Atop a concrete wall, jagged edges of bottles, brown and green, jab at the sky, translucent in the sun. They are meant to prevent escape.
Behind the wall, in a courtyard, hundreds of women roam. They wear two kinds of uniforms: blue and white if they have already been sentenced, and orange if they still await their prison terms.
A blanket of casualness cloaks the scene. Two women in blue uniforms, pass a baby back and forth. A prison guard takes the infant in his arms for two minutes and hands him back.
Another woman strolls by, her hand nestled in that of a young man, who also wears a blue uniform. Their feet, clad in flip flops, kick up a sheen of dirt as they walk.
This feels nothing like an American prison.
Two other women in the courtyard would know.
One, a Chicago Navigator, Mica Garrett, sits in the courtyard eyeing the women, looking for one in particular named Nat, whom she had met on a previous visit to the prison.
Across from her, Colleen Brinkmeier widens her eyes as she peers at several women across from her, realizing that as a visitor, she has a direct view of those female prisoners bathing and brushing their teeth.
“I’m glad I’m not in here,” runs through her mind over and over.
It’s Mica’s third visit to the prison and Colleen’s first.
After serving a couple of prison sentences in Illinois—and becoming a Christian while in prison—Mica started a faith-based residential re-entry program called Bridge to Freedom. Colleen, who also served time in Illinois prisons, was its first female graduate.
They’re here to see if the Navigators in Chicago can forge a continuing relationship with the women in the prison here, to see if they can unearth hope in a place of heartbreak.
This is a prison referred to by a number, the prosaic name of this facility deep in Southeast Asia. It holds mostly women, plus young men who enter as minors.
Mica and Colleen walk amid the concrete prison, and venture into a room where inmates sit at sewing machines, working on the blue and orange prison uniforms. Though the uniforms all look the same at first glance, the women have managed some individuality. One has sewed on buttons emblazoned with apples. Another wears multicolored buttons.
Mica sidles up to the women and asks questions, with a staffer from the prison ministry translating: “What’s your name? How old are you? Do you have a husband? Do you have children? Why are you here? How much longer do you have here?”
An older woman, Lim Ny, says she’s been at the prison for 12 years and expects to leave in about two-and-a-half years.
Learning how to sew, she says, has inspired her to open a tailoring shop when she leaves.
A younger woman seated behind her, Sreytouch, says she’s been in prison for nine years. Her husband is in another prison.
She doesn’t say the number of years she has left.
A prison guard, through the prison ministry staffer, tells us the reason: She’s been sentenced for the rest of her life.
Still, she says she enjoys sewing, enjoys having something to do with her hands, enjoys making things, even if they are prison uniforms.
“This makes me very happy,” she says.
The vocational and training programs, Sirivuth says, equips those in prison with skills across 10 disciplines—from computers to literacy to electricity to English—that men and women can use to gain employment when they leave prison.
The faith-based organization has gained the trust of the government, establishing MOUs, or Memorandums of Understanding, with various public departments to set up vocational programs in the country’s three federal prisons.
Their classes have served more than 950 prisoners in the past year, but aside from vocation and learning, the ministry also focuses on health and nutrition, visiting foreigners in prison, assisting the children of those in prison, reintegration and re-entry, and resiliency of spirit. The latter is, in essence, a regular Bible study.
“Our vision is to holistically address the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs,” Sirivuth says in his office, about 20 minutes away from the prison. “Here, our culture is that visiting prisons brings you bad luck. So families don’t want to visit the prisons. Even to walk past the prisons, it brings bad luck, so they have to invite a monk to drive out the bad luck and say blessings. So we are the bridge to break the cycle of such traditions.”
Mica smiles several times during Sirivuth’s comments, noting the similarities in bridge-building between his organization and hers. They came at it different ways—she out of a calling from God after her own prison sentences that re-entry services needed strengthening, and him out of a realization that despite working for Christian organizations for years, he had not been truly visiting and serving those in prison, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 25—but in distinct parts of the world, they both try to bring dignity and faith into the prison and re-entry system.
Sirivuth continues, saying a prison official came to him with a request that the organization implement a culinary skills program in another of the country’s prisons, but he wasn’t sure he had the knowledge or resources.
Right away, Mica’s eyes land on his. The nonprofit she founded, Bridge to Freedom, happens to fund itself partly from a catering service run by its students.
“We might be able to do something,” she says. “Let’s keep talking.”
In another alcove inside of the prison Mica and Colleen visit, women sit and stand in front of mirrors. Hot hair straighteners lay on tables, plugged into multiple outlets on the floor.
Women sit, holding each other’s hands, painting them with hues of blue or beige, lilac and lavender.
Mica and Colleen walked into the area of the prison used for cosmetology training. In seconds, a woman in a blue prison uniform gravitates toward Mica, pointing out her braids and saying, “I love your hair!”
The women sit us down and grab our fingers with tenderness, asking what colors we would like on our nails.
