28 December 2007

Christmas Inside

Christmas comes in a clump at prison. Somewhere just after Thanksgiving comes the realization that a guy is going to be spending Christmas in prison--and not just any prison--in this receiving prison, which means he's going to be waiting. He's in limbo, not on a bus to his permanent institution, but stuck, through Christmas and maybe New Year's.

It's cold and wet. That means access to the phones in the yard are limited. At the line of ten phones, at least three men stand with their coats over their heads, trying to block the rain or create a little private room. The gym is a noisy place to try to talk to someone you love or if you need a little privacy. Coats don't work there.

More mail is coming in, Christmas cards by the dozens. But if your name is never called, there's not much room for joy.

On December 23rd, we celebrated Christmas at all the Catholic and Protestant services. Advent just seemed to slip by this year. Fr. Joe came in to celebrate Mass with the first group of Catholics. He's been a priest for 50 years and seems to love his time with offenders as much as he ever loved working in the parishes. His gentle presence made it possible for several men to celebrate First Eucharist.

The Christmas manger scene was front and center and in the after-Mass hubbub, I could hear last year's story of Jesus being stolen. Several people checked to see that he was actually super-glued to the manger. He was.

A man in Canada who makes crosses for us surprised us with wooden ornaments this year. There were just enough for everyone in the room. And just enough to spark a phone call from one of the sergeants: "These things you gave out at Catholic services this morning, are they supposed to be worn?" "Not unless the guy has turned into a Christmas tree." "Gotcha."

Sunday evening was the fourth and final performance of an original Christmas production written and performed by the offenders. Life on the street took on a new meaning and I think at least a few in the room must have had a girlfriend who might have said, "How can this happen to me? Ain't no one touch MY goodies!"

The props were inventive, the singing tender, the joy palpable.

Then everyone went home.

I was ready to leave when the building officer told me that there was a man in the mental health unit who was threatening suicide and wanted to talk to a chaplain. I went to the infirmary.

He was in a stark room, a plastic mattress on the floor, a blanket, and wearing what can only be kindly described as a blue muu-muu. He got up to greet me and I complimented him on his outfit. He almost smiled. Then he sat down on the mattress and I settled down on the floor. He talked and cried for the next half hour.

His father had died the Tuesday before and his family hadn't wanted to tell him. When he had called home on Tuesday, they just said that Dad was at the store and couldn't talk. When he finally found out about his father on Saturday, he came apart at the seams. He is the youngest of eight. The family was trying to protect him. They were worried about him, worried that he might try to do something to hurt himself. And that's why he's here in this barren room with nothing to throw or smash, nothing that could hurt him unless he bashed his head against the wall.

He wanted to go to the funeral home for the visitation on Thursday and we talked a bit about what the mental health people would need to see so they could okay his going out. He understood.

Monday I had a phone call from Mental Health. They were sending him back to his regular unit. It looked like the funeral trip would happen.

When I left the prison Sunday night, the candy cane's sweetness had already faded and the bittersweet reality of Christmas in prison stayed with me.

Even here, in this place, God's promise to be with us stands.

09 December 2007

Jesus Goes Missing

We had a busy full day one Monday in December last year. The Christmas tree was up. We'd strung the lights. The crib scene was sitting out in the back of the chapel. There was a movie playing on the TV and there was a very long line at the office for cards.

At 11, the chapel cleared and peace descended. Of sorts. Someone discovered that Baby Jesus was missing from the manger.

We'd only had one unit in the chapel over the past two hours, but that meant about 175 offenders had been in and out. I called the sergeant of the unit.

"I'm calling to report a missing person," I told him.

"Really?" He sounded puzzled. "Name?"

"Jesus," I said, "first name Baby."

He laughed.

I gave him a description. Jesus was about half as long as my thumb, infant, not adolescent.

He promised to look into it.

Much later that afternoon, the sergeant came to my office and held out a closed fist. I opened my hand and he placed Baby Jesus in it.

They'd done a full-scale search in the unit. Every room was gone through. Someone said that someone had heard that someone had it.... and eventually, Jesus was recovered.

He made it back to the chapel with some gang tattoos on his body.

The next Sunday, I told the story to the men who'd come to services. "The Word of God became human, to be one like us--tattoos and all, I think."

Baby Jesus is now superglued into his manger.

Out of Practice

It's the second Sunday of Advent and I'm beginning to wonder how much of an Advent we'll actually have here at the prison. Last Sunday, I was caught in a white-out (a lot of snow) when I was halfway to work. I called the prison to ask how things were. A mix of rain and snow, they told me. I cancelled the first service because it was already getting late and the road looked slick and the snow was thick. I didn't want to chance sliding off the road and ending up in a ditch on my way to church.

I used the tunnel to make most of the trip to the chapel. That way I missed most of the couple of inches of snow on the ground. At least one set of volunteers was unable to make it in from Bremerton. Services in a second part of the institution were cancelled.

The Protestant service at 9:30 happened. "Feliz Navidad," "Joy to the World," "We Three Kings." I know, I know, it's not Christmas yet, but someone was in the mood for celebrating. And the snow kept falling. The volunteers who'd made it in for the 9:30 service decided they were not coming back after lunch.

By 11, we were looking at more than 6 inches of snow at the prison and I was starting to wonder if I'd make it back to Tacoma with any trouble.

We cancelled the afternoon services. I went home at 12:30 when the snow was 8 inches deep. Getting out of the parking lot wasn't too difficult. Good thing there weren't any other cars there! And the road from the prison to the main road is fairly well maintained because the State Patrol is just down the road.

Five miles from the prison? No snow at all. Just rain. I shook my head and swam through the rain.

Then there was all that nasty flooding. Nothing here, but there are a number of men who have families in the hardest hit areas and some have lost everything.

Now it's Sunday again. And it is snowing. Count was late. Breakfast was late. The Catholic service was about 17 minutes long. Services in the other part of the institution were cancelled because there wasn't enough time to clean up from breakfast, have a service, and get lunch ready.

Afternoon services? We shall see. I keep checking the weather outside. It keeps snowing, but not as bad as last week.

I miss preaching and I really miss that time with the guys that happens on Sunday. We catch up on the news and try for a bit of normal. I'm feeling out of practice.

Update: the snow stopped. The sidewalks cleared. The only place left covered with snow were the garden plots.

Two services this afternoon. It's finally beginning to feel like Advent.

14 November 2007

Leaving Work

Three-thirty. A minor traffic jam as we
turn in our keys and wait
for another gate to open.

The end-of-the-day banter is light.
“Best time of day,” says a plumber.
One of the nurses agrees.
The gate clangs open and we
head down the last hallway.
Another gate.
Keys again, this time for our
various cars and trucks.
Almost out. Ready to go home.

We have backpacks, book bags,
a thermos or two, lunch leftovers.
A shadow walks with us.
He’s mine.
I recognize him.

His name is Dan and two hours before,
he was in my office.
“I heard you’ve been having a rough day.”
“PTSD,” he tells me.
Last week, in Aberdeen, his cellmate
tried to hang himself.
Dan found him, yelled for help.
The man lived.

But Dan’s aunt hanged herself on his
birthday. Hanging isn’t easy
to forget.
“And when I was seven, my father was
killed. My mom and I were dropping him off
at a biker bar.
He said something that someone didn’t like and got shot.
Half his body was in the car
The other half was on the street.”

I am breathless with this story.

I search his face.
There aren’t words to fit the silence.

He’s 19, has a 3-year-old son, and a fiancee.
“I’ve done some awful things,
I’ve been a bad person.”

He wants to be a smoke jumper;
the adrenaline rush is the best feeling in the world.
He likes to drive fast cars and race in the mud.
The dirtier the better? You bet.

He circles back to last week, finding his cellie
hanging from a sheet in their room.

“That must have been a whole different kind
of adrenaline rush,” I say.
“That was fear. I hate that feeling.”

“Suicide is the short way out,” he says.
We talk about the pain the man
may have wanted to escape.
“I’ve known pain,” he says, briefly acknowledging
the deaths in his past again.
“Your friend turned the pain on himself,” I said.
Without a beat, he says,
“And I turned it on others. I’ve hurt people really bad.

