19 February 2009

"When I get out, I'll be short one brother."

It took a while to find the last offender I needed to see tonight. I called the unit to let them know I was sending Michael back down to them. Mike's grandmother had died and we talked to his family about the information I needed to get the paperwork started for a funeral trip. Now Mike was on his way back to the unit and there was another guy I needed to see.

This one--an officer had sent an email because Eli had gotten a letter that his brother had committed suicide, hung himself in a public park in the north part of the state.

Half an hour later, Eli still hadn't shown up. I went out into the chapel where things were in full swing, and just before another brother gave his testimony, I asked if Eli was in the room. He wasn't. I went back to my office and called the unit. The booth officer was mystified. "I sent him out of here two minutes after we talked. I gave him explicit instructions." Somehow, he hadn't made it. The officer called the gym, thinking Eli might have gone there.

Twenty minutes later, still no Eli. I called the officer at the lobby of our building. "I saw a guy looking teary-eyed who asked for you about half an hour ago. I told him to go straight through the chapel to the open door with the light on." But no Eli. The officer left his post, went into the chapel and interrupted the preacher, "Is there an Eli in here?"

Eli raised his hand. He got escorted to my office. Somehow, between the officer's desk and my door, he'd gotten sidetracked. No wonder.

He was full of guilt and remorse and sadness and "I don't get it." The family had lost two other sons and brothers in past years and the young man in front of me was only 20, crushed by this awful news. This dead brother had a body loaded with cocaine and Eli blamed himself for getting his brother started on cocaine. "If I'd been there, I would have seen it. I could have stopped him." And then he raged at his brother for giving up, for being a coward, for not asking for help.

"Have you ever experienced anything like this?" he wanted to know. I haven't, not quite like this, but I just listened. "When I get out, I'll be short one brother."

His tears were so much like those of Mike, like those of Lewis whose older brother died of cancer, of Dave whose ex-wife, mother of their kids, died in her sleep, of George whose uncle died--and his mother came from Missouri for the funeral and thought she might be able to visit her son, for the first time in 20 years. She'd lost him to state care when he was eight.

Used tissues are piled up in the garbage can, most of them twisted and shredded. My office holds the human explosion of emotions. The wreckage of so much loss is hard to comprehend.

Earlier this afternoon, I stopped to see a friend at the convent where she lives. Sr. Una is as straight-backed as they come, a woman from Ireland who is close to 90. Her memory isn't what it used to be, but she knows who I am and the work that I do. She has prayed for the offenders since I first started work at the prison almost ten years ago. She enlists the help of others and several of the sisters spend time in the chapel, going through a basket of prayer intentions that the offenders send. Sr. Una was helping to put together service sheets for tonight's vigil Mass. One of the sisters, the youngest in the house at 67, had died. (The oldest, 104, died two weeks earlier.) There was sadness at this table as the sisters worked, but they told stories about both the dead sisters and I was grateful because they had a common place to be together and they could share the stories.

The men in prison often miss out on that piece in their grief.

10 February 2009

Plan Ahead. Your Life Awaits.

In between what seemed like a gazillion rosary and bible requests on Monday, there were at least a jillion phone calls. Most of them were pretty easy to deal with, but then there was this one:

Ring. Ring.

"Good afternoon. Chaplain O'Donnell."

"Chaplain? Hello, my name is Kyle."

Kyle had a few questions to ask. "I understand that usually a community college is associated with a prison. Is that true of where you are?"

It is. Centralia Community College staffs our education center.

"And are there any classes to take beyond the GED courses?"

Because we're a receiving prison, we really don't offer much. GED, yes. And some Information Technology Certificate classes. Some of the guys are real whizzes with computer programs. I explain all this, and when he asks if people can take anything they want, I tell him that most everyone in general population has to work and keep the place running, so they may have time for one class at a time.

"But really, " I say, "you should be talking to the Education folks. Could I transfer you to them?" That was fine with him, but now, I was curious.

"If you don't mind my asking, why are you interested in our education programs?"

There's a very small silence, then Kyle says, "Well, I'm going to be an inmate there and I'm trying to plan ahead."

I wished him luck, then transferred the call. Then I laughed.

We work so hard to get offenders to make plans for when they release from prison. This was my first experience with someone who was taking planning seriously.

I almost told Kyle to look me up when he gets here. But I didn't. I have a feeling I'll run across him anyway.