27 May 2010

"I will never forgive you."

He sounded very certain, as if he'd thought it over for a few days and knew he had to tell me. "I'll never forgive you," he said again, shaking my hand. Then his ears turned pink and his cheeks flushed dark red.

He stammered. "I mean, what I mean to say is, well, I won't forget you." I knew that.

It was Sunday morning and we'd celebrated Pentecost. The announcements were made, schedules noted, what to expect next week. Then I asked, "Is anyone leaving this week?" looking through the room for those who would be transferring to another facility or going to work release or maybe, just maybe, headed home.

I raised my hand.

Five men joined me up front. Together we faced the seventy who blessed us and all of us prayed, "May Christ go before you and behind you. May Christ be on your left and on your right. May Christ be above you and beneath your feet. In all your ways, may you go with Christ."

There was a flurry at the end, all of us wanting to say something memorable. Then they were gone.

After lunch, I came back to the facility for two more services. At the scanner, I saw a familiar looking man waiting to go in to see his son. "Do you remember me?" he asked.

"The face, yes, and we've gotten a little greyer since I last saw you." He told me his name and I remembered him immediately. Brent was at the prison when I started all those years ago. He's been out of prison for 10 years; he's doing well, but this son of his is another story.

"I wondered if I might see you today while I was visiting."

I shook my head and laughed. "Today is my last day here. I'm going to a new job." We spent some time catching up and I went back to the chapel very much aware of the full circle gift.

At the very end of the day, with everything packed and sitting outside the door, a man came into my office. "My brother died in January and I haven't been able to talk to anyone about it." He struggled hard to keep his chin firm. I explained I would send an email to a couple of people so he could talk to someone in the next day or two. I handed him the book where we keep the names of those who have died and told him to write his brother's name there. He started to write. "This is hard," and then he started to cry.

I passed the box of tissues and listened to him talk. The email got written in between. Just a few minutes, the building was closing, but it was enough for him to be heard and tended to. Another full circle. So much of my time has been spent listening to grief, it's fitting that it should be one of the last things I do.

Always a surprise. Always a gift. In all our ways, may we go with Christ.

18 May 2010

Ten Day Early Release

Well, this being prison, it had to happen. My last day at prison will be Pentecost Sunday.

Release dates are important in prison. There is a great deal of calculating one's actual date to walk out the gate. I tease the guys about "DOC arithmetic," but it's more true than funny.

Someone standing in court, having been convicted, gets sentenced to a certain number of months. Not years. It's always in months. Why? I don't know. So say that someone gets a sentence of 57 months. Do the math. That's four years and nine months.

Now, if that person actually sat in county jail waiting to go to trial, then went to trial and was convicted, the time in the county jail actually counts toward that 57 month total. Not always day for day. That would depend on the particular county. I've known guys who spent up to two years waiting to go to trial and were able to apply 600-700 days to their sentence. And some who were able to apply much less.

Much of the stress at the Reception Center is caused by county paperwork not catching up so the computer shows a release date that seems much further out than it should be.

And then DOC arithmetic kicks in. Some crimes are eligible for half-time, some for a third. If you're in on a drug sentence and you'll get treatment inside, other calculations must be made.

Eventually the numbers settle down and when I look at a guy on the computer, I see a date that refers to his Earned Release. That phrase means, "This is the earliest he will get out, if he behaves. He could go to his maximum date, but this is the one we'll plan for." That date can be up to ten days earlier than his minimum sentence (all calculations working in his favor). Most of the men I know work pretty hard to make that 10 day early release a reality. If they are going to be on supervision, it means getting housing arranged and support in the community. Sometimes it means asking for a transfer to another county (the current rule is that, no matter where you committed your first crime, you must return to the county of your first felony conviction).

If you were 15, visiting relatives across the state, and took Grandma's car for a joyride, and got convicted of that, guess what, you're going back to No Name County, even if you own a home and your own business and have been living in the big city seven counties away for the last 30 years.

Again, you wait on the confirmation of housing; the community corrections officer has 35 days to check it out, and that could run right up to the Earned Release Date. Someone finally tells you if you get the 10 day early release, and you can really start counting down.

And that, in a way, is what has happened to me. I had my sights set on May 30th, but this coming Sunday will be my last day. Good thing it is Pentecost, because the day is perfect for new beginnings and optimism and summing up the essence of the Good News.

I made up prayer cards for the men as a going-away gift. They are postcard size. On the front is a map of the world with flags marked in different countries. Printed on the front is part of St. Patrick's Breastplate:

May Christ go before you and behind you.
May Christ be on your left and your right.
May Christ be above you and beneath your feet.
In all your ways, may you go with Christ.

On the back:

You are a beloved child of God.
And so is everyone else you meet.

You need only two prayers:
Help me, help me, help me.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Choose a spot on the map.
Pray for the people there.

I am praying for you.

In the parlance of the prison, I have four days and a wake up, but there's really only tomorrow in the office, and then Sunday. What an amazing adventure.

13 May 2010


I'm leaving prison.

