs.

The good cause was to receive a check for $252, which they wanted to donate to Veterans Matter. The money was raised at the Toledo Correctional Institution through a lasagna dinner fundraiser the inmates had just completed. It was a pretty nifty idea: prisoners who wanted to support the cause, or just have a taste of Italian cuisine for $8, could pre-order a huge helping of lasagna along with salad and garlic bread.

In meeting them I was moved by their humanity, their compassion, their dedication to those still on the streets. It again verified what I have seen time and time again on the streets: those who have the least, give the most. I have seen those with nothing give much. More than those with much, who give nothing.

The barbed wire reminded me this was not any group. They know where they are, they know it sucks, but they decided if they are going to be there, then dammit they want to do what they can to help others.

Though we have long been taught prison is filled with bad people, I did not feel that. I felt warmth and compassion. During my half hour talk, I felt a room full of people smiling, laughing at my jokes, moved like I am by the story of Jimmy, and equally committed AND WORKING to help veterans abandoned on the streets of our nation. They had lost their rights, but not their humanity and compassion – so said their actions, not just their words.

This group could have been any group I speak with; high schools, college classes, rotary clubs, church groups. It had all sorts of characters in all sorts of shapes, sizes and looks; from businessmen to tattooed canvases. The barbed wire reminded me this was not any group. They know where they are, they know it sucks, but they decided if they are going to be there, then dammit they want to do what they can to help others.

Speaking to them for a half hour, I did not feel I was surrounded by bad people. I felt that I was surrounded by two dozen people who had done bad things and got caught. I say “got caught” because the truth is, I could have been one of those sitting in that seat. As an addict and alcoholic, I did indeed do bad things. I just never got caught.

After my talk I stayed to chat with the group. I met the fellow who organized the fundraiser, a former marine and the head of the prison’s veteran group. He was almost in tears over the plight of our homeless veterans. Another man, who is part of the state-wide prison veteran group, along with a couple others who were brimming with pride, brought their dogs in to meet me. The dogs are part of the Puppies in Prison training program by Assistance Dogs of America, a program that takes in homeless dogs to have inmates train them to become assistance dogs. The handlers’ smiles went ear to ear with pride as they described their role in helping others.*

One of the very likable men I met turned out to have killed two people. In an instant he went from XXXX, the very nice man I met who cares so much about those veterans still on the streets, to the label of “murderer.” Same man, different lens.

And I got to know the men, their backgrounds. To one I asked what he will do when he gets out? He said he will be released in 2128.

Reality hits. This is where my internal conflict began. I had met these men just as men; men of compassion caring about and DOING something for homeless veterans. As I got to know them and their stories, hearing why they are there… being honest, it scared me. Not just their crimes, but how I started re-framing my image of them once I added my layer of “judgment” of their behavior.

One of the very likable men I met turned out to have killed two people. In an instant he went from XXXX, the very nice man I met who cares so much about those veterans still on the streets, to the label of “murderer.” Same man, different lens.

I have often said: “not our job to judge”. I believe all of the life manuals, the Bible, Koran, Torah, etc., all say the same thing: Love ALL, and down the road a piece, God will do some judging. Love all.

Admittedly, being next to a real live murderer at first scared me and evoked feelings of fear and loathing, evidenced by my slight lean back an inch. He saw it, of course. But I had met the man based on his compassion.

Working through it in my head and heart (it took conscience labor), I realized the truth is what he DID is not who he IS. To me, he is still the compassionate human being I met who, in an instant of rage years ago, ended the life of two people. He is now in this facility to pay the price for that instant, the rest of HIS life, times two. They own his life, but not his soul. His soul shines today; I saw it.

This speaks to the topic of redemption, which is another topic for another day.

For me, this visit caused a profound insight. I found when it comes to homeless veterans, there is no difference between the people I met at the White House and the people I met in prison. Both of these groups not only say “Veterans Matter”, they are doing something about it. But there IS a huge difference between the men I met in prison and many other Americans…

So often I hear “We are behind you all the way.” But they are way behind; in fact, on the sideline, just cheering.

The inmates at Toledo Correctional Institution and all the advocates and leaders at the White House are not behind the veterans who are abandoned on the streets. They stand WITH them, by action.

Veterans Matter. We [all] take care of our own.

Ken

*Prison rules dictate I not use the men’s names. But to the men I met, if you read this, and I hope you do, great work! Your compassion helps many veterans.