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.