06 July 2011

Playing the Trump Card

I keep this in my back pocket at the jail. Not a real one, but it's there nonetheless. It is a reminder that the work I do is best done in the presence of love. If I can be aware that we all come from Great Love and are created for Great Love, no matter the paths we have wandered, then I can work in love, without fear.

I'm always surprised when someone asks if I'm afraid to be working in a jail. Probably I should offer more tours to let them see what the setting really is. It's not like "Lockup" that you see on TV. Any more than "Hoarders" shows the typical cluttered house. (You'll catch me yelling at "Law and Order" when the detectives make a trip upstate to the prison at Attica and interview an inmate in the Yard, in front of hundreds of other inmates.)

Jail happens in a secure building. That means that visitors come through the front door, identify who they want to visit, listen to the speech by one of the officers about what they cannot bring in, including cell phones, and invariably find that they have some sort of contraband in their purses or pockets because they weren't really listening to what the officer said. Or they didn't read the list right out there in the lobby. Or they thought that it didn't particularly apply to them. So please turn off your cell phone and drop it in the locker over there to your right. Once that's done, it's through the scanner at least twice because your shoes do have metal in them.

About noon, it's fun to go stand in the lobby and listen to the cell phone symphony. Most people are so rattled at coming into jail they don't listen to the instructions. Some leave their phones on to vibrate. Get a few of those and you could give yourself a good massage just by leaning up against the lockers. The music runs the gamut. The "Pink Panther" theme is my favorite so far.

Welcome in. Take the big stairway to the next floor.

Fill out the paperwork. Find out if the person you want to visit has visiting hours right now. Often people get moved to another wing or another floor and that messes up the plans to visit because:

the "visit room" is really a set of 6-8 phone booth-sized cubicles, meant to serve as many as 360 people on a floor. Visits are rotated among the three wings.

Visitors go through a steel door, into an elevator to their destination, and exit right into the visit area on the floor with the person they want to visit. There is no interaction with any other offenders while they are visiting.

For the staff, of course, it's different. Teachers, health care workers, chaplains, officers, we are all over the place on all the floors. When the nurse comes through to distribute medications, the meds cart is put outside the door of the dorm and an officer opens a small panel. The nurse checks the name of the offender by looking at the band on the wrist that has his/her full name and photo. The offenders puts out a hand for the meds, takes them, and steps back from the door. The panel is below waist level so the nurse cannot be grabbed easily.

Teachers use the multi-purpose room on each floor to conduct their classes. Everyone is on a list, escorted to the room. The room has a big window as well as windows in the door so the activity can be observed at all times, as well as a camera.

When I go to see an offender, I let an officer know the person's name and which dorm she's in. The officer calls her out, asks if she wants to see the chaplain, and then opens the main door so she can come out to the general area. Right outside the wing, there's usually a table with a couple of chairs that we can use. The traffic is unavoidable, so I make a point of paying attention to the person in front of me, ignoring the side conversations and clanging doors. Most people are respectful about not interrupting us.

Some offenders are escorted in handcuffs when they are going from one floor to another. That depends on their security level. If they are maximum security, often it's both handcuffs and ankle restraints. Protocol on the elevator if inmates get on? They stand on the side with their escorting officer, I stand on the other. We can talk, and I often do, because it is a chance to make a connection. The elevator is the place where I can count on someone looking at me funny, trying not to be rude, until I say, "You're wondering where you know me from, right?" And it's true. I ask if they've gone to prison in the last few years and their eyes light up with the connection. (This only works with the men because that's all there were at the prison.)

Long story short, given the precautions, jail is as safe, if not safer, than a host of other places.

Yesterday I was in the post office in Tacoma, taking care of errands. Several of us had arrived all at the same time and we chit-chatted while the clerks did their work. One man looked at me and said, "You sure look familiar. Where do I know you from?" 

"Church maybe?" I told him the name of the parish where I'd worked in the 90s that is still my home parish. He got all excited, knew all about it, but when he tried to remember the name of the pastor, he drew a blank. And the man he described didn't fit any of the staff that I've known for 20 years.

Finally, I played my trump card. "Have you been through Shelton in the last ten years?"

And there was the connection. He'd last been through in 2005. Now he's out and doing well. I never talked to him individually when he came through. I was just someone on the periphery then. But yesterday we made a connection: I knew where he'd been and could see where he'd come to. That was grace in abundance.

Photo courtesy of http://www.magicians.co.uk/news/valentines-magic/  For some extra fun, click on the link and watch the video.