As a priest, you often ‘get to’ see the inside of a jail. (Kind of like Adoro’s getting to see tragedy.) Well, you get to see waiting and visiting rooms. Neither of these are places to write home about.
Usually a visit to a jail means an interminable wait in the outer lobby. Nobody is in much of a talkative mood. Not even the guard behind the desk with whom I tried to be friendly, but I could see why. Not only does that guard have a stressful job, she got a whole lot of grief from just about everyone who came in be they lawyers or moms. And you can’t bring a book (ack!) because you cannot carry anything with you inside the jail. That pretty much leaves staring at the crime prevention and terror alert posters and saying rosaries on your fingers.
There was one man whom I took to visiting that I came to admire and am proud to have as a friend to this day. He is a strong Catholic and it was largely though his efforts that I was able to have a “Christmas” mass at the jail. It was actually advent, but we do what we can.
I arrived at the lobby and was asked to sit and wait. The chaplain (who was perpetually late or missing) came to get me after some time. There was the usual screening and emptying of pockets. Then with mass kit in hand, we headed into the depths of the jail.
The electronic locks whirred and we entered a long, white hallway, white being the fashionable color for jails it seems. We passed the visiting room where I almost always turned in and through more remotely controlled doors. We came to what I believe was some sort of debriefing room. It was of cinder block and there were small tables with two chairs each all facing toward the front of the room.
The chaplain volunteered to go get water for the cruet while I unpacked my kit. When she came back she about went into apoplexy. “What is THAT doing here?” “That” was a bottle of liturgical wine.
“You can’t have that in here. Are you crazy?”
“Well, this IS mass, and I can’t have mass without wine.”
She was right though. I was a bit naive and we agreed that if I came back, I would bring MUCH less wine and would be MUCH more discreet about it and it would NOT be in a glass bottle. For the time being she had me hide it. Well.
Slowly; agonizingly slowly the men were brought in. I don’t know what I expected, but they were all very polite. It was suggested to me by a volunteer that we sing a song. That was the last thing on my mind. Weren’t these men hardened criminals whose goal was to appear macho; singing only causing them to roll their eyes and think me a dork? I didn’t think they’d be up to it. I didn't think that I would be up to it. But I was wrong. They not only sang, they sang with a enough gusto to make me wish we had so many men sing so well at the parish.
I thought mass went swimmingly. Then began the agonizingly slow return of the men to their cells. I was to stay put until I could be escorted out along with my bottle of wine.
When at last the officers came back for me they were laughing out of relief. “Wow, that was scary,” they said. I had no idea what they were talking about. I rarely do. Apparently there was some kind of nefarious goings on in the back of the makeshift chapel. They were afraid that there was going to be some sort of escalation of violence between two gangs and they were just shy of calling in reinforcements. It all went completely over my head. Good thing.
I must say that everyone always seemed much nicer when I was leaving. Maybe they were glad to have me and my bottle of wine out of their hair, or maybe the stress of having me there was over and they could relax and be more talkative. I don’t know.
It is said that one can tell how civil a society is by the way that it treats its prisoners. “Blessed are you when you visited me in jail . . .” * sigh * There is a woeful need for priests at our prisons and even I wonder how to take on yet another ministry outside of the parish. Please keep those who live in, work at, and volunteer at your local prison or jail in your prayers.
"Brotherly love must continue. Do not neglect hospitality for through it some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them, and those ill-treated as if you to felt their torment." Hebrew 13:1-3