I don’t want to be that person anymore.”

We talked more and then he left.
Now he walks with me. He is 19
and he is 7.
His brown eyes are framed by impossibly long lashes.
He is uneasy, not sure what he’ll see when we step outside.

I carry his words and his tears.

28 October 2007

Sunday Litany

"The Body of Christ."

"El cuerpo de Christo."

Over and over again. Always the quick glance at face and nametag. Was he sitting at the table where the men were speaking Spanish? Was he greeting friends from the county by punching knuckles? It is a swift assessment.

I sometimes give communion to the Native American and say, "El cuerpo de Christo." He doesn't seem to mind. The Cambodian looks puzzled.

The same glance has to register if the hands are open, palm up, or if the hands are folded, is the mouth open? Open wide? Or will I be feeding the parking meter again?

I notice the hands, all shades of pink and brown, callused, smooth, missing a tip or an entire finger, scarred by burns. I notice the tongues--no, I notice the teeth more than the tongues. Are there teeth? Missing front ones? The meth users are easy to spot.

Some of the communicants look me in the eye. Some respond, "Amen." More of them say, "Thank you." Every few weeks I give them the "YOU are the Body of Christ" speech. They almost believe me. St. Teresa of Avila's insight about Christ having "no body now on earth but yours" comes in handy.

It is a simple moment, feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison.

Next week we'll celebrate a First Communion. Won't that be something?

25 October 2007

Cell Extraction

A phone call this afternoon sent me out of my office and across the campus to the Intensive Management Unit. It was serious, the Custody Unit Supervisor said. They had a man in the holding cell who was giving them problems.

Usually problems in the IMU are handled by the Special Emergency Response Team, SERT. They have uniforms that resemble Darth Vader and special tools that blink and shriek and put the plastics business to shame. All suited up, the SERT guys look ferocious. Big black boots, batons, helmets, plastic shields that light up and give a trouble-maker a jolt he won’t forget: you don’t want to SEE them coming, much less hear them. When they’re marching in step, they are intimidating, which is precisely the point. If intimidation doesn’t work, there’s a special spray they use that burns the eyes and the lungs. Although they have to be ready for some rough and tumble, often times the troublemaker will just back down at the sound of them coming down the hall.

The group practices often and some of their moves are art in motion. One move used regularly, especially in the Intensive Management Unit, is designed to move an inmate from his cell when he doesn’t want to go. He may flood his cell or block the window so he can’t be seen. He might yell and scream or throw feces and urine on anyone trying to get into his cell. That explains all the uniform and tools that SERT puts to use: they’re trying to stay safe and use the least force possible. Cell extractions are tough, no guarantees when the action starts that the offender will comply with directions or decide to act out.

So why call in the chaplain? The Unit Supervisor was certain that I was the person they needed today for this special bit of trouble. It was an extraction, he told me. I went, armed with a ballpoint pen and a plastic baggie. Within three minutes, I had the item in hand—well, in baggie—and was on my way.

The offender was polite and soft-spoken as he stood in his white jumpsuit in the holding cell. Two officers were at my back as we talked. I explained that he could keep the medicine bag while he was here, but the tooth that was beaded on to it was going to have to come off. He handed me the medicine bag, a work of beaded art, and I went in search of something sharp. Scissors are hard to come by in prison. A letter opener finally did the trick. I gave him the medicine bag and a receipt. He gave me his sister’s address so I can mail the coyote’s tooth to her.

“Did he give you a hard time?” the supervisor asked.

“No. Did he hassle you?”

“All kinds of trouble. We couldn’t mess with his medicine bag or the spirits would haunt him or his head would spin or something.”

“He gave it to me right away. No trouble.”

The supervisor shook his head. “Figures.”

So there. I’ve done my first cell extraction—or tooth extraction. A lot of my work is like pulling teeth. Today, it really was.

21 October 2007

Hello. Are You Still There?

"Hi. Do you remember me?" I looked into the face of a twenty-something, crew-cut blond man in the orange jumpsuit.

"The face, yes," I said, "the name, no." I reached for his green ID tag. Donald.

"You found my family for me the last time I was here."

I remembered, all of it, in one swift rush. He'd been adopted when he was 8 and placed in several different "homes" until he was in his teens, all an attempt by his adoptive parents to get him to behave. I'd wondered out loud with him if his acting out hadn't been a way of asking them, "Do you really love me? Will you really keep me?"

He left home in his mid-teens and hadn't been back since. When I first met him, he thought his parents might still be living in Alaska. He wanted to be in touch with them. I went on the internet and found them.

I called them one morning, told them who I was and why I was calling. His father was friendly, a bit bemused. Donald had been in and out of trouble over the years. He wasn't surprised he was in prison. Then something in his voice broke and he was crying.

"We thought he was dead. We had no idea where he was or what happened to him. I'm so glad he's alive." A few days later, Don talked with his father on the phone for the first time in years. Both of them were crying.

I've been witness to a number of these reunions over the years. One mother sobbed with relief. Her son had been living on the streets, almost killing himself with drugs. "At least I know he's safe this Christmas. That's enough."

There have been other, less happy, phone calls. Like the sister who doesn't want her brother to know his mother's phone number. Mom is dying and much of her ill health is due to worrying about him. "I'll call you when Mom dies," she said, "then I'll talk to him. I'm too angry to talk to him now."

I was thinking about these reunions and near misses while I read Chris Rose's book 1 Dead in Attic about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I have my own connections with New Orleans, two years in the mid80s teaching school, and friends who still live there. I put up newspaper articles and pictures of the devastation on the wall in the chapel. It was a magnet. Several men were from Louisiana. One picture was of a guy's neighborhood.

I spent a few weeks checking lists of the missing and evacuated, trying to connect the offenders at this prison in the Pacific Northwest with family in Mississippi and Louisiana. We called aunties and cousins, old neighbors. One man's mother finally answered her phone after two weeks of trying. She was safe. She'd come home--to not much of anything, but she was home.

Six years ago, on a bright fall day in September, I was headed to a chaplains meeting in Yakima, a good three hours from home. I rode over the mountain pass with a friend and we talked the whole way. We left at 5:30 and got lost in Yakima, making it to the meeting just in time.

When we walked in the door, it was clear that something had happened. A tower in New York. A plane. Another tower. Another plane. We were stunned, all of us. We tried to get more news. The towers came down. The phone lines were jammed.

Somehow, headquarters got through to someone. "Go back to your facilities." We prayed briefly and headed out. I drove by myself this time, took a different mountain pass, this one with signs for the ski areas. Instead of the signs telling me to chain up, each one said the airport was closed. Radio reception was bad.

I made it back to the prison where things were eerily quiet. Movement was restricted. Over the next few days, I talked to a man whose parents worked in one of the towers. I tried to call other relatives who lived in the New York area. We connected a few people.

A week or so afterwards, rumors were flying between the prisons that the government was going to implement a martial plan; inmates would be killed so the corrections officers could go fight in the war. There was a kernel of truth in that. The original Marshall Plan had nothing to do with killing inmates, but there had been some vague plan, had Japan invaded the West Coast, of killing those in internment camps so those military people could go to fight.

Holding down the panic was a tangible task, not for the faint-hearted. We had a special prayer service. We wrote letters to family far and near, reconnecting because it was important and had to be done.

Catastrophic events aren't easy to prepare for. Monty Python's line comes to mind, "No one expects the Inquisition!" But things are heightened in prison, the edges are sharper, the losses more deeply felt.

"Can you help me find my daughter? She was born in July 1998, maybe in Seattle, I think her name is Jasmine."


09 October 2007

Mondays Are Like That

Mondays are amazing days in the prison where I work. Start with the fact that it is fall and we didn’t ease into the season. We really did fall into it. It was Labor Day and warm and then suddenly, it was cool. This past week, the leaves on the trees are blazing red and yellow. My personal wardrobe has changed. I’m wearing a jacket and my closed toe shoes. Not yet cold enough for a knitted scarf, but brisk enough. It has been dark and raining over the past few weeks too. It’s the kind of weather where my inclination is to put flannel sheets on the bed, haul out the comforter, and read a good book.

