My first assignment was in the receiving and classification unit. There was no electricity or running water. It was January in Illinois, and it was drafty and cold. In many of the cells I could feel the breeze pass into the hallway from the window slits in the cells that were stuck open. Instead of the traditional bars found on the regular units, there were steel doors with a 2-foot wide rectangular pass through at knee level and a wire mesh covered square opening at eye level.
I wore my collar so as not to be confused with the lawyers and psychologists, doctors, and social workers who also walked the halls. It also added a layer of asexualization, which I was grateful for. If the lights were on in the cell, I would talk through the eye-level wire mesh, oddly reminiscent of a confessional. I could just make out the inmate’s shadowy faces. Most of the time, however, I would kneel down on the floor in front of the chuckhole. The inmates would do the same on their side, and we would talk face-to-face through a hole in a steel wall. I was terrified until I began to hear their stories, moving from cell to cell, and meeting them eye-to-eye.
I spent a lot of time the first few weeks explaining what I believed. I spent most of my time convincing them that I was not there to convert them. Unfortunately, the role of chaplain is considerably warped behind the prison wall. There is a monopoly of fundamentalist Christian volunteers. The inmates’ default perception of a religious person outside their door is someone whose modus operandi is to covert them. There were actually many converted fundamentalists at Stateville. They built their walls with Bible verses. For those men, walled in by literalism, if I couldn’t site a verse, I immediately lost credibility. (I must admit, I lost a lot of credibility with those men.)
Religion is used as a tool to separate the men in that institution. They intentionally separate themselves into religious communities and are segregated by the institution. Inmates must identify their religion upon entering the institution. If they do not choose an approved religion on arrival, None is inscribed on the back of their ID, denying them all religious privileges. The inmates learn to use the system. Catholic Mass often turned into a gang meeting. Religion would often be used as a means for inmates to separate by race. And if you are a vegetarian, the only way to receive a vegetarian meal is to become a Hebrew Israelite, (who are nearly all African American). At the time, Unitarian Universalist was not an option if you wanted any services at all.
The men who coped best with the religion issue were those who had negotiated a theological compromise that all religions might have some threads in common. They often identified with a single major religion in order to attend services. These closet-theological liberals were often crafted from two men of different religious traditions placed in the same cell. In this 6-by-13 foot space, bound by their powerlessness, they were forced to work out their differences in order to live together peacefully.
After talking with nearly 30 of these men, I realized that they were desperate for reading material and especially calendars. One way to cope with the present detention is to live in the past prior to incarceration another way is to live in the future focusing on an out date. That day, I remembered that there were plastic wallet-sized cards in the chaplain office provided by the Salvation Army. They had the calendar year on one side and the Footprints in the Sand poem on the back.
I told the men on this unit that I would be back. When I returned, I announced “chaplain on the wing” as I was instructed to do and the cover of a Life magazine unfolded before me. I looked down this corridor of 13 steel gray doors on each side. A narrow window lit up the hallway in a hazy glow. Then, I saw, grasping for the calendars, hands and arms, mainly brown hands and brown arms, extending all along the length of the corridor from the chuck holes on both sides.
We are walling off entire tribes. We are walling off the poor and the sick, the addicted and the mentally ill in our prisons. I have seen this suffering behind the wall. We are trying to keep all this suffering out of sight. They are the forgotten, the dismissed, and we are walling off ourselves from experiencing reality as it is.
My life is richer for having heard the stories of the men behind the wall – for having heard their failures and ours. Most are guilty and have committed horrible crimes, AND we havefailed them miserably and left them to be the forgotten people. Our faith teaches us that the truth of this world is bittersweet. Our best defense for addressing issues like violence, poverty,and mental illness is to be in relationship, to not wall ourselves off from the big picture or the truth. Our faith encourages me to serve as a witness to suffering and allow it to break my heart and influence my decisions, and my collar affords me access to deeper truths.