The last light had left the sky, and darkness fell quickly. There were miles of empty broken rock with lonely outcrops of mesquite and chollas on this deserted edge of desert. The road ran long and straight through a soft velvety blackness in a blaze of stars. The prison appeared first as a glow deep in the desert’s emptiness. Like a space station in a lunar landscape. But as you came closer, it burned in a sharp white light casting shadows in the dark, its razor wire blinking like eyes in the night.
It was the day of my orientation. I had been asked by the chaplaincy to give spiritual instruction classes and assist at Mass. I was finger printed and sent to a large conference room for the obligatory volunteer training. A huge American flag with gold tassels and an eagle staff leaned incongruously against the wall. Our instructor, a guard captain, taught us that the world was divided into a them and an us. We were the people of the outside and they were the people of the inside. To make sure we were all getting this, he displayed an array of crude knives and other weapons confiscated from resourceful inmates, and said we should watch our backs. The last ten minutes, we learned what to do if taken hostage. How to push the alarm button that would bring a swarm of SWAT guards to our station. “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” The entrance to Dante’s Inferno. More politically acceptable- a Correction Facility.
The beginning of my first workday brought new revelations about our ability to institutionalize human pain. It was early morning and the heat was beginning to shimmer in waves around the tinted glass of the main hall’s long windows. The daily routine had not yet begun. Everyone, guards, visitors, and assorted anonymous officials were in their pre-adrenalin, first cup of coffee lethargy. Suddenly doors buzzed open and armed guards appeared out of a windowless corridor. We were herded to one side and red lights on an armored side door began to revolve and flare silently in the big room. A white prison bus pulled up outside. Everything became hushed and still as we waited for the transfer door to open. Then a line of prisoners chained to one another, with shackles on their hands and feet, shuffled step in step through the long hall and disappeared down a corridor manned by more guards. The sounds of the chains remained as faint, receding echoes, scratching at the heart like tears. Slowly, everything moved back to normal and families mingled noisily around the hall to the visitation room. The children in their best clothes. Another day.
At the induction station, I collected a special badge to hang around my neck. A sign of privilege, and worthiness. Lest one were to forget. I had to go through checks, searches, sign-ins and three locked rooms like sluices, before reaching the door that led to the yards. A short, muscular young woman with tightly cropped dark blond hair, a set of handcuffs, mace, and a chunky Glock strapped to a black tooled weapons belt grinned at me, and motioned that I was to follow her over to the cell area. A long white-graveled path through empty spaces of sun-scorched grass and potted palm trees.
By the time I got across the compound to the women’s block, I was traumatized. Like a deer in the headlights. I had just gotten out of the gate sluices and I didn’t want to be locked in again. Felt claustrophobic and had a feeling of being constantly watched. I was used to chapels, and teaching bible classes at the parish, not watching people herded in chains. This was not going to work out. I was ready to leave.
The guard unlocked the heavy grey door to the cellblock then the door to the compound’s common room. Several groups of women, in a noisy mix of border Mexican and Western city-drawl were milling around some small tables and a water cooler. She yelled for quiet, then pointed at me, this is the new pastor (getting my title wrong), I don’t expect any trouble, she said in a harder tone. Then I saw the ironic smile. The irony shared by those locked in together. Both were prisoners - just each on their own side of the door.
On her way out, noticing my obvious discomfort, she leaned towards me and said solemnly, don’t worry, it will be all right. I was very grateful. Then she disappeared through the door and locked it behind her.
It was one huge space. A strange shade of light green like the corridors of a hospital ER. Off the common room to one side were the sleeping quarters. Bed after bed besides one another, each with a little locker and bed table. The wall plastered with pictures of family, parts of letters, and children’s pictures. Across the way, like a school locker room, a row of metal toilets without stalls protruded from the green wall, and a number of showerheads lined a tiled bath. Towards the back was a door, its window covered by wire mesh. Through it, you could just make out the exercise yard, an area the size of a basketball court with high brick walls topped by razor wire. Total isolation from the world. Permission to be in the yard for a smoke or just walk around was a privilege, not a right, and could be revoked for breaking any of the many rules. Or showing too much muscle.
The block was a chaotic community of cliques living in volatile, intolerant and angry relationships. The hard ones with the close-cropped hair, tattoos and piercings, radiated impotent threats towards everyone. The older ones who had a number of years behind them, stoic and jaded. The new ones easy to spot. Some playing tough to see how it would fly. The broken and frightened ones who clutched themselves and tried to disappear into every corner so as not to be noticed. And those dazed with loss of home and family, who had no idea what had happened, where they were, or what would become of them. And there were the pregnant. They would give birth in the prison infirmary. The child would be taken, and in most cases disappear forever into the Child Welfare system. These young mothers sat alone, or in a small group around the snack machine sharing sad, shy smiles. They were grieving for what should be the most precious moment of all, grieving for the time that they would hold their child in their arms, then lose it to the world.
As I looked around, on every face, in every word you could feel a heaviness, a sense of loss and estrangement that spread slowly like a dark stain on the fabric of the heart. The ultimate humiliation where self-respect became a posture, a fragile caricature. There was however, at the same time, a strange resilience or strength that must have been pure Grace, for it was obvious that none of them were even remotely aware of possessing it. An untouchable, unassailable worthiness of self, hidden beneath dark and violent moments of failure and guilt. The Spirit bearing witness that this was one much loved.
