Don’t call us, we’ll call you

March 20, 2012


I’m not really sure if this is going to be Oliver’s story or mine.

My first job working in D.C. was as an intern at D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, an organization that “advocated for the humane treatment and dignity of all persons convicted or charged with a criminal offense under DC law who are housed in prisons, jails or community corrections programs” (this organization no longer exists in its original form, but the mission is still alive and well).  My daily work consisted of reading letters and requests for assistance from incarcerated men and women, mostly in D.C. but also from around the country.  Most of the time I couldn’t help them at all — we did not deal with parole or criminal issues, the most common requests for assistance, but only civil issues relating to their incarceration.  Even with regard to civil issues, we were seldom able to do much for those seeking help (for example, getting peanut butter into the commissary, a surprisingly common request, was outside of our purview).  I wanted to help but our opportunities for doing so were frustratingly limited.

Looking back, I see that for someone with no previous legal experience I was given a surprising amount of discretion in what cases to pursue.  I was most drawn to assault cases, and Oliver’s most of all.  I can’t remember why I was so set on pursuing Oliver’s complaint, because I received multiple letters per week alleging similar incidents, but I was determined and asked my supervisor within minutes of reading his letter if we could go investigate his assault claim.  The facts, as he presented them, were these: on 17 February 2002 he was arrested and brought to D.C. Jail.  Following processing, he was placed in a cell in Northwest-3 around 3:00 am.  Shortly thereafter, the officers on duty let two other inmates into his cell, claiming that the inmates were going to clean up some vomit, although there was nothing to clean.  The two inmates, who allegedly had a mop and a knife, began threatening Oliver and his cellmate and demanding cigarettes.  The two inmates then proceeded to “violate the civil rights” of Oliver and his celly.

To understand what really happened, you have to know that when a male prisoner talks about having his civil rights violated, he is usually talking about rape.  You never use the term rape.  In fact, I never heard anyone at the jail use that term, even though in fifty other ways I could tell that is what they were trying to communicate to me.  Even though it is very hard to prosecute rape cases on the inside, I still wanted to try.  I was 22 and full of social justice rage, and Oliver said he had some evidence and I just wanted to go meet with him and see if, against all odds, we could hold someone responsible for this terrible thing that had happened to him.

You cannot typically make an appointment to see an inmate.  You usually just show up and hope they are not getting medical treatment or locked down.  The day I went to meet Oliver, sometime in May 2002, turned out to be his 19th birthday.  I had met some incarcerated men before, and many, many since, and he is still among the most gentle, soft-spoken men I have ever met.  He answered all my questions, but he didn’t offer information spontaneously.  Over a one-hour interview, I learned that he had first come to D.C. Jail as a juvenile, a 16-year-old, charged with possession of marijuana with intent to deal.  Before being fully classified, he had been in cell blocks with much older men and had his “civil rights violated.”  It was impossible to determine how many times he had been raped, but my gut was that it was a lot.  He was neither tall nor short, neither big nor small; he was just average and soft-spoken and I couldn’t imagine him being menacing, which isn’t necessarily a good thing when you’re jailed with much older and bigger men.  I can’t remember what specifically was said, but I know there was this moment after he told me it was his birthday where we just looked at each other and thought about why we were so close in age and in such different places.

Of course, I already thought that incarcerated individuals were no less valuable than I was.  Of course, I already thought that I had been blessed with an easier, more privileged life situation than so many of them.  But I don’t think I really knew it until that moment with Oliver.  His half-smile to shake off the pain of being locked up on his 19th birthday.  Both of us ultimately just staring at his handcuffs because there wasn’t anything else to say.  In that moment I felt in such a profound and visceral way how valuable he was, how worth loving, how worth helping, how worth caring for.

And then I had to leave.  I got on the hour-long metro/bus ride home and just cried.  Wept.  Sobbed.  Bitterly.  I knew there was nothing we could do, nothing I could do.  There was not enough evidence to make waves about the February assault.  And it had happened three months before.  And even if I could identify the guards and the inmates that had perpetrated that assault, there was all that past damage.  Fundamentally, the damage of being a 16-year-old child, still trying to stay in high school but dabbling in marijuana use, thrust into a man’s world of rape, assault, murder, hard drugs. I could never undo all that.  It was too much.

I wandered around the D.C. streets for hours that evening (which is saying something if you know my disdain for all forms of exercise), crying and thinking.  Could I really do this type of work?  Or would it always be too much?  More than I realized at the time, I was asking a fundamental question about what I was capable of.  Could I look at people and love them so immediately and so fully, and still accept the ultimate limitation — that I could not really help them?  Or just as bad, that the help I could offer would be so wholly insufficient to alter their lives in any meaningful way.

The question of what I am capable of was not answered that day (and it has been further complicated by changing physical and emotional limitations).  But another more significant question was settled in my mind and heart.  That day ten years ago, in D.C. Jail, I found God once and for all.  I had been raised to believe that there was an all-loving, all-knowing God, but looking at the world around me had continually challenged that belief.  But that day, in a way I can never fully express, I knew there was a God who knew and loved Oliver.  And I knew He taught me to love Oliver in an unforgettable, eternal sort of way even though our paths only crossed for a few short weeks.  Even a decade later, I can’t write about Oliver without seeing him in my mind and feeling the same feelings and crying similar, though less bitter, tears.

I think about Oliver a lot when I contemplate my life’s work.  I would give a lot to know more about his story, but that’s not exactly the way these things work.  Even so, I am grateful that he wrote that letter to me and that we met on his 19th birthday and that, for a few brief moments, our stories came together.



  1. so life-changing.

    Comment by Jessica Laitinen — March 21, 2012 @ 4:36 am

  2. Interesting story and thoughts. I have also felt helpless in trying to help others and it can be frustrating. One lesson I’ve been learning lately is that the central message of the gospel is that Christ can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. I think this applies in our efforts to help others. We can do some good for people who need help, which, ultimately, is all of us, but, in the end, only Christ and His atonement can really change our lives in a lasting way and anything else about us that needs changing. I’m not necessarily saying we should go into prisons or wherever else and only preach the gospel, although I think that can help in some cases, but I do believe we must all rely on Christ and His saving grace and guiding hand for any real change to come about, especially in our darkest moments. However, anyone who wants to benefit from this transformative power must humble themselves to the dust, which is why I think we often want so badly to help someone change but they just don’t want it enough to allow it to happen.

    Just some thoughts your post brought to mind. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    Comment by Matt — March 21, 2012 @ 5:01 am

  3. This is beautiful. Tragic, but so very beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.

    Comment by Stephanie — March 21, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

  4. That is so, so, sad. But I love that your connection with Oliver brought you closer to God. I’m reminded of something I read on a blog called momastery: “Life is brutal. But it’s also beautiful. Brutiful, I call it. Life’s brutal and beautiful are woven together so tightly that they can’t be separated. Reject the brutal, reject the beauty. So now I embrace both, and I live well and hard and real.” It’s hard for me to acknowledge a lot of the brutality in this world, but I know I need to (for various reasons) and reading your post reminds me that beautiful things can be learned from brutal experiences. Although, I have to say, I will always prefer learning beautiful things from beautiful experiences.

    Comment by v. blanchard — March 24, 2012 @ 1:37 am

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