25 August 2009

"I'm a Bootist."

When on emotional overload, paperwork looks like a good thing. Specifically, recording the religious preference(s) of newly admitted offenders. Most are fairly mundane. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic (or "Chatolic"). The Protestants occasionally spell out Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian. Okay, I'm lying about the last one. The guys can't spell Presbyterian. And want to guess what "Progispant" is connected to?

And these are all the normal ones, the single religion guys. I may have to squint, cross my eyes, pull out the secret decoder ring, but usually I can interpret what I read.

Today, however, I went to the Religious Preference Forms after:
--playing referee between the kitchen and the men who are fasting during Ramadan. (Note to religious policy people: Starting a major fast on a weekend is a bad idea.)

--doing the marathon Open Chapel sessions from 9-11am and 12:30-3pm where the line outside my office stretched to 25 and people were asking for rosaries (need to fill out a special form for that), Qu'rans (another special form), address of a discipleship ministry that might take someone coming out of prison, zip code for "the last business where I worked so I can fill out my tax return," five phone calls to a single family all with the same result: "The number you have dialed has been disconnected," and a few prayers with some very humble people.

--trying to find that one piece of paper in that chaos-pile on my desk, the one that had the information about two new volunteers coming into the prison on Saturday who have to be put on the Authorized Visitor list.

--realizing I forgot to bring anything for lunch, but there was popcorn.

--sorting the mail, some 75+ pieces today, into piles: tasks for the chapel workers, completed forms for the Transitioning Offenders Program, requests for the Lutheran Pastor, mail for the former Volunteer Coordinator who is now a Mental Health Counselor and in another building, returned mail, and mine. Guess whose pile was the largest?

--double-checking the cell assignments of 30+ offenders on the "Ramadan Dailies" list. Since we're a receiving prison with a mobile population, the names and locations shift. Every day. Sometimes they change cells or buildings. Other times, they've moved to a new institution.

Mind-numbing idiot work is a part-time craving when the interactions with live people have been too numerous. It's routine, satisfying because the stack of papers get done. It's mind-numbing when I have to enter the number and then click on another screen, scroll down, and 50% of the time discoverthat someone has already entered the religion. But then again, I often find the Wiccans have been classified as "Other" even though the correct path is "Pagan" and then "Wiccan." But even idiot work has its benefits because I don't have to think too hard.

It was while working through 150+ forms that I came across "I am a Bootist." I stopped. I looked. I frowned. I sounded it out. Oooooooooohhhhhhhh.

I entered his number, clicked on the next page, scrolled down to "Religion," clicked on "Edit," and then clicked on "Buddhist" and the date and the prison name. Then I saved it.

I answered the phone twice.

And then I went over to Unit 6 to tell one man that his girlfriend had the baby, but the baby died right away. And to tell another man that his fiancee jumped from a bridge over the main freeway in Bellingham last Friday. She was hit by several vehicles. "Is she okay?" Of course he asked that. And of course she wasn't.

The supervisor of Unit 6 put the grieving father on the phone with his wife. He sat in the office and sobbed, his tears a puddle on the floor.

At the opposite end of the hall I was with the man who sobbed on the phone with his father, "It's all my fault. I talked to her Friday morning and told her I couldn't be with her if she kept doing drugs."

When they were ready to return to their cells, I gave them both a packet of Kleenex and told them to come see me in the morning. I went back to my office, looking for some idiot work.

I read my email and went on the hunt for yet another man from yet another unit. He turned out to be sitting in the chapel next door. His 21-year-old stepson had been shot nine times by the police. He's in the hospital in critical condition, but he's going to make it. I put the dad on the phone to his wife and they talked a long time.

That's when I did the paperwork, punching in numbers, turning over forms, passing the Kleenex when it was needed.

I am a "Bootist." Boy, I could use one of those about now.

22 August 2009

Chaplain or Pastor?

The question was the first of ten in the interview on Friday: What's the difference between a chaplain and a pastor?

A chaplain is a pastor with a slightly different hat.

Most pastors have a specific congregation. They come out of a specific belief system and organized group and they serve a particular group. They work with people who may be as diverse as anything on the planet, but there are some things they agree on and they're traveling the road in the same general direction with a shared history and at least some shared goals.

