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.