And then there’s work. In the rain, the offenders slog to chapel, school, gym, dining hall. No raincoats. No umbrellas. Some of them with shaved heads that are looking chilled. They do have jackets to wear, but these are the kind that, once wet, they need a lot of time over a hot radiator to dry thoroughly. The reality is that from now until May, the jackets will always be at least slightly damp.

After a full day of church services in the chapel on Sundays, Mondays are full tilt all over again. Between 9 and 11 and again between 12:30 and 2:30pm, we have Open Chapel. Men from two different units come to the chapel to watch a movie, get an address book, check out the library, hang out with friends. It’s a place away from cramped cells. We used to offer greeting cards, but all of those have recently been moved out of the chapel and to the inmate store where postage can be applied more easily. That change, I thought, might cut down some of the traffic on Mondays when we could easily have 100 people every hour. I was wrong.

On Mondays, there are lines: one line to the workers’ office where Bibles may be had, one near the desk in the back of the room where Ann fills out property sheets, issues rosaries, and does a quick lesson on how to use the rosary for prayer. “You cannot wear this rosary,” she insists, pointing to the line on the property sheet that spells it out. (It’s a safety hazard. Some of that nylon string is tough. One good yank and you could strangle a guy. I have yet to do a memorial service for someone who died by rosary, but I certainly don’t want to start now.) The last line is outside my office.

One at a time, the petitioners come. “Can I get a journal?” That’s a composition book. Remember those? Hugely popular. I’ve suggested to the clubs that they could use them as a fundraiser and make hundreds. I'm amazed at the numbers of men who want and need somewhere to keep their thoughts.

“I’m having some spiritual issues.”

I console a man whose mother died last February. We open the memory book where he wrote her name months ago. He talks to his sister on the phone.

"I want a religious diet."

“I haven’t heard from my wife since I’ve been in here.”
“How long have you been here?”
“A week.”
“Have you written to her yet?”
“FIVE letters!”
“Give her a chance to respond. If you haven’t heard in three more weeks, come back and talk to me.”
“I’ll be released by then.”
“Then you can wait.”

“What’s the difference between Catholics and Protestants?” (Insert my 25 words or less that make some sense.)

“Do you have? Can I get? I was supposed to be out of here last week.”

Today, in between phone calls--one man talked to his brother for the first time in two years--Brett threw himself into the chair next to my desk. It has a hand-sewn quilt hanging on the back, double wedding ring pattern. It’s my attempt to have something comforting in the office. I don’t know how many men ever notice it, but I do, and it is a reminder of why I am here.

“Smells good in here,” Brett exclaims. The cinnamon-apple potpourri has a way of staying around. He admires the Mardi Gras masks on one wall and the great kite on another. “So this is what you do? Talk to people?”
“I do,” I confirm.
“You get paid for this?” He is amazed.
“I do,” I laugh.
“Wow. Maybe I should be a chaplain.”
“Maybe you should.” We talk a bit more. I am out of journals and have no holy card bookmarkers. When he leaves, another man takes his place.

“What happens in here?” he wants to know. I explain that I’m a chaplain, that sometimes people need to talk a bit, have things explained to them, need to get something. “Oh. I didn’t know. I just saw everyone standing in line and thought I’d ask.”

Mondays are like that sometimes.

27 September 2007

Walking with the Wounded

All the time I walked next to Sahtanus
past the library
through the turnstile
and down the long walkway
I tried to keep pace
with his shaking shoulders
but he outpaced me.

His grief ran ahead of us
a raging flood
stretching from Shelton
to the dark highway in Toppenish
where his new marriage
is shattered
done in by anger
and alcohol.

The ghosts on the reservation
wait for him
call from the dust
promise to enfold him.

They are patient in the night vigil
weaving stories
their voices rising and falling with
long years of disappointment.

He will join them at dawn
to surrender his wife to her grave.

Now we walk.
He is wrapped in sorrow
and I
I walk nearby
a silent witness
to the grief
and the ghosts.

30 August 2007

From a Distance

I'm on vacation and away from prison this week. I still have access to my work email, and to voicemail. I've resisted checking on the voicemail. I'll be back on Sunday and able to call people then. But email? It's hard to resist.

The administration puts out a daily bulletin, so I can keep track of what's being offered in the staff dining room (baked chicken today) and how many inmates are housed at the facility. That number is 1600 something today. And there was a short note about how well one of the units had packed up some inmates and shipped them out of state.

That was tough to see.

Because Washington state prisons are overcrowded, we farm out close to 1000 inmates to Minnesota and Arizona. Some don't mind a change of scenery and volunteer to go, but those are the rare cases.

The out of state prisons don't want any behavior problems, so it's well-behaved offenders who often go; they are the good workers, the ones who get family visits, ones working hard to make a difference and change their lives. Ouch.

Every now and then, I get a letter from someone who has been sent out of state. There are no programs to do, no work to be had, it's very cold in Minnesota in the winter and frying hot in Arizona in the summer. For men who were immersed in good programs, to sit and do nothing is a waste of their time and our tax dollars.

I have a fantasy of going on the road to visit the WA inmates in their out of state prisons. I could spend a couple of days, do some spiritual counseling, maybe have a worship service or two. I wonder if the state would pay for that. Probably not.

26 August 2007

The Kingdom of Heaven is like coming to prison

Hard on the heels of the musician quitting came today's reading. "Lord, are they few who are to be saved?" and the ambiguous answer, "Try to come in through the narrow gate. Many won't be strong enough." Uh huh. "Lord, open the door!" "Go away. I don't know where you're from!" "But you taught in our streets and we hung out at those great dinner parties."

And then this exquisite vision of people coming from all directions to recline at the feasting table.

I talked a bit about how we're always wanting to know that we're on the right track, with the right group. The question isn't really, "How many will be saved?" but rather, "I'm on the list, aren't I?" It's a good human question, but it's not relevant. Jesus draws on the rich prophetic tradition, like Isaiah in the first reading, recalling that the covenant with the Jewish people was not just for their good, but for blessing the whole world. By their lives and their faith, God of all the world would be known by the whole world. In Isaiah's vision, they'll all come streaming to Jerusalem.

What about those people standing outside, pounding on the door and claiming to be part of the entourage? Even though they know the name, "Lord," they do not know the person--because they aren't living what they've been taught. They have the head knowledge, but not the heart, not the life experience. "Go away. I don't know where you are from."

And then there is this moment: what IS the kingdom of God like? It's like coming to prison.

I got startled looks when I said that, even surprised myself, but follow me.

Before we came to prison, who did we imagine was in prison? A bunch of tattooed up bikers and gangbangers, lots of people with accents, people who'd been doing bad things for a very long time.

And then, we got to prison and maybe saw a guy across the gym, someone we'd known in high school. And there was someone we recognized from hanging out on weekends at the beach. And not everyone has a bad haircut and no teeth. There are lifers and short-timers here, teachers and mechanics. We've come from north and south, east and west. We're surprised to be here, and surprised by who we find here.

Jesus' stories kept turning things upside down. Maybe you have to be in prison to understand the richness of the surprise here.

The episode comes as Jesus is headed to Jerusalem. He knows where he is going and has a good idea about what will happen there. It's not much of a stretch to imagine that his good traveling buddies will bail on him, and here they are, asking if they are on the Saved list. What does it matter? What matters but hearing the Word and doing it?

22 August 2007

"I Quit"

I've heard these words before. They come from the same man who has quit his position in the music group that plays for both Catholic and Protestant services. He doesn't start out saying he's quitting, but that's what he does. And it's usually over some theological point.

What was it this time?

Apparently, it was a few things I said last Sunday in response to the readings.

It was a reading from Jeremiah--throw the man in the muddy well!--, and the bit from Hebrews about a "great cloud of witnesses," and that lovely piece from Luke about households being divided "two against three and three against two." In response to which we all said, "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!"

So what was the problem? First, I pointed out that Luke was describing what happened in his own time, that Christians were a very tiny minority and declaring oneself a Christian could have a disastrous effect on Dad's plan for a marriage-aged daughter, for instance. I went from there to persecution in our own day, and said that while we live in a society that is nominally Christian, Catholics are still likely to be hassled for their beliefs, especially in a prison setting.