While I haven't had the elegant countdown like so many of the men I've worked with, as of today, it is seventeen days and a wake-up. Drama Queen that I am, the men will get the news on Sunday at the end of the service. My last day will be May 30th.

However, it's not the end of detention ministry.

In mid-June, I'll be headed north to Seattle to become the Catholic chaplain at the King County Jail. There's a great group of volunteers there, many who have been ministering in the jail for years. I expect to learn a great deal from them as we work together.

This has all happened very quickly, and yet...

I tend to do my career in 10-12 year chunks: 10 years teaching high school, 12 years in parishes, and just last Sunday, I celebrated my 11th anniversary at the prison. In 2008-2009, I was in a pastoral leadership program, hungry to stretch myself, but not feeling the need to move on. And now this.

Recently I reflected that "I sometimes do things on a whim that turn out to be exactly the right thing" and that is what this new move feels like.

"So where's God in all this?" my spiritual coach asked.

"Stirring things up!" was my immediate response.

Remember "Man of la Mancha"? Toward the end of the play, Sancho Panza shouts, "Adventure!" That's what I'm feeling this morning. More to come.

09 May 2010

Mother's Day in Prison

The air is thick with emotion here today. Our worship aid had "Happy Mother's Day" printed in red, but there wasn't a single intercession for mothers in the Prayers of the Faithful. One of the Protestant services began: "Every man in this room has broken his mother's heart." Oh great, the Guilt Sermon, I thought.

Back in the days when the chapel handed out greeting cards, there was always a big rush on Mother's Day cards, starting right after St. Patrick's Day. The requests would come in: for mother, for wife, for sister. I wanted to draw the line with the guy who wanted six cards for his babies' mamas. Yikes.

In the past few weeks, mothers have been in the hospital, laid off from work, lost their apartments, gone on a trip, won't answer the phone. Some of the mothers died this year, and it's showing in their sons' eyes. Over and over, "She was the best mother in the world" even if she did introduce me to crack or meth or alcohol. Whoever she was, there's some love there. It may be fractured, broken, shattered, but it's there.

I got the "Happy Mother's Day!" greeting all day, followed immediately by, "Are you a mother?" I am. She's 29 and has children of her own now.

I left work early to see my mom. She's at a nursing home, living with Alzheimer's still after at least 12 years. Lots of flowers from the siblings, and chocolate. I brought a mocha frappe which was a hit.

Today also marked my 11th anniversary as the Catholic chaplain here. I can't wait to see what happens next.

02 May 2010

Did you know...

we prayed "for our deadly departed" today.

Pamphylia is the source of all church pamphlets.

and listeria (wicked stuff if you ever come across it) had its origins in Lystra. (Maybe I'm glad it wasn't read as Lysistrada. That would have been tough to explain to a roomful of men.)

Antochi wasn't on my travel itinerary. Maybe next time.

We had fun today with the readings. Can you decipher this?
613 --> 10 --> 2 = 1

There were a couple of empty seats in the classroom-church this afternoon. We named each of them: Sudan, Brazil, Ireland, Asia. They were reminders of the bigger church we are a part of, people we pray for, who pray for us. And the gift in that? A man who was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan told a bit of his story. The Body of Christ weeps.

T-Shirts and Bumper Stickers

"If you don't like my attitude, STOP TALKING TO ME!"
"I'm up. I'm dressed. What more do you want?"
"Jesus is coming. Look busy."

I realized this weekend that homey bits of commentary don't have much of a place in prison, certainly not of the temporary kind. Tattoos are a different story altogether. But the t-shirts and bumper stickers of the world outside of prison don't make it past the fences here.

Given the wide variety of bumper stickers and T-shirts, I should probably be grateful I'm not assaulted with them all day. Instead, I pay more attention to the spoken word. I don't cringe too often, but I'm tempted to say, "Language, gentlemen, language!" and sound like a school-marm.

This morning I listened as a young man begged his father not to give up on him. It was just one screw up, he pleaded. His father had asked him to tell the truth, and he was telling the truth. No, he hadn't spent the night at home as the probation officer directed. Yes, he had had a beer or two and smoked a little weed. "But please don't give up on me!" He crumbled into the chair, yanked several tissues from the box, finally said goodbye. Then he sat in silence. He's here for a violation of his probation. He may be looking at several more months in prison, and this after he just served two years. It was too much freedom, he said. He needed treatment.

"I screwed up so badly. My dad is so upset. I knew it as soon as I was arrested." He vented for a while, trying to sort it all out. The circles he drew got tighter.

Finally, we talked about the language we use when we're upset, when we really don't have the right words to encompass the feelings. "Your dad is upset. He's disappointed. He invested something of himself in you and your life after prison. He's feeling used, as if all the effort went for nothing. The only words big enough to get your attention aren't swear words. They are words like, 'I can't do this anymore. I don't know why I bother. You can't come home.'" He nodded.

Too bad there's not a t-shirt that says, "I'm sorry!" on it that I could issue. Maybe a little time will create space for them to talk again, try again. Maybe.

Thank God we don't get just one chance, one failure doesn't doom us. Or do we believe those "big words" that seem to send us to exile?