No More Inmates or I’m Done Volunteering.

By Jeremy Reynalds, Ph.D.

Founder and CEO

Joy Junction Inc.

inmate-look-at-him-he-should-be-locked-upThe marginally measured invective attacked my soul like rusty nails on a chalkboard.

The email was from one of the many wonderful volunteers at our recent community wide Thanksgiving dinner at the Albuquerque Convention Center.

It was attended by 1,400 plus hungry and homeless people, and hundreds of volunteers who helped ensure the success of the event which has now become an annual tradition.

A few of those volunteers were minimum security inmates incarcerated at a local state prison. They’re all soon due for release.

They were there as a result of the efforts of retired NM Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel (and now his successor).

Some time ago, Gregg and I had agreed that such a program could be a good thing for everyone – literally a win win. I also felt that inmates could perhaps learn more valuable life lesson about further reintegration into society, and continue to make amends for past issues.

Good idea, right? Not for this person.

After seeing an understandable amount of media attention that evening focused on the inmates, this woman wrote “ It just didn’t seem right to us that everything was centered on those inmates. I will without any hesitation offer whatever time in the future to your program, but if there are inmates involved, I’m afraid I will decline.”

Inmates volunteering at the 2016 Joy Junction community wide Thanksgiving dinner at the Albuquerque Convention Center.

Inmates volunteering at the 2016 Joy Junction community wide Thanksgiving dinner at the Albuquerque Convention Center.

I was so initially stunned I took a second look and caught my breath. Was I really seeing this? Unfortunately, yes.

I continued reading, The woman said she and her friend hoped we would consider handling “that aspect of that particular function in a different way.” Uh … no!

Her main issue was apparently the media coverage of the inmates, who she was upset were “the center of attention.”

“Why weren’t volunteers, or mainly the (sic) misfortunate folks that were there enjoying a meal, being interviewed or at least shown, working and eating?”

When you think you’ve seen it all, then an email comes along like this. Was I mad or upset? No, just grieved. I waited a few minutes before responding-always a good plan in a situation like this.

I told the individual that we are very appreciative of local media coverage, but we have no control over what gets shown. That is entirely up to the station’s discretion and editorial judgment.

However, I continued, with my academic training in journalism, I suspected I knew the answer to her question about coverage.

When a large volunteer contingent shows up to help feed the homeless and hungry, that is a pretty typical event around the country, and while heartwarming, not as newsworthy as when a small contingent of inmates comes to do so.

To use a perhaps rather crass example from my journalism training days, a dog biting a man doesn’t make news, but if a man bites a dog, that might lead the newscast.

This person had softened me up (in a manner of speaking) by beginning her email saying the two hours they were there volunteering really helped both her and her friend put their lives into “proper perspective, and thank God for the blessings He had given her and her friend.”

Apparently, though (and quite tragically) those blessings don’t extend to inmates and maybe others who have violated societal norms.

Just a thought, in case you’re thinking I’m being unfairly harsh. A friend told me there’s a good chance that some of those inmates receiving all that “unwarranted” attention may quite soon be standing beside you in the checkout line while you’re at the grocery store. Isn’t it better for all of us that they learn as many societal skills as soon as they can?

Not to want that is analogous to saying we have a homeless “problem,” but failing to deal with it. Nothing happens except the production of a whole lot of hot air.