Ted thought I was being divisive, making the contrasts between Catholics and other Christians too obvious. I told him I was reflecting the reality that Catholics experience in prison. He didn't get it.

Then he was upset that I seem to think that, in the end, almost everyone will make it to Heaven (or be saved, take your pick). His view of Scripture is that "it's very clear that only a few will be saved, and only those who claim Jesus as Lord."

I so wanted to ask, "Is your God that small?"

And then he was upset that I invited a roomful of Catholics and others to a one-hour presentation the next Saturday. A couple of Muslim volunteers are coming in to talk about the month of Ramadan, a time of fasting for Muslims, and other aspects of Muslim spirituality. Ted thought I was proselytizing and what would happen if a weak Christian went to that presentation and converted? He could acknowledge Muslims as fellow human beings, but they are not brothers to him. And as a DOC chaplain, I wasn't supposed to be proselytizing.

I pointed out to him that I'm not a DOC chaplain, but the Catholic chaplain, and that what I say in a church service can and does reflect the teachings of my church. He was adamant that "Allah" was the name of a moon god that the Muslims had chosen to worship. I countered with the information that an Arabic Old and New Testament used the word "Allah" for God because that is the Arabic word, that Arabic Christians use the word in their prayers. He didn't believe that.

I told him that my church prays for Muslims and all others who believe in one God, recognizes them with us as children of a common ancestor. He kept shaking his head.

He was "grieved," he told me for these things that divide us, and cannot continue to be a musician at Catholic services.

We have been through this before and I honestly do not want to fight about it. I've known Ted for a number of years and we seem to weather this storm and still like each other. He worries about me taking it personally and getting my feelings hurt. I bite my tongue and don't say, "Honey, you aren't that powerful."

And what do you suppose the readings are for the coming weekend? The gospel includes the line, "Lord, will there be only a few saved?"

20 August 2007

Let There Be Music

Last Friday night, two poet-musicians "following in the footsteps of Johnny Cash" came to prison for a concert. I met Daniel and Chuck at a poetry reading in Tacoma originally. They were thrilled to have a chance at a new audience and their audience was enchanted.

We often have Christian/church groups come in, either for Sunday services or for a special evening performance. We've discovered that the groups often share the same repetoire and variety isn't much of a virtue. Maybe that's why Daniel and Chuck's time with us was so different. They sang original songs, for the most part, about falling in love, making mistakes, learning to be wrong. Daniel sang about the time his former wife and two-year-old son moved from Tennessee to Alaska and how he'd moved to Seattle to be closer. A man sitting a few feet away from me doubled over and cried. Too many men here know the pain of being separated from their children.

It was a grace-filled, hope-filled evening, all we could have wished for.

And it was just Part One. Daniel and Chuck will be back in a few months to host an Open Mike night and the offenders will get to showcase some of their own writing then.

27 July 2007

Voted Most Likely...

To be taken hostage, least likely to be hurt. How's that for encouragement?

I spent four hours this week learning how to survive being taken hostage. Act calm, think survival! (That's ACT=S for those of you who like formulas.) It's not training to be taken lightly. There have been too many incidents of hostage-taking in prisons to ignore.

However, the more sobering fact is that I'm probably more likely to be taken hostage when I'm out in the grocery store or the mall. And no one there will care that I'm a chaplain.

Not long after I started working in the prison, I heard that bit of wisdom at the top of this entry: Chaplains are most likely to be taken hostage, but they are the least likely to be hurt. That has given me a certain bravado on the one hand, but I've been skeptical too. I can't afford to become complacent.

I have had offenders tell me that, no matter what was going on, I'd be protected. And I've made no secret of the fact that I grew up with four younger brothers and know how to handle myself. I also spent ten years as a high school teacher and I have on occasion, used my teacher voice to talk with 150+ rowdy inmates.

Does being a chaplain really protect me? on some level, but I know other chaplains who wouldn't be so lucky. Does being a woman protect me in an institution with almost 2000 male offenders? Probably not.

So what do I do to protect myself? In the long run, I try to treat each person I meet with respect. That goes a long way in this setting. I'm good at listening. I know when to shut up and I can tell a guy who's getting to wound up to "get off the hamster wheel" without him going ballistic on me.

I keep my Irish paperweight within arm's reach.

I practice saying, "Knock it off" at least three times a week.

I make a point of being around when people are in crisis so that when something happens, people know they can trust me.

But in the end, I won't know if I'd survive being a hostage until I have the experience.

It was a good four hours. On the other hand, the "Speaking with Confidence" video was a yawner last Monday, the gang tattoo identification was interesting--even if they never explained the guys who have a rosary tattooed around their neck or Our Lady of Guadalupe covering the whole back. Okay, maybe those aren't gang tattoos, but still!

Training. Got to love it.

17 July 2007

By the Numbers

I’ve never been very good at math. After scraping out a C in Algebra my freshman year in high school, I waited until my senior year of college to finally take “Math for Liberal Arts Students.” I can still multiply by nines on my fingers, but that’s all I remember from that class.

These days, I’m surrounded by numbers. For starters, there’s the six digit Department of Corrections identification number. When someone enters the system to be incarcerated, he gets a number. Then, no matter how many times he goes out and comes back in again, that same number identifies him. No matter the alias either. A guy could have sixteen different names, but there’s only that one number.

In January, we started using a batch of numbers that began with 300XXX. Now it is July and we’re up to 3008XX. I’m sure there are some numbers within that 8000+ range that haven’t been used for one reason or another, but consider that within seven months, we’re already 8000 numbers into that 300XXX batch. Yes, that means that more than 1000 new people per month began their journey through the detention system.

Fourteen months. Thirty-nine months. Three hundred twelve months. No one gets sentenced to years in prison; they get months. Is the larger number supposed to be more intimidating, perhaps? Usually I can do the arithmetic. Three hundred twelve months translates to twenty-six years. It’s hard to do the calculation when you’re looking into the face of a 20 year old.

Many offenders are skilled in the use of the RCWs, the Revised Code of Washington, in other words, the laws for the state. DOC has its WACs, a list of infractions, by number, from least to greatest. The lower the number, the smaller the infraction. Anything over 500 rates a major infraction and a serious consequence. A 501 is not a pair of jeans. It’s homicide.

Then there’s the Department of Corrections math. This is worse than trig because there is half-time, third-time, and good time. Some sentences allow for a person to serve only half the assigned time, with the understanding that if you mess up, you come back to do all of the time. Same with third-time. Not quite as generous, but still an incentive to do well behind the bars. Good time is what you get for spending time in county jail, and here not all county’s are equal. Some will give five days of good time for every ten spent in jail, carving off some of the prison time at the other end. Other counties are stingy, giving barely a day for 30 days spent in county. I haven’t figured the rationale on that one.

There’s “sixteen days and a wake-up.” That’s the answer a man gave me when I asked when he was getting out of prison. Sixteen more full days, then he’s out right after breakfast, if he stops long enough to eat it.

Levels get their numbers as well if you’re a sex offender. Level one, the least likely to re-offend, level three most likely. But in prison, no one wants to talk about being a sex offender. Most of them figure out some other crime with a similar sentencing structure and adopt that. “Meth with intent to distribute” and “assault” are common substitutions.

There are the numbers that belong to emergency contacts, aggravatingly disconnected far too often, in my opinion. The most popular item to be gotten from the chaplain is not a bible or other religious book. It’s a three by three address book, a place to put phone numbers and addresses. The PIN to use the phones? It’s usually on a strip of tape behind the ID badge. The phone numbers come in handy to stay connected to family and friends. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes the phones don’t work or the lines are too long. Sometimes the family has a block on the phone.

A man in my office yesterday was about to leave when I asked him who his emergency contact was. He shook his head. “I don’t have anyone.” I pulled my Outraged Chaplain routine and asked him why not. After some mumbling, he finally said there was only a family he’d lived with years ago, but he hadn’t been in touch with them. Why not? Shame, guilt, a thousand things. A few minutes later, he was talking to the man he considered his father. They were both sobbing. When he hung up he said, “They thought I was dead. They called all the hospitals and the morgues. They thought I was dead.” He went back to his unit to write them a letter, using the precious numbers of the address he had to learn all over again.

