19 January 2009

Are You Housekeeping?

I was on the tiers today in one of the units, going from cell to cell. "Who are you?" some people wanted to know. "Are you a counselor?" Counselors are really case managers, so, although I do some counseling around here, I'm not a counselor. "Counselors don't work on Sundays," I said a few times. Someone muttered, "Or any other day either" and there were chuckles up and down the tier.

Counselors have a hard job here. With hundreds of new offenders and violators coming in every month, everyone has to be seen, their files reviewed, and a plan prepared. The counselors have to juggle what they read in legal files, the state and department rules, and the ever-changing requests of offenders and their families.

It's hard to get an appointment with a counselor. I've seen the stacks of notes on their desks and I don't envy them a bit. So no, I'm not a counselor.

I've learned to walk the tiers without pencil and paper in hand. The requests fly thick and fast: a bible, a phone book, a Qu'ran, a zip code, a phone call? "Write a kite," I say over and over. "Put it in writing. Stick it in the mail." What I don't say is that on Sundays, especially, my brain is like a sieve and I have a bad habit of stuffing notes into my pockets. The next time I see those notes, they have gone through the wash and are rendered unreadable.

Today I chatted about books the guys were reading (where did all the Louis L'Amours come from?), the news (did you hear about the Miracle on the Hudson? Many hadn't), the time--almost time for lunch. How far could I get on the tiers before I got trampled by the call to mainline?

A fair number of men had the blankets pulled over their heads to avoid the insistent glare of the flourescent lights. Some were doing pushups with rolls of toilet paper under their hands. A couple of chess games were in full swing, moves yelled from the second floor to the first. The artists were turning out envelope art in shades of pencil. Anyone who was awake seemed to be either thoughtful or engaged with something.

I introduced myself again and again. There was a day when I was part of the Orientation Road Show. Four or five of us staff would meet 150 new offenders in the gym and go through our schtick. I'd run through the important chapel things: how to get stuff from the chapel, what the chaplain could (and couldn't) do, how important it was to keep the emergency contact information up to date. (My horror story was that of a man in general population who died one October. We tried calling his emergency contact number, but it was disconnected. Later we learned that it had been his sister's number and that she had died the year before. When a Christmas card arrived for him in December, we wrote and asked if they had a contact for the family. Two months after his death, we were finally able to tell family that he was gone.)

"I'm the Catholic chaplain." Usually on Sunday I'm doing a church service and the men I get to know are the ones who go to that service. Most of the men in the unit don't have a clue about who I am. Walking the tiers is one way to get known.

And it certainly beats the usual way I show up in the unit. "Uh oh, the chaplain's here. Who died?"

I had walked three tiers and was midway through the fourth. A man in cell 7 poked his head out from a blanket and asked, "Are you housekeeping?" I laughed. How does one mistake prison for a hotel with room service?