~ From the Irwin County Detention Center, by Sr. Mary Dennis Lentsch

photo by Felice Cohen-Joppa

July 8, 2011

Dear Peacemaking Friends,

With all the prayers and positive energy coming to me from so many directions, I feel I’m doing very well here at the Ocilla jail.

This letter is being written to LaQuita with what the commissary calls a “ballpoint pen”. It is the skinny little filler for a pen so it is difficult to hold and write. It costs 60 cents. In the “real world” at the Dollar General store you can get 10 Bic pens for $1.00. LaQuita and Carol receives my letter and put it on the computer and email it out. I’m so grateful for their gift of time and energy to keep me connected.

I live in POD E10 with capacity for thirty-two, in cells of four with doors opening to a Day Room. We can walk or exercise in the day room and also visit, watch TV and/or play cards – we also eat our meals there. All POD’s have space for thirty-two but some have cells for two and these are usually assigned first. Latest word is that all beds must be filled at all times – our POD is about 25% vacant. This is a private for profit prison so the bottom line is the priority.

We have one hour for recreation each day and can choose to participate. If it’s outdoor rec we go to a fenced in area where we can walk in 90-100 degree heat and swat gnats for exercise. If it is indoor rec we go to the gym that is terribly smelly. I did go to the gym the other day because there are 4 nail clippers available, so I clipped my toe nails and fingernails. For an emery board we rub fingernails on the cement block walls.

One day last week I was walking alone in the yard and three young women approached and asked if I was a “nun”. When I said “yes” they asked if we could pray. We joined hands in a little circle and I suggested we would go around the circle and each say a prayer. I started and was so humbled by the spontaneous heartfelt prayer from each of them. Then we agreed that we would just say names of people we wanted to lift up – just saying names not in any order. A lot of names flowed like a rushing waterfall! We decided not to sing and closed with a great circle hug. What a blessing for the four of us and maybe for others watching us.

Last night at 8:20 pm a guard announced there would be church for whoever wanted to attend. I wasn’t sure what to expect but figured a person can’t go wrong choosing God. PODs 7-9-10 are usually grouped together for activities – rec, church, etc. Of ninety-six people, twenty attended church. We walked down long halls – hands behind our backs – to a courtroom. Yes, we met in a courtroom! A woman from outside presided and led us in Gospel singing, reading passages from 1 Samuel and Deuteronomy and then testimonies. We closed with petitions/intercessions. For me it was a time of blessing to be gathered with this community of inmate sisters praising our good and gracious God.

Like so many jails and prisons we have no access to email or in-coming phone calls. The cost of out-going phone calls is exorbitant – at least a $5.00 connect charge and 50 cents per minute. We can receive mail with enclosures – no stamps or cash. I’ve received a newspaper in a brown envelope.

Ocilla is about an 8 hour drive from Knoxville so I don’t expect any visitors and feel fine with this. I believe the time will go quickly. Just for information there is no visitor list. Visitation per inmate is one hour per week. Female times are Friday 1-5 pm and Sunday 8-12 am. Calls must be made on Monday or Tuesday (229-468-4121) to set up date and time for visit. There is no guarantee by the jail that a visit set up will actually take place. Visits are through a Plexiglas window. It seems to me there are too many unknowns for a satisfying and worthwhile visit.

One of my challenges is trying to understand the directives from the guards. They continually yell and have mushy articulation. Guess they never learned in preschool about “inside and outside” voices. Sometimes I wonder if the interview for a guard position requires them to be able to yell at certain decibels with a message that can’t be understood. If so, we have A+ guards! I also wonder if their job description requires them to yell at least 27 times each day.

Everyone is supposed to be in their cell at 11 pm. I usually go to bed at 9:30 and praise God I can sleep with the lights on and a carnival atmosphere. The first yelling begins at 4:15 am and we have breakfast about 5:00 am. I have never been much for sleeping during the day. Twice a week we have cold cereal shaped like KIX or Cheerios – tastes like Styrofoam soaked in sugar water. This is the only time we see a carton of milk. At meals there is a big thermos with a colored drink. I’ve noticed that where the drink drips on the floor it seems to be corroding the cement! I drink water at all meals.

This week I put in a request to the chaplain to see if there were any books available to nourish my spirit. Romance novels are not my thing! I’ve been reading them for the geography/history/cultural aspects – learned about China/India/Everglades/Amish/Ireland/Antarctic… We can receive a paperback book if it comes from a bookstore or publishing company. We are limited to three books at a time in our plastic storage tub.

During these fifteen plus days, I have been blessed in so many ways:

  • Women in the POD care and share
  • Good appetite and sleeping well
  • People “outside” interceding for me
  • Cellmates are special
  • The gifts of hope and serenity

May we each grow in our appreciation of the Sacred in the people and gifts of creation around us!

Peace and love…Mary Dennis