Seven thousand resources, one thousand inmates and families helped. Those are numbers for the Transitioning Offenders Program. And $1000 was the grant we received from the United Way of Mason County. Someone has counted the number of paper clips and the cases of paper we’ve run through since last December.

Seventeen thousand pounds of vegetables. That’s how much was harvested from two gardens at the prison. It all went to four different foodbanks in two counties.

And then there are the “I can’t believe you’re telling me this” numbers. Like the man who told me that he’s 51, tired to coming to prison. “I have kids!” he told me. “Thirty-seven kids. By 15 women.” I tried to do the calculation on child support owed. I should have paid more attention in math class. It just doesn’t compute.

04 July 2007

In Case of Emergency

Who is your emergency contact? Is that phone number still working? Does that person know she's your emergency contact?

I ask these questions because one of the inmates died yesterday. It was a heart attack. He got help quickly, got CPR, but he was dead within 20 minutes. I got a phone call from an administrative assistant asking if I "took care of things" when the regular facility chaplain isn't available. I do, so she told me to wait for a call from the shift lieutenant.

The shift LT told me the details about the death and then I asked if he wanted me to inform the family. With more relief than he realized, he said yes. So I went to work.

In every computer record for every inmate, there's a page that lists things like tattoos, place of birth, and the name and number of an emergency contact. And so there it was. The only problem? The phone number had been disconnected.

I went to his unit and looked through the brown bag of his belongings. The man had only been at our place a couple of days, in transit from six months of county jail waiting for a court hearing headed to his original institution later this week. There wasn't much in the bag: shower shoes, a razor, some legal work. No phone book.

Back to the computer, I looked at his file and found a reference to five brothers in different states. An hour later, I still hadn't found any names that matched in the online phone book. I contacted our investigations people, asking if they could find out if he'd made any phone calls recently with his prison PIN number. No luck.

The bulk of his property is at another institution. There may be a phone book there. But I am guessing that his family has cut ties with him.

This morning, the investigations people let me know that they'd finally tracked one of his brothers down--across the country on vacation. So now the coroner can release the inmate's name. They'll be doing an autopsy because the death didn't happen in a hospice situation. In other words, normal procedure.

The same thing happened a couple of years ago. An older inmate died. His emergency contact's number was disconnected. Further reading of his file showed that she'd died a couple of years before. He'd never updated the information. He was cremated and his remains sat in the coroner's office for several months. Finally, in December, someone sent him a Christmas card and we were finally able to write and ask for family contact information.

It's my turn now. I usually put down my best friend's name and number in that spot. But I need to let her know she IS my emergency contact, and I need to let her know my sister's phone number. It's been too long. What about you?

03 July 2007

There's a kind of hush...

….all over the world tonight… It wasn’t hard to get Herman’s Hermits serenading me in my brain yesterday. It was Monday, the only day busier than Sundays around here. The chapel was full of men in orange. A line of them waited patiently to be issued a rosary and to be instructed on its use. Another line wound its way past the greeting card display. And there was a line outside my door, with helpful offenders reminding each other, “There’s someone back there with her. You have to wait your turn. Behind the line!” Others sat in the chairs to watch a movie.

The noise level was manageable, mostly. Some days the headache starts right behind the eyeball. No fun.

And at 10:30, my computer shut down and the lights went out.

The difference in the chapel was immediate. As if someone had shushed the crowd with a whisper, it grew quiet. There are big windows in the chapel, so business continued, but more men found a seat and started to carry on some real conversations instead of the bantering that had been going on before.

The card room was pitch dark, so the workers brought out some of the more popular cards to a table in the chapel and dispensed them from there.

The line for rosaries was patient. The color choices were limited: black or yellow. Someone asked for blue, but blue—and red—are not allowed. Those are gang colors and you can’t have the Mother of God used for gang-related prayer, you know.

Not everyone who asks for a rosary is Catholic. They have to be reminded that they can’t wear the rosary, even though it’s a circle of beads and has a cross on it. When we don’t have wooden crosses to give away, a rosary is often the second choice. Over and over again we find that giving out rosaries is a wonderful time to do some educating about Catholics and prayer.

Learning to pray the rosary is overwhelming to the one who has never heard it recited in a group. Having the instructions in hand is one thing, but to recite it? That’s another story. When I’m giving out the rosaries, I usually tell a man to say the name of Jesus on each of the Hail Mary beads, and to book-end them with the Our Father and the Glory Be. The full blown set of prayers is good to know when you’re with a group so you can pray along, but when you’re just learning, the name of Jesus suffices.

At eleven, the men went back to their unit to wait for lunch. There was a four-inch stack of mail just from inside the institution to be gone through. It was still dim in my office. My head was full of the conversations I’d had over the past two hours. When I don’t know how to pray for all the people and situations, I close my eyes and I say, “Jesus.” That’s what I did for the next half hour, until the lights came on and the computer rebooted and the phone rang again.

13 June 2007

Ya Gotta Love It

An informal chat with a couple of guys one night led to the topic of tattoos. They come in all colors and subjects here. The religious ones tend to be crosses or thorns. Many Hispanic men have a rosary tattooed around the neck or wrist. I've seen a few beautifully done images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Some are prison-done. Artful, but crude. The ones guys got on the outside are sometimes wildly stunning.

But that brings me to our chat. With summer coming on, many of the men are shaving their hair. It's just easier to be bald in the summer time. But that also reveals some more interesting tattoos. Spider webs. A half-forgotten girlfriend. Or the one that took the cake. A fuel gauge with the arrow pointing to empty. Right there on the guy's head. Can you imagine what will happen when he goes in for a job interview? Better hope he gets to work release in the winter time, when his hair is grown out a bit and the tattoo is hidden.

06 June 2007

Block Training

Once a year, I have to sign up for training. It’s a time to reinforce the things I learned eight years ago during a grueling six weeks when I was in class Monday through Friday from eight to five and then worked on Sundays doing four worship services. That was CORE, an intense training ground for correctional workers. For most of the time, custody staff, who wore blue and had shiny badges, were right there with the support staff who wore civilian clothes and sported laminated ID badges. Together we learned how to write a succinct report, how to count offenders in their cells, how to find our way from one part of the institution to another, how to search both cells and persons, how to put on handcuffs, how to make an emergency call without dialing a single number (just take the phone off the hook) and how to find a cartridge sitting in the armrest of a car.

The best part of the training, when all was said and done, was getting to know other people who were working at the institution. In my first months at the prison, I tried to go around to different living units and introduce myself, but I didn’t make much headway. One officer finally invited me to watch while a new group of men was brought in from one living unit and assigned to new cells in this unit. It was organized chaos, but it worked. It was a small piece of the picture.

After I finished CORE and had the small polished button to prove it, doors opened. Officers who wouldn’t have given me the time of day before were suddenly willing to talk or to make an offender available if I called.

Things are different now. Eight years and uncountable emergencies since then, I get to hear, “I’ve had to tell dozens of guys about a death in the family, but I can’t do this one. Would you mind?” I don’t.

Two of the last three days I have sat with a roomful of co-workers as we make our way through the annual refresher course. This year, we got to take the fire extinguisher training online, but some things can only be done in the classroom. They need discussion, like the two hour ethics class this afternoon, or demonstration, like the emergency response planning. This year there was a new section on dealing with hearing-impaired inmates. (“Must have been a lawsuit,” someone muttered.)

We practiced our verbal skills, with the code phrase “paper or plastic?” in the background. Did you know that, if given two options, most people will take the last one you mention? So instead of saying, “You can pick up your toys or you can go to your room” you’ll get the results you want more often by saying, “You can either go to your room or pick up your toys”?

I found myself thinking about other in-service trainings I’ve done as a teacher, as a parish worker, as a chaplain. I’ve learned how to manage my time (NOT--but at least I can think about how someone else might manage my time), how to teach “across the curriculum,” and how to implement the latest in church guidelines. I took the sex abuse prevention workshop 20 years ago, long before too many people were paying much attention to the problem.

