In Prison Visits, Lessons in Humility

In Prison Visits, Lessons in Humility

Many of the men Ruth Carey, BSN, MPH ’76, visits monthly have no other visitors. The men come from too far away, or from dysfunctional families, or they’ve been in prison so long that relationships with loved ones have withered or disappeared. Carey visits because the men have asked for her to come—and because she feels it’s vital to overall community health.

Carey is a volunteer with Prisoner Visitation and Support, a national organization headquartered in Philadelphia, which trains volunteers to visit inmates in federal prisons. For the past 13 years, she has driven once a month to the Federal Corrections Institution in Milan, Michigan, to spend the day visiting four men. Research by the Bureau of Prisons shows that inmates who receive visits from Prisoner Visitation and Support have lower rates of recidivism. It’s one reason prison administrators welcome volunteers like Carey.

Some men talk to her about family, others about life inside prison, and many about the lives they hope to lead outside of prison. “The thing that strikes me over time,” Carey says, “is that many do a great deal of inner work—how did I get here? How am I not going to come back? What do I have to change in order not to be one of those that return?”

Fifty-two percent of all federal inmates are in jail on drug charges—many of them as a result of mandatory minimum-sentencing laws. Carey says she’s appalled that the U.S. “has a higher percentage of its population in prison than any country in the world—and that population is growing.”

She finds the experience of visiting prisoners “humbling” and the men themselves to be “human beings of worth”—regardless of their situation. One man she sees started selling drugs at age nine because all his other male relatives were in prison, and he was the only one who could support his family. “I think that my heart has opened a great deal around things I’ve learned about these men’s lives,” Carey says. “It brings tears that their lives have been so hard.”

A former public health nurse and educator, she views her prison work as a public health service. “Everything I learned in public health was focused on the aggregate population groups of which communities are constituted—and what, about a particular aggregate, is important for the health of the general population. How prisoners are treated when they’re in prisons, psychologically and physically, has an impact on the health of the community when they return. To me it’s a classic public health issue.”