A chaplain may come from a specific faith tradition, and may be assigned to serve a particular congregation--like me in my role as the Catholic chaplain at the prison. The Catholics in my care differ wildly in background and faith practice, but they generally identify themselves (or Grandma) as Catholic. Granted, I don't think there are any all-male Catholic congregations pastored by a woman outside the prison, but you wouldn't find our practices too different from what you'd see in the average parish.

A chaplain in a prison is shaped and trained in a particular tradition, but is pastor to all: those with faith, those with many, those with none. A chaplain knows something about every faith group and cares about the spiritual journey of everyone who comes through the door. A chaplain is tuned into the nuances of how different faith groups name God, experience loss and grief, express repentance and renewal. A chaplain listens to the words beneath the jargon and finds common ground. A chaplain isn't threatened by a different point of view.

A good pastor is all those things, but a pastor is far more likely to be dealing with a somewhat homogeneous group of folks. The only thing all the guys in prison have in common is that they are guys. [Nope, don't even go there. Everyone at the prison was sentenced as a male, never mind what medical procedures they were pursuing.]

There were nine other questions. Three qualities of leadership? Vision, empathy/compassion, flexibility. Ever been told to do something that is against your faith principles? Not yet. Usually it's more an opportunity for education in Catholic ways and beliefs. --Though a good friend who had long been a Catholic chaplain at another prison in the area left his job when the Attorney General's office said that offenders could be whatever and however many religions they wanted to be, even if they were contradictory.

It does get a little strange at times. Every now and then we have a rash of people signing up for a kosher diet (and Jewish religion) in segregation, some of them with all sorts of Nazi symbols tattooed on their head, arms, back. Or like the man who claimed he was Muslim: Sunni, Shi'ite, and Sufi. (I was tempted to get him Islam for Dummies so he could learn something of the differences.) There was a man in that segregation unit last winter who sent more than 20 requests for different religious material, each request claiming to be a different religion, including Catholic and Rastafarian. I finally had to tell him I didn't have the resources to fill his requests and that he'd have to make up his mind as far as his requests went.

I won't know until next Friday what the outcome of the interview is. It will be a change, in some ways, to be a Department of Corrections chaplain rather than the Catholic chaplain. Truth is, I've been doing the job for quite a while. I've learned a lot in 10 years. I hope I can stay for 10 more.

16 August 2009

The Sounds of Prison

It was very hot here two weeks ago. Seattle hit 104 the same day I got in my car with the temperature reading 108. It wasn't the heat that struck me so much when I was leaving. It was the silence.

Usually when I leave the facility in the mid to late afternoon, there are people leaving the yard, heading in for the afternoon count. The offices in the administrative building are still busy and fans can be heard from several windows. People in the Intensive Management Unit (segregation) sometimes knock on the window to get some attention. The windows are narrow slits and frosted over (and that frost is often scratched off) and you can't see in, but I wave anyway in the general direction of the knock. Some days, there is a bus idling outside the Receiving office, having just unloaded another group from a county jail.

Across from that office are Units 1 and 3 with people who have just arrived and haven't yet gotten classified. Those units, two stories tall, with ten two-person cells down eight tiers, are noisy. Guys play chess by calling out the moves. There's the usual challenge debate that boils down to "My mom is prettier than your mom." A bit of old home-week banter sounds cheerful compared to the dissing contests.

The afternoon that it was 108, the birds were nowhere in sight and it was silent on the walkway. No knocks on the windows of the IMU. No conversations to be heard from Units 1 and 3. Utter silence, as if it were just too darn hot to make the effort to speak. It was an unusual moment.

It's hot in the units. They are built of concrete and rebar; they soak up the heat and hold it in. Opening the windows can help, but there is no air through the units. The complaints pile up with the heat: showers are only every other day--an hour out in the yard in the hot sun, even if you're just sitting around and not chasing after a softball, and suddenly a small cell is pungent. Add to that the ever-so-seventh-grade trick: farting. Good grief. It's hard not to laugh.

I just remember my four younger brothers who ran around in a pack and, even now, in their 40s and 50s, we still call "the boys." The men here at prison are just so much extended family some days.