Today, as I practiced smashing a dummy’s face with the heel of my hand and swiping its eye, I remembered a nasty boss and slammed a little harder. I worked my elbows into an assailant’s chest and stomped on an imaginary foot. I watched the more adventurous of my colleagues volunteer to be choked so they could demonstrate their escape strategy. I haven’t ever had to practice these skills in my other jobs. Maybe if I were teaching in public schools I might need the physical training, but angry parishioners tend to just leave the church without smashing any thing or any one on their way out.

It’s stories like this that make people ask, “Aren’t you afraid to work in a prison?” My answer is always the same, “No. I get training and the people who work around me are trained. We don’t let our guard down.” Or the offenders promise they’ll warn me if something is going to happen--but I can never rely on that.

In eight years, I’ve only had to get physical once. I was on a tier, talking to a couple of guys in their cell. It was noisy. One was sitting on his bunk, the other was leaning up against the bars. The one on his bunk said something I couldn’t hear, so I stepped closer to the bars. The second guy took a swipe at my breast. I slapped his hand like I would have slapped any naughty kid, then I went to the officer’s office, wrote out an infraction, and he was hauled off to segregation. For good reason. He had a long history of committing sexual harassment and abuse.

I have one more day of training. Tomorrow we’ll be learning about gang signs and gang membership and how staff can get compromised. Much more fun than some other in-service trainings I’ve had in the past.

30 May 2007

What was that song?

Coming home from work last night, I found myself listening to a version of "Amazing Grace" done to the tune of "The House of the Rising Sun." After the day I had today, it was fitting.

As soon as I came through the door of my office in the morning, the phone rang. The officer at Major Control (the hub of all security issues for the prison) called to report that they'd verified with the medical examiner that the brother of one of our offenders had killed himself. Would I please notify the offender?

Well, that's part of my job (and not ALL of it, though if you have been reading here recently, it may seem that I only write about death, death notifications, grieving relatives, and boxes of tissue) so I started the round of phone calls that would get this man to my office.

When he got to my office from his laundry job, I gave him the highlights as I knew them. His girlfriend had called with the message that his brother had killed himself. The prison officers had confirmed that news with the medical examiner. His question threw me: Which brother?

Oh great. That piece hadn't been passed on. I had his sister's number handy, so we called her. When I put him on the phone, she started talking and he kept trying to break in, finally almost yelling, "Which brother? WHO died?" And then he broke down sobbing.

His name is Norman and he's in his middle 50s. His brother Bob was older, recently retired, recently had to put his dog to sleep, still broken over the divorce, and the brothers were tight as kids. Norman cried a long time. Bob will be cremated. Who knows when the service will be, or if it will be.

One of the chemical dependency counselors told me today about a man who'd been using meth for 18 years. He's 25. Do the meth math.

Another man, Little John, dropped into the chair in my office and asked, "How do you get over grieving someone who has been gone four years?" "What kind of games did you play together?" He said they used to dig through garbage cans to look for metal to sell. John told me about the family, five kids from five fathers, all born in the bonds of marriage. Most of the dads drank heavily. Both John and his brother used drugs extensively. The brother died of AIDS and a host of other things.

At the opposite end of the day, we celebrated the volunteers who come in to work with the men in a variety of programs. Some have been coming in for over 25 years, through illness, family upset, and every kind of roadblock a prison can throw in their way. They are great and grand people. I am so very grateful that they share this work and find joy in it.

24 May 2007

A Death in the Family

When I got to work yesterday, there was a message from an offender's dad. His voice broke. He needed to talk with his son. There'd been a death in the family. Two-year-old Hailey was dead, apparently shaken by her 19-year-old mother's boyfriend. The offender is Hailey's uncle. I'd seen the news story the night before.

I made a mental note to call the man's unit to talk with him later in the morning. In the meantime, there were ten men scheduled to see me starting at eight-thirty. Unlike so many other Wednesdays, nine out of ten men showed up. One story after another, sometimes something simple. This one needs a bible. That one hasn't told his parents he's in prison.

An officer came to the door when it was almost ten. "The sergeant from Unit 5 needs to talk to you. Now." I left the small office and went out to the phone. The sergeant said, "I have a guy sitting here who needs to talk to you." Could he wait til after lunch, I asked? I'd be done with this group in this building and would be back at the chapel. "Chaplain, he's sitting here and he's crying." Send him up.

Fifteen minutes later, he was in the little space of an office that held three chairs and a too-big table. He shook with anger. He'd thought the boyfriend was an okay kind of guy. He'd talked with him on the phone just a few days ago and the boyfriend had said, "Your sister's at work. Do you want to talk to Hailey?" and he'd talked to the niece he'd babysat and played with and doted on. Now the sorrow took over and the tears flowed. His 21-year-old body got smaller and smaller.

I got up from my chair and moved another chair next to him. His body was hot with tears. I put an arm around his shoulders and he collapsed against me, sobbing as if tears might be able to bring Hailey back. I held him, one hand holding his hands, the other rubbing his back. We sat there a long time.

We talked about this big ugly thing that had happened to Hailey and how much she was loved by a huge extended family. "No matter how big and ugly this was, the love Hailey knew was bigger, much bigger."

Later, he asked about going to the funeral and I promised I'd get the information and see what could be done.

In the early afternoon, he came to my office in the chapel and we called his father. He talked with his sister. The bond between them was palpable.

I don't know if he'll get to go to the funeral. Policy says that it has to be "a close relative" and that's usually a parent, spouse, sibling, or child. Sometimes the system has room to bend. I'll find out when I'm back on Sunday.

One of the other men I saw that morning had lost a 15-year-old daughter to an overdose of Ecstasy on May 5th. It was a follow-up visit, a chance to see if the shock was wearing off. Not too much, not yet. But he'd been sitting in the waiting room when the other man had come in crying and he'd noticed. I couldn't tell him what was going on, but I said, "Other people are standing now where you were two weeks ago. Pray for them." He only nodded.

There are some basic rules about working in prison and one of the primary ones is, "Don't touch the offenders." The easy back-slapping or pokes to the arm can be miscontrued or misunderstood. Can't give someone the wrong impression, make him think I think he's special. We give handshakes, not hugs. But there are some days, and Wednesday was one of them, when only a hug makes sense. Hailey's dead. She's not coming back. She was and is deeply loved.

24 April 2007

The Shortest Distance

On Sunday at the afternoon church services, I spoke briefly about what had happened at Virginia Tech the past Monday. The men in the Receiving Units, just coming in from county or waiting to be transferred to another, major institution, do not have access to television. The radio stations that play in the units rarely have news. If they get to the gym and the front page of the newspaper is posted, they might get a little news.

Most hadn't heard about Virginia Tech.

But that mention launched us into Waco and Oklahoma City and Columbine and why things seem to happen this week in April.

And then I noticed the young man in the back of the small classroom. "I was there in Moses Lake," he said. Moses Lake is in Eastern Washington and nine years ago, a young teenager named Barry Loukaitis brought a gun to school and opened fire in his middle school classroom. Steve told us about seeing his classmates get shot and die, and the wife of the principal--a teacher.

I looked at his face. He still looks young, even though he's 24 now. I wondered if that day in Moses Lake was part of the reason he was here in prison. I don't know.

He told us about the boy with the gun. "He was a retard. Not all there. Kids picked on him all the time. Locked him in his locker. Strung him up on the flagpole."

And I'm thinking, "And we wonder why kids go off the deep end and do something like shoot up the classroom?"

A couple of years ago, a young man came to my office to talk. He was having a hard time with prison--he was young too. In the middle of his story-telling came a revelation: he'd lived on the Red Lake Indian reservation in Minnesota and lost several relatives in the school shooting there.
I'm speechless in the face of these stories. I can only listen, take in the words, be a companion who will bear the burden of the story.

I hate to think that the shortest distance between two stories may be a gunshot.

13 April 2007

A Day in the Life

It should have been a simple day, coming off a long weekend, punctuated by a Sunday full of church services. I’d set up my calendar, made appointments, there was someone to see every hour on the half hour. I made the 8am meeting and was off and running. I picked up a phone message about an inmate who needed to be notified that his father was dying. I got the details from his counselor.

