500 Hours of Intensity in a Prison

Editor’s Note: Humble, caring, dedicated, filled with dreams for a future, our university scholarship students work extremely hard while managing on limited funds and traveling to and from classes on dangerous public transportation. Above all, these committed youth show an unceasing appreciation for the privilege to study.

Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish. Click here.


We heard casual references made about an elusive 500 hours of social service requirement within the university curriculum and wanted to explore what that meant with one of our scholarship students studying law. She had mentioned her work was within the prison system really piquing our interest. My partner and I conducted an interview to find out more details of her experience. We are choosing to withhold her name.

I recall the day we met this student many years ago. First, she is a shy soft-spoken, petite girl. On the day she came for our scholarship interview, she was understandably nervous. Her dad arrived with her probably partly to calm her jittery nerves and partly to convince us of her scholarly abilities. A pastor friend of the family who had recommended her also came along.

Although her size remains tiny and her voice soft-spoken, her confidence has soared to new limits. She no longer needs anyone to speak on her behalf. This young lady is quite capable of handling herself in the most demanding situations, stretching herself far beyond her comfort level.

Juggling a demanding schedule of on-line law classes with a bout of COVID-19 thrown in the mix not to mention emotional concerns surrounding her dad’s recent severe stroke are tough for anyone let alone a young woman who now is required to perform 500 hours of social service. My partner and I have been trying to provide long-distance emotional support to sustain her through these rough spots. Likewise, she never misses a beat by providing us the same support for our own individual health issues. This is what accompaniment is all about – sustaining relationships.

Our student shares:

We students must perform 500 hours of social service which can be done in a number of settings. Our work is all strictly volunteer, no pay. We are there for the experience we will glean. I had several choices. I could have done my work in a civil court setting, marriage court, etc. The downsides of those choices as I heard were the cost for the various documents required, lack of experience I would gain, or being made to run errands rather than doing anything meaningful. My choice was to serve in the prison system. It may seem like an unusual and harsh choice, but I felt it would offer me the most meaningful and challenging experience. That has been true already since I just completed classes in criminology and penitentiary law and was able to contribute in those classes based on my recent experience within the prison system. It took me six months to fulfill my required number of hours due to COVID-19 restrictions in the middle.

This was an extremely over-crowded all-male prison of 4600 inmates exceeding the capacity for which it was built. The prison population consists of a wide mix of inmates including gang members as well as the general public. At one point the major gangs such as MS-13 and MS-18 were separated; however, that is no longer the case.

Inmates range from ages 18 to elderly, many of whom will eventually die there. Inmates are divided into three levels: level 1 inmates are considered ones with bad behavior and no signs of improvement; level 2 inmates have more access to opportunities within the prison; level 3 inmates move around more freely with privileges to attend certain workshops (Editor’s Note: Sounds like the equivalent our rehab) for wood and metal shops, a shoe store, etc. They also are responsible for cleaning the administrative offices.

This particular location required me to take public transportation for one hour and fifteen minutes each way. I worked from 7:30 AM-3:30 PM; my university classes were in the evening til 8:30 PM. When I arrive at the prison, I am stripped of all my belongings. No contact other than a cordial greeting is permitted between the volunteers and inmates except when conducting individual interviews. Security officers control everything. Inmates know me only by my first name.

Inmates previously were permitted family member visits, but that has been discontinued due to COVID. Visitors now can come only to drop off clothes and personal hygiene products for their family members who are incarcerated but cannot see them. The only visits permitted to inmates currently are lawyers and court processors. It should be noted that not all inmates have personal lawyers; they may have a technical team assigned to them by the government.

Clergy visits have also been suspended. But at 1 PM you can hear inmates singing religious praise hymns led by inmates who lead their own worship services. These are popular among the inmates.

At first I felt insecure and fearful going into this new setting. It was scary and intimidating. Gradually over time I began to feel more comfortable. The only lingering concern is that because my bus schedule was predictable and people could see me going to and coming from a prison on a regular basis, would someone confront me asking for a favor? It has never happened but is always in the back of my head.

My class assignment was to support the inmates within the legal process. I did that in a variety of ways. It was motivating for me to be able to help in some small ways which seemed productive even though on a short-term basis. Some of the jobs I did included attaching documents for inmates’ legal status, receiving the status and computations of inmates’ status. I conducted over 70 interviews to update inmate information such as determining which of the three levels of security within the system they should be assigned. If the inmate qualified for levels 2 or 3, what kinds of aptitudes, interests, experiences did they have for each of the workshops within the prison – i.e. any carpentry skills? Did they require a psychology program? I also supported the recent COVID -19 vaccine program for inmates.

My country is poor and often violent. Things can become complicated by rumors and speculation making it difficult to find the truth. Security in the country uses violent means to deal with violent actions only adding to the hate and escalating situations rather than creating healthier options for youth.

The attitude of many within my country is a hard approach on crime. Lock up anyone suspicious; they deserve death. I personally don’t feel you can make that sweeping decision for everyone. It is up to the legal system on a case-by case basis.

I learned to experience first-hand the reality and conditions in which inmates live in prisons and will forever draw from those experiences. Those inmates who had the biggest impact on me were the ones I felt were innocent and should not have been incarcerated, those unjustly accused but sitting in prison.

It was often depressing and discouraging to hear some inmates share their difficult stories. I recall one young man who became addicted to drugs when he was eight years old. I ask where are the parents? The reality is that so many don’t have parents, no one to guide them or set an example. These kids don’t deserve to grow up that way.

Another one I recall is a sobbing 18-year-old boy with a 17-year-old girlfriend whose mother did not like him, so accused him of sexual crimes against her daughter. He very convincingly claimed his innocence and there was no corroboratory evidence against him. Yet in the system without the ability to pay for a good lawyer, he is forced to wait up to two years in prison until his case comes to court. During that time he is abused by other inmates. It is one of so many heart-breaking stories.

An unexpected and jarring experience for me happened when one day I spotted a childhood elementary classmate off in the distance working in a mechanical workshop. I never expected to see someone I knew in prison. He was a nice kid from a nice family with good parents. He recognized me, and we exchanged a brief greeting with one another. I’m not sure what his offense was, perhaps drug-related. It was difficult for me.

My dream job would be working in an independent law firm defending public cases. I chose this field in order to help people and make a difference. Without the scholarship program I could never possibly even consider having choices such as these in my life. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity. Every single day I give thanks to you for selecting me.

Later in my college career I am required to complete an 800-hour practicum. That will be in a different institution. I take a test to help determine the path of study and location of it.

My work in the prison began in July, 2021, and finished in December, 2021. It was a good decision for me to choose the prison for my social service work. I learned much, gained first-hand experience, overcame some fears and prejudices; and feel I did some meaningful work.

Editor’s Note: I began with adjectives describing our scholarship students. My partner’s and my reactions to this student in particular left us feeling impressed by her vocabulary and command of English. She has shown such a maturity about her while maintaining a grace and humility. Photo- courtesy of google


    Afflicted with Hope / embracingelsalvador.org is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

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