I suggested that we gather in a small, enclosed room used as a retreat from the constant conflicts and blend of heavy rock and ranchero that permeated the compound. All but a few came. There was a lot of slouching in the chairs. Some chewed noisily on their gum, others munched distractedly on tortilla chips. And those looking around with pretentious expressions that said, I’m really bored and you haven’t even started yet.
O’God, let my lips say something - anything that will reach out and make us aware of your presence. Forgive me, forgive us, forgive all this hurt… I suddenly had no idea what I was doing there.
You know Jesus’ Mother had to flee with her unborn child. There were some who were after her to kill both her and the child. Only God understood her, and was with her always, right beside her. Like you. In the end, she lost everything. Like you. She died in a small hut made of stones on a hillside in a place that looks just like the one outside. She knows what you feel, and knows what you know, knows who you are. She is our Mother. Jesus’ Mother. They were sitting still and listening.
After a few sessions, they all came. They all listened and talked. And most beautifully of all, asked every question that needed asking. They began scheduling private times to confess their fears and sorrows, trusting that as I had said, Christ would always be with us and open our hearts. Why, I wondered, do they get this so quickly, something I had been working on for years in the midst of dragging doubts and feelings of abandonment? Yet here they were, leading me through a wilderness of fierce shadows, watching for me on their journey to make sure I could catch up.
The Spirit always finds you in the darkest moments, leading you in places you never wanted to be. It cuts through your defenses, replacing fear, pride, and success with a mysterious longing that makes you more vulnerable, more a part of the love, pain, and need of others. The Spirit overwhelms all that does not belong to it. We were all being overwhelmed.
There had never been a chaplain in this block and they had no Bibles, no Rosaries. I was told that it was not allowed to bring these things into prison. They were considered contraband. The Word of God. Contraband.
I spent the next week collecting small copies of the New Testament, Rosaries and prayer cards for each of them. I had to smuggle them into the block, past the searches and detectors. But by this time, the guards had come to know me as the ‘pastor’, used to seeing this nervous guy with the Franciscan Tau Cross and black priest’s bag. I don’t know if they really knew and were letting me get away with it, but they would just lift my bag, shake it distractedly, give it back, and the door to the yard would buzz and clang open.
We began lessons from the Gospel, I wrote out methods of praying the Rosary. In the next weeks, most were praying morning and evening prayers. Former cliques of addicts, Mexican and Anglo band members, illegal immigrants and those condemned for violence, became a group of sisters that helped and supported one another, sought each other when they needed help, and offered help in the moments they could. Some of the older ones formed a group that would stay close to the new inmates, comforting them and showing them how to find life in what you had, not in what you had lost. They had invited me in. They had invited Life in. In behind the walls. The place where Christ had been waiting for us all along.
The men’s ward was very different. Noisy. The banging of cell doors echoing through the long hallways. Guards and inmates moving through the walkways, bent towards a distant goal that would never be met, going around and around in the maze, no longer searching for the way out. Day after day.
They were all there. The old men who had been in this wing for years. The same corridors, the same cell, the same routine. The untouchable violent who roamed the block on the lookout for anyone who they had not yet intimidated, posturing for the guards. The content, who could only experience security behind locked doors, who found the routine comforting, and had no ambition other than that they were allowed. The hopelessly guilty who could build another identity as an equal in a closed and nameless society without a past.
After Mass, I was to wait for anyone who might feel the need of a counselor. But no one ever came. The common room made over for two hours as a chapel was empty and silent soon after the Priest intoned, “the Mass is ended, Let us go in the Peace of Christ”. The moment I dreaded.
I didn’t feel good. I knew inwardly I was a failure at being an example of Faith and Trust, Hope and Joy. I was scared of this place. I was frightened of the feelings that these people lived with, I was frightened by seeing human beings so burdened, and being under lock in a purgatory that far surpassed my own strength to endure for more than a short time.
But there was a young man who sat in the back during Mass. He never seemed to participate. He would just sit there looking bitter and defiant. After Mass, he would fold the chairs and remove the table. As he worked, he would glance at me with contempt. Scars of hurt and loss etched into every feature of his face.
Then one day, after putting the last chair in place, he came over and sat down, defiant and angry. You know I don’t believe in all this bullshit, he said glaring at me. Why not , I asked lamely, all I could think of. Because I’m innocent. I used to pray he said. When I was in court I wasn’t worried because I was innocent, and I knew God knew. I didn’t need a lawyer, they’d all find out I was innocent. I couldn’t believe it when I got twenty years. I lost everything. Lost a wife and two kids. And I am innocent. How could this happen? I hate God and all this crap.
Job calling God to justice.
When I looked into his eyes, I saw a flame of light deep in their darkness. I almost gasped, such great beauty, and blurted out, but you have great faith! You have greater faith than I’ve seen since coming here. For the first time, he didn’t look at me, but with me. Tears slowly formed in his eyes. Do you mean that? How can you mean that- challenging again, still angry. Hating God is the gift of faith to those who can’t yet love him. If you never gave Him a thought, you would be admitting your guilt. Only the innocent dare to hate God. You struggle every day with Him, never letting Him go, demanding that he see you, look you in the eyes. Only those who struggle with God will ever know Him. He wants you to know Him. To know Him for yourself. Know that He is here, locked in with you. His face seemed to change, become gentler, more real. Suddenly he stood up, and walked quickly to the outer corridor to join the walk of the lost.
The next Sunday, he sat near the front, and prayed, his eyes never leaving the Crucifix. He received Communion like a child. “Taste and see that it is good”-
David Russell OFS