A batch of guys, new to prison life, were the first to cross the threshold. Find Bibles, talk about the process, reassure the guy who hadn’t talked to his kids for three weeks. At 9:30, I put out the call that I needed to see the man whose father was dying. Maybe he’d gone to gym. The officers would try to find him.

More people through the door. Pray with this one, recommend a book to that one. A man comes in at ten and throws himself into a chair. “And you are?” I asked. “Gary Ridgeway,” he said. I looked at him, checked the list on my computer. No, he wasn’t scheduled, but what the heck, it’s a little slow. Turns out he wasn’t THAT Gary Ridgeway, the notorious Green River killer, who is sitting over in Walla Walla.

Ten-thirty. Another call to the unit. Did you find that guy at gym? No one has seen him. I shuffle papers on my desk, look up some cell locations, laugh when I find a man whose last name is “Looney.” Poor guy. No wonder he ended up in prison. Why didn’t his parents change their name long ago?

Lunch time. The building closes. I work on a 5 inch stack of requests from inmates. Some of them are from the middle of December, carefully hidden in a drawer by someone who didn’t want to work, it seems. I check locations to see if those who wrote the requests are still here in Shelton. Many have moved to a new unit. A number are gone. I write responses: “Please come to the chapel to pick up a bible.” “You cannot receive packages while you’re in the Receiving Center.” “Sorry, we don’t have copies of the Left Behind series to loan out.” “No, we don’t have a study bible or an NIV or one with the words of Jesus in red.”

At noon, I go to a unit to tell a man his father is dying. The man has gone to lunch. The booth officer calls the dining room, asks them to send the inmate back to the unit. I talk with the staff. Inmates filter back into the unit. The officer pages the inmate I need to see. No one comes. We keep talking.

One of the officers wants to know what people call me. “Priests are called ‘Father,’” she says, “but what about you?” “They call me Shannon. Or ‘Sister’ or ‘Ma’am.” I go through the explanation again: Catholics don’t ordain women. No, I’m not a religious sister. I’m a laywoman doing chaplaincy. “Mostly they call me ‘Chaplain.’” The booth officer pages the missing guy again.

It’s close to 12:30 and I need to be in another building, seeing other inmates, but success! The guy’s cellmate says, “He was at an appointment this morning and then went to lunch. He was in the cell, but ignored the page. He just left for another appointment.” This time, he’s in Mental Health. The officer calls down to Mental Health and says, “When he’s done seeing whoever he’s seeing, plant his butt on the chair and don’t let him move. The chaplain needs to see him.”

I go to an office building to meet with half a dozen inmates. Only one shows up and we talk. I see the priest making his way back and forth, meeting with men for confessions. We exchange greetings and I go to Mental Health. Mental Health is in the Infirmary building, down a long hallway, past the dozens lined up for sick call, and the hospital rooms, and through a set of blue doors. Before I make it to the blue doors, I see a man striding down the hall. I hold up a hand. “Are you Charles?” He nods. I point back down the hallway. “I need to see you.” An officer says, “Mystery solved! THAT’S who wanted to see you!” We search for an office with a phone.

“Is this about my dad?” Charles asks. Yes. We sit down and I tell him. “Your father has had two heart attacks in the last two days. He’s on life support.” Charles covers his face with his hands and cries. “I knew this would happen. I told my sister this would happen.” His mother died two years ago.

“Your sister wants to talk to you.” When he’s ready, we make the phone call. He talks to his sister for a long while, then she puts the phone to his father’s ear. Only a father would understand the cry of anguish and love. He talks to his sister again. She is worried that he will hurt himself, that he needs to be on suicide watch. He reassures her that he will handle this. He will.

He heads back to his cell, after he picks up a bible from the chapel. I make a phone call. There’s someone else, whose father was buried today, who needs to talk to his family about the funeral. We make the call. He apologizes. His wife had to tell him about the celebrities who were there--his father used to be a road manager for Willy Nelson for 25 years. He writes his father’s name in the Book of Remembrance and thanks me.

When he leaves, one last man comes through the door. No crisis. No emergency. No death in the family. He just wants to check in and catch up. The officer calls for movement. The building is closing. “I’ll get out of here and leave you to your work,” the inmate says. “This?” I say, waving at the stack of requests. “It will all be here tomorrow.” And it will be.

05 April 2007

25 Forms

People laugh at the piles of paper on my desk: kites, religious preference forms, postcards, callouts, time sheets, to do lists. It all seems endless. Or bottomless. The top lefthand drawer is permanently open, holding the stack of stuff that won’t fit on the desktop. And there’s always a box nearby with the slush file. Some days I’m tricked into thinking that if I could just clear a space, life would get back to less-than-hectic.

I’m very aware today that each piece of paper represents a life, a person struggling to make sense of things. One stack of paper labeled “Transitioning Offenders Program” is at least 25 pages thick, 25 men looking to do something differently this time when they get out of prison. The forms are filled out 25 different ways: carefully, precisely, illegibly, in pen, with pencil, with all the questions answered, with some blanks left wide open. Some have extended explanations or pleas for assistance on the margins and on the back page. I read through them and try to picture the man who labored over one more form that asked for his name and number and other too important information.

Clearly many of them struggle with the basic skills, finding it difficult to spell or communicate clearly. How have they gotten this far in life without being able to read or write? Or does that explain how they’ve ended up in prison, at least give a partial explanation?

The lines for past employment are hauntingly empty for many. Some of them reflect the kinds of jobs that can be paid under the table, that don’t offer a living wage, and forget about any kind of health insurance.

Some request help for moving far away from where they have found trouble before. Some note that their families do live in the town they’ll release to, but the family has cut them off and will not be supporting them in any way whatsoever. There is so much desperation.

But what I have found is that things begin to change with a little information. The team of men who provide a list of resources and some guidance for writing letters have a gift of inspiring new confidence. They have a knack for knowing their stuff and for finding just the right thing for a man who is not willing to admit that release from prison is a terrifying thought. Somehow, worry is smoothed out and another man begins to think about going home in a whole new way.

So there’s a mess on my desk. Big deal. There are lives being changed and that’s worth the mess.

22 March 2007

Found in the Mail

Dear Chapel,
Could I please have a New King Jesus bible with the words of Jesus in red?

Later that week: Thank you for the bible, but why aren't Jesus' words in red in the Old Testament?

--Could I have a new bible? I don't understand all the old language.

--Could I have a Russian bible? (or Korean or Cambodian, Spanish or Vietnamese, large print)

--I don't read very well. Do you have a bible with pictures?

--Do you have any pictures of Jesus? I want to know what he looks like.

--I need to talk to you ASAP. There's stuff going on that I don't understand.

--Could you call CPS for me? My wife's boyfriend is bothering my kids.

--I need the address for the IRS.

--Could you find my mother and sister for me? I lost touch with them eight years ago. I think they live in Chicago.

--This is my SIXTH kite. Why aren't you answering me? All I asked for was an address book, a bible, a correspondence course, a penpal, a list of approved housing for Spokane, the address of all food banks in my area, and my release date.

--My mother was in a car accident and she's in the hospital. Can you find out how she is?

--Could I please have a rosemary?

--Did you get any crosses yet? You didn't have any the last time I was here, but now I'm back and I'm hoping you have some because I need one if I'm going to stay out of here.

--Dear Chaplain, thank you.

You're welcome.

01 March 2007

Unintended Funnies

One of my daily tasks is to go through the stack of requests that are sent through the prison mail system. (They are called "kites" because you have to "fly" them to the appropriate person.) Every now and then, something funny comes along.

Today there was a request for an card for "my wife who is going to have our new baby sometime in the next two weeks." Simple enough. But then there was this note, "You sent me a 'get well' card by mistake." Reason enough to smile.

There was a note from a man who wanted a meatless diet for Passover. When I found out he was Wiccan, I sent him a note and said, "If you are receiving your religious diet, you'll be meatless for Passover."

Religion in prison can be an fascinating mish-mash of what people have lived as children, what they've heard preached against, and their own desire to make their lives different from what has gone before. Part of the job of a chaplain is to sort through the tangled lines and straighten them out. Only then can the spirit fly, like the kites that fly through the system, like the one that hangs on the wall of my office, an inside joke.

