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Taking compassion behind the walls

Taking compassion behind the walls

Published: June 19, 2013
Pete Martel with interns

Program Associate Pete Martel, center, works with interns in the office of AFSC Criminal Justice Program in Michigan. For more photos of AFSC staff and interns, please click here.

Photo: AFSC / Jon Krieg

A pastor friend once said, “There is no love in prison.”

When you see the tall fences topped with razor wire, the guard towers and the dour faces of many who work behind the walls, it’s easy to feel that way. There’s an oppressive air to prison. Punishment, like humidity, takes the heat and makes it unbearable.

But for Natalie Holbrook and Pete Martel, prisoners aren’t just people to punish at worst or ignore at best. Working for AFSC’s Criminal Justice Program in Michigan, Natalie and Pete breathe new life into one of AFSC’s old mottos—“To see what love can do…in prison.”

Turns out, love can do a lot.

With the help of an energetic crew of college interns, AFSC responds to thousands of letters each year from Michigan prisoners, tracking their concerns about living conditions and health care and prodding the Michigan Department of Corrections to treat prisoners more humanely.

Stepping into their unpretentious garage-turned-office behind the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting is a bit like entering a classroom modeled after a beehive. Interns buzz about the place, researching issues and crafting meaningful responses to prisoners’ letters. Every now and then, a hand reaches for a stray cookie or donut.

Natalie and Pete, meanwhile, remind you of activist professors—smart people with deep (and personal) knowledge of prison issues who relish their engagement with the students. Together, they create an environment of very serious work and great fun—not a bad combo.

Natalie and Pete take their work inside Michigan’s prisons on a regular basis, too, hosting parole readiness workshops designed to help prisoners prepare for the long, sometimes frustrating, and unfortunately political process of eventually getting out of prison.

It’s a journey Pete knows well, having traveled it himself several years ago. Thanks to the support of his family and an innate love of learning, Pete turned his life around while spending ten years in solitary confinement. He tells prisoners, “You’ve got time right now. Use it well.”

Natalie and Pete give a lot of other no-nonsense advice to prisoners about what they need to do—the programs and treatment they need to take, the plans they need to assemble, the relationships they need to mend with family and friends on the outside.

They tell the prisoners what the parole board will be looking for—a real sense of responsibility for the crime, empathy for the victims, and why they should be granted parole. Still, because the Michigan parole board is made up of political appointees, Natalie and Pete tell them, “You can do everything right and still get ‘flopped,’” i.e. denied parole.

For her part, Natalie shares a wealth of practical information with the prisoners but also makes one point crystal clear: Despite all the obstacles, it’s up to them not to re-offend. “I want you to be a good neighbor,” she says, “and I want to be one, too.”

As Natalie puts it, “We’re all working on becoming the best person we can be.” It’s up to all of us, inside and outside of prison, to be respectful of ourselves and each other, to build rather than tear down our communities.

After one recent workshop ended, several prisoners moved toward the front of the unadorned prison chapel to ask further questions and to thank Natalie and Pete for coming.

Love has a long “to do” list these days. With prisoners in Michigan, AFSC is seeing to it.

For more photos of AFSC Michigan's staff and interns, please click here.