28 December 2007

Christmas Inside

Christmas comes in a clump at prison. Somewhere just after Thanksgiving comes the realization that a guy is going to be spending Christmas in prison--and not just any prison--in this receiving prison, which means he's going to be waiting. He's in limbo, not on a bus to his permanent institution, but stuck, through Christmas and maybe New Year's.

It's cold and wet. That means access to the phones in the yard are limited. At the line of ten phones, at least three men stand with their coats over their heads, trying to block the rain or create a little private room. The gym is a noisy place to try to talk to someone you love or if you need a little privacy. Coats don't work there.

More mail is coming in, Christmas cards by the dozens. But if your name is never called, there's not much room for joy.

On December 23rd, we celebrated Christmas at all the Catholic and Protestant services. Advent just seemed to slip by this year. Fr. Joe came in to celebrate Mass with the first group of Catholics. He's been a priest for 50 years and seems to love his time with offenders as much as he ever loved working in the parishes. His gentle presence made it possible for several men to celebrate First Eucharist.

The Christmas manger scene was front and center and in the after-Mass hubbub, I could hear last year's story of Jesus being stolen. Several people checked to see that he was actually super-glued to the manger. He was.

A man in Canada who makes crosses for us surprised us with wooden ornaments this year. There were just enough for everyone in the room. And just enough to spark a phone call from one of the sergeants: "These things you gave out at Catholic services this morning, are they supposed to be worn?" "Not unless the guy has turned into a Christmas tree." "Gotcha."

Sunday evening was the fourth and final performance of an original Christmas production written and performed by the offenders. Life on the street took on a new meaning and I think at least a few in the room must have had a girlfriend who might have said, "How can this happen to me? Ain't no one touch MY goodies!"

The props were inventive, the singing tender, the joy palpable.

Then everyone went home.

I was ready to leave when the building officer told me that there was a man in the mental health unit who was threatening suicide and wanted to talk to a chaplain. I went to the infirmary.

He was in a stark room, a plastic mattress on the floor, a blanket, and wearing what can only be kindly described as a blue muu-muu. He got up to greet me and I complimented him on his outfit. He almost smiled. Then he sat down on the mattress and I settled down on the floor. He talked and cried for the next half hour.

His father had died the Tuesday before and his family hadn't wanted to tell him. When he had called home on Tuesday, they just said that Dad was at the store and couldn't talk. When he finally found out about his father on Saturday, he came apart at the seams. He is the youngest of eight. The family was trying to protect him. They were worried about him, worried that he might try to do something to hurt himself. And that's why he's here in this barren room with nothing to throw or smash, nothing that could hurt him unless he bashed his head against the wall.

He wanted to go to the funeral home for the visitation on Thursday and we talked a bit about what the mental health people would need to see so they could okay his going out. He understood.

Monday I had a phone call from Mental Health. They were sending him back to his regular unit. It looked like the funeral trip would happen.

When I left the prison Sunday night, the candy cane's sweetness had already faded and the bittersweet reality of Christmas in prison stayed with me.

Even here, in this place, God's promise to be with us stands.

09 December 2007

Jesus Goes Missing

We had a busy full day one Monday in December last year. The Christmas tree was up. We'd strung the lights. The crib scene was sitting out in the back of the chapel. There was a movie playing on the TV and there was a very long line at the office for cards.

At 11, the chapel cleared and peace descended. Of sorts. Someone discovered that Baby Jesus was missing from the manger.

We'd only had one unit in the chapel over the past two hours, but that meant about 175 offenders had been in and out. I called the sergeant of the unit.

"I'm calling to report a missing person," I told him.

"Really?" He sounded puzzled. "Name?"

"Jesus," I said, "first name Baby."

He laughed.

I gave him a description. Jesus was about half as long as my thumb, infant, not adolescent.

He promised to look into it.

Much later that afternoon, the sergeant came to my office and held out a closed fist. I opened my hand and he placed Baby Jesus in it.

They'd done a full-scale search in the unit. Every room was gone through. Someone said that someone had heard that someone had it.... and eventually, Jesus was recovered.

He made it back to the chapel with some gang tattoos on his body.

The next Sunday, I told the story to the men who'd come to services. "The Word of God became human, to be one like us--tattoos and all, I think."

Baby Jesus is now superglued into his manger.

Out of Practice

It's the second Sunday of Advent and I'm beginning to wonder how much of an Advent we'll actually have here at the prison. Last Sunday, I was caught in a white-out (a lot of snow) when I was halfway to work. I called the prison to ask how things were. A mix of rain and snow, they told me. I cancelled the first service because it was already getting late and the road looked slick and the snow was thick. I didn't want to chance sliding off the road and ending up in a ditch on my way to church.

I used the tunnel to make most of the trip to the chapel. That way I missed most of the couple of inches of snow on the ground. At least one set of volunteers was unable to make it in from Bremerton. Services in a second part of the institution were cancelled.

The Protestant service at 9:30 happened. "Feliz Navidad," "Joy to the World," "We Three Kings." I know, I know, it's not Christmas yet, but someone was in the mood for celebrating. And the snow kept falling. The volunteers who'd made it in for the 9:30 service decided they were not coming back after lunch.

By 11, we were looking at more than 6 inches of snow at the prison and I was starting to wonder if I'd make it back to Tacoma with any trouble.

We cancelled the afternoon services. I went home at 12:30 when the snow was 8 inches deep. Getting out of the parking lot wasn't too difficult. Good thing there weren't any other cars there! And the road from the prison to the main road is fairly well maintained because the State Patrol is just down the road.

Five miles from the prison? No snow at all. Just rain. I shook my head and swam through the rain.

Then there was all that nasty flooding. Nothing here, but there are a number of men who have families in the hardest hit areas and some have lost everything.

Now it's Sunday again. And it is snowing. Count was late. Breakfast was late. The Catholic service was about 17 minutes long. Services in the other part of the institution were cancelled because there wasn't enough time to clean up from breakfast, have a service, and get lunch ready.

Afternoon services? We shall see. I keep checking the weather outside. It keeps snowing, but not as bad as last week.

I miss preaching and I really miss that time with the guys that happens on Sunday. We catch up on the news and try for a bit of normal. I'm feeling out of practice.

Update: the snow stopped. The sidewalks cleared. The only place left covered with snow were the garden plots.

Two services this afternoon. It's finally beginning to feel like Advent.