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.

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