In the front room, known as the Welcome Room, Matthew House Executive Director Linda Paz jumps up from her chair to welcome volunteer Karol Bentley, who was arriving to help in the guest rooms and with family clothing and food supplies. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

In the front room, known as the Welcome Room, Matthew House Executive Director Linda Paz jumps up from her chair to welcome volunteer Karol Bentley, who was arriving to help in the guest rooms and with family clothing and food supplies. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Matthew House eases family visits to prisoners

“We have people from all over the world in this little house.”

MONROE — If every bed and pop-up crib is in use at Matthew House, 20 people are getting a warm welcome. Shelter, food, clothing and unconditional care are found at this haven for the families of inmates. Wives, parents, siblings, kids and babies, all are prisoners of circumstance.

Shirley Lidel, 68, stays at Matthew House when she visits her husband, who has been incarcerated 14 years. “I go on Fridays,” said Lidel, who lives in Sumner and stays at Matthew House during visits to the Monroe Correctional Complex.

With her husband, Michael, behind bars, Lidel said she nearly became homeless. She worked at a Skippers restaurant. But even with a job, she lived in her car for a time. She learned about Matthew House during a visit to the prison. “Michael and I were sitting there, and one of the guards heard me talking,” she said.

The state Department of Corrections has no official link to Matthew House, but Lidel was told at the prison about its short-term apartments. The help is free to visitors. Lidel now volunteers at Matthew House, a 1912 vintage house and apartments near the prison complex.

Lidel arrives at Matthew House on Thursdays, visits her husband, then helps out through Sundays. “It’s friendly,” she said. “There’s always coffee and tea, and a pot of soup or chili.”

Matthew House is a private nonprofit supported by churches and other organizations. Its history dates to 1979. The Rev. Richard Stohr, a now-deceased Catholic priest, was a chaplain at the Monroe prison when he visited a hospitality house near California’s San Quentin State Prison. He saw a need for a similar facility here.

With the community’s help, Matthew 25:36 House opened after the 1980 purchase of the old home at 16207 177th Ave. SE, Monroe. Matthew House (Simon of Cyrene Society Inc.) was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1981.

Its name is taken from Scripture, Matthew 25:36, which says “Naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.”

Linda Paz, 69, has met thousands of families in the 15 years she has been executive director at Matthew House. She has seen their struggles and shame. An ordained minister and New York native, she was formerly director of the Everett Gospel Mission’s shelter for women and children.

The eldest of 10 children, Paz said she “grew up poor.” She has called Matthew House “the little house with a big heart.” Guests there, Paz said, are in some ways punished for crimes they didn’t commit. Many scramble to make it financially. They live with embarrassment. Children, she said, often make up stories to tell other kids where their fathers are.

“I never address a client in public,” said Paz, who recalled seeing one woman during an event at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue. The woman, Paz said, later thanked her for not approaching her at the table. Her employer and others she was with didn’t know her husband was in prison.

A young woman from Sweden was staying in a Matthew House apartment in mid-November. And Paz said one family, from Mexico, sent one relative each year during a loved one’s incarceration. They couldn’t afford for the whole family to come.

“We have people from all over the world in this little house. We’ve had people from 16 or 17 nations, and from every state,” she said. Paz remembers praying with a woman whose brother was dying of cancer at the prison. The woman stayed at Matthew House during her final visit with him, Paz said.

Men at the prison know about Matthew House and are grateful, Paz said. In one case, she said, a man who had just been released stopped by and wanted to mow the facility’s lawn. “I told him to go home with his kids — and don’t come back,” Paz said.

Weekends are busy at Matthew House. Prison facilities at the Monroe Correctional Complex — which include a Minimum Security Unit, Special Offender Unit, Intensive Management Unit, Twin Rivers Unit and the Washington State Reformatory — have visiting hours Fridays through Mondays, with no visits Tuesdays through Thursdays.

“Girls check in on Thursdays,” said Paz, meaning wives of inmates and oftentimes their children. In recent years, Paz has seen an increase in older people, grandparents who are visiting their sons and raising their grandkids. “A lot of seniors have gotten the kids. They take them to see their dads,” she said.

“Small as we are, we help 5,000 to 7,000 people a year,” Paz said.

Lidel was so reluctant to visit her husband when he first sentenced, she didn’t see him for two months. “I remember feeling that I don’t belong in there,” she said. Still, she’s apprehensive and doesn’t like being at the prison. Yet, she said, “God has given me strength and fortitude.” Lidel said she had to forgive her husband, who has burglary and theft convictions, “so that he could forgive himself.”

“He’s paying for his mistake,” she said, adding that “a lot of guys up there don’t get visits.”

Paz cited a 2014 Florida study, published in the journal Crime & Delinquency, that found, on average, inmates in that state received only two visits during their entire incarceration.

“The people who have visitors are much less likely to reoffend,” Paz said. “It’s the families that do the hard time.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3640; jmuhlstein@herald net.com.

Matthew House

Matthew House is a prison family hospitality center near the Monroe Correctional Complex. Housed in a 1912 home and apartments on the property, the organization provides shelter, food, clothing and other help to visiting families of people incarcerated in Washington’s prisons. It is at 16207 177th Ave. SE, Monroe. Information: 360-794-8720 or matthewhousemonroe.org

Learn how to help through holiday giving, donations of supplies, volunteering or financial support: matthewhousemonroe.org/donations.

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