I choose a deep purple, the color of my alma mater, Northwestern University. Mica and Colleen decline politely—Colleen, a lover of nail polish, had just indulged in a manicure that morning—but they did sit and watch and talk.
As a woman in blue garb named Tavika started on my index finger, the woman who had pointed out Mica’s braids, her face curious and inquiring, sidled next to her.
She smiles, looks at Mica and asks, “Can you cook soul food?”
Mica, who once opened up a soul food restaurant in Alabama called “Just Released” and dreams of starting a similar restaurant in this Southeast Asian country, glanced at her with curiosity, answering that she could.
The woman introduces herself as Manvin.
“My husband is black,” she says. “He’s from Nigeria. That’s why I love your hair so much.”
Manvin adds, her eyes raw now, “He’s also the father of my son.” She squats beside Mica and looks up at her as tears pool.
“Is your husband the reason why you’re in here?”
Manvin nods, her eyelids turning crimson as she cries.
She talks about her son, who was an infant when she entered prison and is now four years old.
“It’s so, so hard,” she cries. “It’s really hard here, you know.”
Mica runs her hand through Manvin’s hair. She pats her shoulder.
And there, amid hairdryers and nail polish and hairbrushes, Mica and Manvin hold each other. Shared experience fills the space between them.
When Manvin looks up, Mica gazes at her, brown eyes peering into brown eyes.
“You’ll come home,” she says. “You’ve got hope.”
Manvin inhales and nods.
“But listen to me,” says Mica, her tone growing sterner. “Don’t go looking for him. Don’t you go back to him,” she says, referring to Manvin’s husband, who pushed her into drug smuggling.
“You go looking for Jesus.”
They hug, and Mica asks Manvin to write to her.
A few minutes later, Mica sits in the prison courtyard, watching as inmates hold hands, brush their teeth and pass the baby around, wondering if she will get to see the woman named Nantiya, who goes by Nat.
Her eyes take in the men and women walking in blue and orange, glancing at faces and hoping for one familiar one.
Ten minutes later, a slender woman in a blue uniform appears before her: Nat. She wears her hair to her shoulders and though she is 32, she could be mistaken for a college student. She speaks English flawlessly.
Mica breaks into a smile, and they hug.
“How are you doing?” Mica asks.
“I’m okay, you know,” says Nat.
They had met twice before, and Nat has remained on Mica’s mind. Would there be a way to help her from the outside? To contact her mother? To procure legal assistance? Mica isn’t sure, but she wants to try. For now, all Mica can do is give her presence.
Standing under a small overhang that provides shade and respite from the 95-degree heat, Nat begins her story. She says she was born in a neighboring country in Southeast Asia but adopted by American parents and raised partly in America.
She confirms that she got mixed up with some men several years ago, yet when asked about the details of her case and whether it involved running drugs, she seemed vague and almost bewildered herself by how or why she ended up in prison.
She had been in the prison for five years so far. Her term? Life.
What Nat does know for sure, she says, is this:
Late in 2014, she was given a book by the prison ministry called “The Grace Awakening” by Charles Swindoll.
Up until then, she didn’t believe in God. She had thought of the Bible as “B.S., a bunch of stories.”
Yet as she read the book, she kept thinking, “What if God really does love me?”
And then one evening as she neared the end of the book, in this prison surrounded by concrete and jagged glass, hundreds of miles from where she was born and thousands of miles from the country where she grew up, she knew.
And Nat invited Jesus into her life.
Since then, Nat says she feels peace. When guards threaten to turn off the running water, Nat calms the fellow prisoners she calls her sisters by telling them to stay serene, that things would be fine. Despite the thought of an interminable prison sentence, she feels loved.
“If it wasn’t for prison,” she says, “I would never know Jesus.”
On hearing Nat recount her story, Mica nods. She reflects herself on how single-mindedly she wanted to see Nat that day, almost to the exclusion of listening to other women’s stories in the prison.
But then, in the cosmetology room next to the boxes of nail polish, Manvin opened up to her about her toddler son and her hardship. And together, Manvin and Mica cried. That receptiveness to Manvin, she says, may have led to God allowing her to see Nat.
Mica thinks about her experience with Manvin, about the plight of Nat and her life sentence, but about her peacefulness, as well, and about the time she herself spent confined by walls topped with barbed wire, where God met her, too.
“A prison is like a garden for God,” she says. “He waters it, and it just grows.”
She gives Nat another hug. She looks into her eyes. She’ll be back soon she says, and then passes through the concrete wall to the other side, with dust from the courtyard spiraling behind her.
By Erin Chan Ding
Navigators in Chicago
Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with the Navigators in Chicago. She and Kristen Norman, a freelance photographer, traveled to Southeast Asia this year to see the work being done and the partnerships being formed with the Navigators in Chicago. Stories from their journey chronicling the relationship between Southeast Asia and the Navigators in Chicago will appear periodically this year.