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.