31 May 2009

"I Don't Envy You"

The call came early, a little after seven. "Chaplain, we've had a death here."

"I'll be there in an hour."

When I arrived and turned in my keys, one of the officers behind the glass said he needed to talk to me, so I turned to the door that he'd come through, only to be met by a staff investigator at the gate who wanted to talk to me now. The officer said, "The superintendent wants to see her first," so the staff member gave up his claim on me and we went off to see the superintendent.

There I was given the basics: an offender had hung himself this morning and died as a result. It was my job to inform his wife.

From that office, I went down the hall to the Investigations office and got the basics all over again, with a few more details. We talked briefly, the three investigators and I. One of them said, "I don't envy you telling the wife."

I shook my head. "You don't understand. I do this kind of thing all the time. I pull an offender into an office and I'm there to tell him bad news: his 9 year old was killed by a drunk driver in California, his grandmother took a turn for the worse, his dad won't last long enough for him to get a visit. I give out bad news all the time. The only thing that's different this time is that I'm picking up a phone and making a call."

I headed to my office. I hadn't planned on being in, so to everyone I encountered on the way I had to ask that they bar my door, intercept anyone who dropped in, and save the messages til later. I closed the office door and sat down at my desk. The phone number of the woman who was going to get this news was in my hand. I reached for the phone.

The man who'd died, I'll call him Gary, was in his late fifties. He'd only been in prison for a week and this was his first time. He was sentenced to 67 months. Sometime about 5:30 in the morning, he'd strung a sheet through the bars and tied it around his neck, then he sat down in the corner and died.

His cellmate was asleep when this happened, but had awakened thinking, "He never told me to go back to sleep before." Gary had been agitated over the long weekend, pacing the small cell, doing pushups, asking questions again and again, although he'd gotten a clear answer the first five times. He'd seen a counselor, been checked by the medical staff, saw the mental health folks.


Gary didn't respond when his cellmate asked, "Hey, buddy, are you okay?" The cellmate poked him and then called for the officers. They kicked into high gear.

Standard Operating Procedure in a case like this is to consider the cell a crime scene, so Gary's cellmate was handcuffed and moved to the hole. Gary was pulled out of the cell and several people worked on him using CPR. There are ten cells down the tier, two men per cell. That means that 18 people had front row seats as officers tried to save a life. Another tier, above had another ten cells, so another 20 people heard everything that was going on: people barking orders and making decisions. One of the medical staff arrived, examined Gary, and pronounced him dead. His body was removed to the infirmary. And shift changed at 6.

When I got to the unit, it was after 10. The offenders were in the gym, so I talked with the officers. Most of them were "handling it." They had come in after the excitement was over, but they'd seen their colleagues at shift change.

When the men started coming in from gym, one of the officers brought Gary's cellmate over to talk to me. He'd been in prison before, he told me, so he'd been keeping an eye on Gary, helping him master the complicated phone system, telling him how things run in prison, trying to answer the questions Gary asked again and again. He'd alerted the staff to Gary's erratic behavior and gotten him the attention he needed.

I asked how he was doing and he shrugged. "I've had so many people die before." He listed family members of several generations and said, "I was riding in the truck with my wife when she died." Out came a horrific story: a family barbecue, a full stop at a stop sign, a motorcyclist going 125 miles an hour ramming into their truck.

One of the officers came to get me. Half the unit was in the dining hall and the sergeant wanted them to know I was available if anyone wanted to talk. I introduced myself, told them that no one expects death in prison, but that Gary had known something besides just the craziness of prison; he'd known kindness. People had listened to him and helped him. He hadn't been left alone. Then we took a moment of silence. I said, "Amen?" and they said, "Amen!" and finished eating their lunch.

When the next group came down, I went through it again, though this was the group that included the men who had seen the efforts to revive Gary. So I said a little more than I had the first time, but we concluded with that moment of silence and a group "Amen!"

Today is Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, feast of new life. I talked with volunteers who came to do church services and told them what had happened on Thursday. "Someone may ask you if you think Gary's in hell. My stance is that God's mercy is far wider than any of our imaginations. Pray for him, pray for his family, but don't let anyone go down the road of judging him." People in prison have been through enough judgement. They can dish it out, and they take a lot of it. What they need right now are ways to get through this without resorting to despair. The volunteers knew that without my saying it.

At 9:30, I was back in that dining room, setting up for the Catholic service. There were more people than usual, almost 30, and they were eager to volunteer to read. When it came time for the Lord's Prayer, I said, as I often do, that there were others we needed to pray for, who weren't on the list in the Prayers of the Faithful. I named Gary and his family, the officers who'd tried to save him, the people who witnessed his death. Then, together, we prayed.

There are a few things left to do, the first being to write Gary's name in the Book of Remembrance that I keep on my desk. There are a couple of phone calls and a few emails to make. There will be people to see this week on Wednesday as they try to make sense of this death and the losses in their own lives.

"You must hate this part of your job," someone will say.

No. Never. This is the place where the real living happens. It is a gift and grace to be here.