I arrived and was immediately instructed to put any personal items or items that can be turned into weapons in a locker before security opened the door. Apparently anything can be turned into a weapon. (Just kidding, I already knew that – that Mexican blood runs deep!)
Any noise that was made echoed throughout the room and down the halls. A whisper could be heard 30 feet away. The walls had no color, just white painted brick. Every door was thick, heavy metal. Security escorted us through the empty, hollow halls. It looked like I should feel cold just being in there.
We stopped at a random door that looked like it would open to a storage room. Instead we stepped into a living chamber. The far back wall was lined with prison cells on the first and second story, and wrapped around to a second and third wall. There was only one female guard among 5. The center of the open chamber had plastic chairs lined up, labeled with names. The air was humid, and my spirit was hit with oppression.
The guard immediately took my equipment to set up the PowerPoint presentation. But the only thing I could focus on was the girls. Some were finding their seats labeled with their names, others were finishing getting ready. I knew because I saw one girl brushing her teeth at the lineup of sinks, another was drying her hair with a towel. No one was in the showers but they were still dripping from use. The half doors would have made it easy to see the top of a girl’s head and the bottom half of her legs. And there were men in the room?
In one glance I saw all the places that are normally private, exposed and open. My spirit recoiled at that type of exposure. The girls were told not to talk and could only look straight ahead. I had positioned myself in front of the guard’s table, on the side the girls were sitting; to make myself available for tech help, but also to be close to the inmates.
A weight fell onto my chest from my first step over the threshold into this whitewashed dungeon. The oppression was palpable. The brokenness too overwhelming for words. And all I wanted to do was sit with the girls and talk. Talk about life and their experiences. Their families, or the ones that never existed. Their likes and dislikes, hobbies, and interests. I wanted to sit with them, just to have the chance to connect.
Immediately, I was told to step back and sit down near the entrance. The weight of my emotions was choking me, and not being able to move freely to help set up my presentation perplexed me.
The climate was oppressive, even in my introduction. Presenting is like putting on a show to me. I become animated in a way you won’t see me in normal conversation, outgoing in ways I’m only ever comfortable with around best friends, but I’m still me. Despite the animation, it’s still me so it’s still very chill. But even my animation was going to cut through the fog of darkness like a bomb going off.
My only prayer was for favor with the girls that they might have the ears to hear. God is good, for He gave me favor. And he worked a miracle.
From the very first question, a girl disclosed that she had been trafficked. She briefly described parts of her experience to answer the question I posed. The petite blonde next to her stared with shock.
I began the content of the presentation with a video. The girls were extremely responsive throughout the presentation, and I think we all had a lot of fun – even though we were talking about some awkward topics. They got a chance to commit to combating sex trafficking themselves, and wrote their commitments on a bracelet. Some were very practical, others involved encouragement, another was personal – and that was to not look at porn. They all epically failed at holding back their fits of laughter. I on the other hand was just thrilled to explain why that was such an important thing to commit to!
But the miracle happened through compassion and empathy. During every break from speaking and showing another video, the reality of where I was would hit me: jail. Jail is only a thing because extreme brokenness exists. But the nature of jail consumed me in those moments, because jail is not meant to heal brokenness. It is only meant to punish brokenness.
I still do not know how those girls landed in that situation. But I was honored to meet them that night. In my desire to connect with them it was a struggle to remind myself where I was, and of the nature of jail. Jail is not the place to trust people, to help people, or have anyone else’s back but your own. Because you don’t know when someone is going to stab you in the back, quite literally. There is no room for compassion or empathy when you are in a place of punishment and survival. Yet God broke through and brought compassion and empathy even to that place.
After the first video the petite blonde had a look of horror on her face, and I watched as she turned to the girl next to her and asked, is that what happened to you? She nodded a yes.
Still the petite blonde didn’t turn away, even though her stare was not being returned. Then she spoke three simple words. Words that don’t make anything better and may have even roused hostility in the other girl, but words that went against the grain of the very nature of jail.
I’m so sorry.
And I could tell she was. There was no pity in her eyes. Only compassion and empathy, maybe even disgust and anger – but that was toward the injustice.
God broke in during the first 10 minutes and moved a heart to be more like His. A heart transformed is a far greater miracle than a broken limb healed.
I left heartbroken when I left. How badly I just wanted a chance to be their friend. How outraged I was at the way society deals with broken teenagers. How desperately I wanted to tell them about Jesus. I adamantly questioned one guard about how to bring in additional resources, just trying to figure out how to get back in somehow and help these girls.
The faces I saw that night are the reason I just can’t stop doing this work. People hear numbers, statistics, and stories. I see faces. And each of those faces are worth fighting for, even if they are in jail.
Thank you to the Girl Scouts who invited Red Light Rebellion into the detention center as a guest speaker for the troop they lead within that system! They do great work and are on the forefront of sex trafficking prevention!