The Dignity of a Prisoner

by jane davis jane@hope-howse.org
Published in “Serving Time, Serving Others

Holly and I first met in a women's prison in Georgia. I had gone there to do a story on Jews in jail for the Atlanta Jewish Times. Being Jewish, I had never thought about "my people" being in prison. But there they were, Holly, Barbara and others. They had been locked away with virtually no contact with the Jewish community. My "neshama," my Jewish soul, screamed out, "You cannot abandon them!" and so I became a volunteer, going through all the training necessary to do prison work. I began going weekly to provide a Jewish connection for the handful of Jews scattered in the prison like prizes in a Cracker Jack box.

Holly was one of the women who came regularly to the group. She had a presence about her, one of confidence, strength and a distrust of newcomers. There was no question that I was going to have to prove myself to her - prove to her I cared, prove to her that I was going to continue coming. I almost sensed that I represented everyone who had ever abandoned her.

Holly was a thin woman, about five-foot-five with a golden mane of hair that flowed far below her waist. It was her pride and joy. She had intense eyes—even behind her thick, oversized glasses—and they bore through every fiber of whomever received her scrutiny. With Holly, there was no room for games, no room for lies. There was no room for anything but raw, honest communication. She would know if there was anything else.

And so began a friendship that lasted many years, both in and out of the prison. I looked forward to her wisdom. I looked forward to what she had to share. I came to understand that it was her unscrupulous honesty that was initially disarming but ultimately so welcome.

In her years in prison, Holly had become a Christian. However, given the reconnection to something that lived deep inside her, she welcomed every opportunity to pray and remember her Jewish roots. She held back tears each time we lit Shabbos candles and chanted the Shema—the holiest of Jewish prayers. She glowed in awe when we lit Hanukkah candles, sang Hebrew songs and ate the traditional potato pancakes called latkes.

While she was incarcerated, Holly had some very serious medical problems, including breast cancer, from which she never fully recovered. She also developed Crohn's disease, a rare intestinal ailment that disproportionately affects Jews.

One day I received a call from her. "I'm in the hospital," she said. Her cancer had recurred. Holly was so ill that once admitted to the hospital she could not return to prison. She lived in the home of another volunteer family while undergoing all of her treatments and hospital stays. When I arrived, I almost did not recognize her. She looked as if she had just come out of a concentration camp. Her hair was gone, replaced by peach fuzz. Her cheeks were sunken, her body, emaciated.

For a couple weeks, I went every day to visit her. Miraculously, she survived, but her body was failing her. It would become another kind of prison.

I was continually amazed at her spirit, her determination, her honor and her grace. There was something very different about Holly. We didn't talk a lot about why she had been in prison. I knew the details, but that wasn't the focus of our time together. We spent the time focused on human dignity, love, giving to another, serving and humor.

One day, I found out Holly had been rushed to the hospital again. She was in pain—serious pain. Holly's insides had grown together in such a way that digestion was nearly impossible. The only way she would be able to survive was on intravenous feedings.

Holly rejected the idea. There would be no more treatments.

Her mother came to Georgia from Wyoming and sat vigil with her. It had been a long, long time since they had been together. Other people, family and friends, came as well. They were present when Holly died.

When I first showed up at the prison to do a story, I had no idea that I had been led to a place that I would end up volunteering—not only my time but my heart.