27 February 2007

This Is the Part

This poem came out of a conversation I had with a man last summer. The woman who'd raised him had just died. Usually those talks are brief: a description of the relationship, a bit about what will happen for the funeral, regret at not being there. This was different. A life story spilled out and I listened. A few hours after he left my office, I wrote this poem. It's an entry here today because I just got news that it is published in this week's National Catholic Reporter. I am thrilled. I've shared this poem with friends who are in ministry of all kinds because listening is what we do most often.

This Is the Part

This is the part where
I shove aside what was urgent
five minutes ago.
Whatever it was, it can wait
because this person
in front of me
my attention
I take a deep breath

This is the part where
I check the box of tissue
and close the door
and make myself still

This is the part where
I listen
to words
sounds caught in the throat
the long-ago child
who doesn’t have words

This is the part where
there are no words
I hold
like a bird
that will shatter
with the cold

We breathe
as if we’re just learning
at a time

This is the part where
I say, You will live
You will not die from this

This is the part where
I let go
No magic words
No lasting touch

This is the part where
I trust what has happened
between us
through us
and then let go

This is the part where
I have no part.

Shannon O'Donnell

Wellness Check

Chaplains get to do all sorts of things. Today was filled with a thousand different tasks, but the best one came near the end of the day.

There'd been a long line outside my door since one o'clock, close to 100 people were in the chapel, and most of them were waiting for a composition book. Someone could make real money with a stand that stocked only composition books. Any place to put down your personal thoughts--what a gift.

While the noise level rose, the phone rang. I couldn't answer, so it went to voicemail. Another 15 or 20 people came through my office. Then the phone rang again. The woman on the phone was concerned about her son. He'd been calling every day, but no one had heard from him for three or four days. Could I please find out if he was okay? I told her I'd call her back.

I called his unit and asked the officer to check him out. "See if he's upright and breathing. His mom is worried." The unit was busy with showers, and, as it turned out, the officer forgot.

After four, with the units locked down for count, I went out to tell one man that his mom had had a heart attack, and to check on the one who hadn't called his mother.

His cell was at the very end of a tier. Fifteen cells, three men to a cell these days. We're very crowded. The third man is sleeping on a mat on the floor.

"I'm looking for Nathan," I said to the guys in A-15. A young, slender man got off the bunk. I introduced myself and said, "I'm doing a wellness check. Your mother called."

He looked sheepish. "Because I haven't called?"

"Yep. You don't call your mom, the chaplain will come looking for you." We laughed.

"Tell her I'm okay." I nodded.

Back in my office, I related the conversation to his mother. "But he's okay? He looks okay?" He does. He'll call, probably tomorrow during his gym time when he has access to a phone.

Wellness checks work both ways, usually an offender stressing because he hasn't heard from his girlfriend/fiancee/wife/mother/grandmother in "ages and ages." Sometimes all it takes is a quick phone call and the tension level goes down. I count that as a small victory in keeping people safe in a place that can be emotionally unstable and occasionally violent. Sometimes it doesn't take much to accomplish a little peace.

12 February 2007

"I've got my nerds on"

He's a tall good-looking black man and he's pulling out a stack of typewritten paper, 130 pages of his life story. The tortoise-rimmed glasses don't usually sit on his face, so looking at him, I can only agree. He's got his nerds on.

That stack of paper is more than just his life story. He told me a few months ago that he has never before told the story of his arrest and what brought him to prison. For fifteen years, he has written about the incidents but has always couched the story in legal terms. Now he's just telling the story. It's taking a lot out of him. The effort shows.

Earlier today, he came into my office and said, "I need to write in your book." My book is full of names and dates, a record of those who have died who were related to the men in this prison. Lately the pages are filling too quickly. He wrote the name of his grandmother on an empty line and held the book on his lap for a few minutes. His grief filled the room.

05 February 2007

Where is everyone?

It's 9:45 on Monday morning and the chapel should be packed with men in orange jumpsuits, eager to get cards and address books. Instead, the workers are straightening chairs, emptying waste baskets, watering the plants. The windows in my office offer only a view of the overhang of the building, so I have to walk out into the chapel to check the weather. It's foggy, so foggy that I can't see the farthest building across the yard. (There have been foggier days. Once we couldn't even see the fence right outside our building.) The fog explains the silence. We are having "fog line" and people will move only on the hour and only if instructed.

No one will starve. Meal time will go on as planned, but movement to and from the dining hall is almost all within fences, no chance for anyone to go missing while headed from Point A to Point B. Knowing where everyone is at any given time is a priority within a prison. There are all sorts of ways of keeping track: callouts (the alphabetical list of appointments to school, chapel, medical, legal mail), passes (made out in duplicate), phone calls, the computer. Every now and then, it gets complicated.

The other day, I checked to see where an offender was working so I could get him to my office. The computer said he was on the paint crew. No one answered the phone in the maintenance office. I finally called the man's unit and asked an officer to track him down. When the man showed up in my office half an hour later, his forehead bore the distinctive elastic mark of a kitchen worker (those funny hats they have to wear to cover their hair in the kitchen--even if they're bald!). The computer hadn't been updated to show his new workplace.

So where is everyone? Today the answer is simple: unless he's working, every man is in his cell, locked down for the duration. And me? I'm getting paperwork done, trying to weed through the stacks on my desk. It gives me a chance to pray for the guys who've just come in (they're the yellow Religious Preference forms waiting to be filed), for the ones who are thinking about release (they are the purple and white questionnaires who need to be scheduled for a session in the chapel), for the families (that's the set of phone calls on my notepad), for the other chaplains (the email I need to answer and the notes to a meeting I need to type up), for those who pray for us (the basket filling up with prayers). Lots to do. It's Monday and it's quiet.

03 February 2007

Chaplain or Social Worker

No two ways about it. A lot of my work is social work. I get people connected to resources, find the address to their local Social Security office, encourage men to get connected with their child support. That falls into my chaplain job.

Twice a month, I volunteer at a local domestic violence center. I'm there as a chaplain, to talk to the women and kids who access the resources there, to offer spiritual support. I also have access to a small fund of money for emergency housing. So far, my chaplain services have been put to use only a few times. By Friday afternoon, most people have found what they need for the weekend. But a couple of times in the last few months, there have been those housing calls.

I've discovered something crucial. I make a lousy social worker.

My sister and I were talking this morning when I had this revelation. I'm an easy touch. I'd be hauling out my credit card, making reservations at the local Motel 6 based on any good story someone told me.

I'm not that way in the prison. In the prison, I can spot the difference between truth and bs quickly. I told my sister that this may be because the guys aren't going anywhere. They have to deal with me on the spot. Those folks who call the domestic violence office--I can only hear their voices and not see their eyes. And I fall for the stories every time.

I suppose part of the problem is that I take what I'm told at face value. And that I've told some terrific lies in my own life. Like the time I told my third grade teacher that my brother Geoff had died. Granted, he was in the hospital and very sick, but only his death would score enough points so that Sr. Terrence would pray for him, out loud, right before class. And then when my parents asked about it, I claimed she must have gotten me mixed up with one of the other forty-nine students in my class. I was in third grade. What did I know? I attended the only Catholic school in the only Catholic parish in town. Why would anyone pay attention to the funeral schedule? Yep. That was my thinking.

I've been a chaplain for almost 8 years now, with more than 20 years before that in high school and parish settings. Maybe I'll learn one of these days. But I don't think it's going to be this week.

30 January 2007

In the beginning

How else to begin? It's the end of the day in the life of a prison chaplain. It's been busy. I saw individual men for most of the morning and then a whole stream of them during the afternoon. For two hours on Tuesday afternoons, men from three different living units come to the chapel in search of greeting cards, address books, reading material, and a friendly ear. That last item is my responsibility. I have to switch gears frequently.

The first man may want some resources for when he gets out of prison. The next wants to talk about the letter he got from his girlfriend. The third may have pictures to show of his kids. It's always different.

The end of the day seems to arrive in a rush. It's time to close down the building and get ready for count. The silence is sudden, but not unwelcome. I restack the piles on my desk and make a resolution that tomorrow, for sure, I will address what the requests that got pushed aside today.

For today, I'm grateful for the stories I heard, for the people I met, for what I could do.