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.