My first assignment as a chaplain intern at Stateville Maximum Security Men’s Prison was in the receiving and classification unit. I was wearing my newly bought fresh out of the package clerical collar and shirt. There was often 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 for food plates at knee level …and a wire mesh covered square opening at eye level.
If the lights were on in the cell, I would talk through the eye-level wire mesh that was 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 with nothing between us, 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 my faith tradition in sentence or two. I spent more of my time convincing them that I was not there to convert them. Unfortunately the role of chaplain is often 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 convert 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 particular verse, I immediately lost credibility. (I must admit, I lost a lot of credibility with those men.) The majority of the inmates, however, were intrigued by the fact that I would carry a Bible, a Koran, the Kabbalah, and the Tao te Ching together in my clear plastic backpack. The Muslims were confused when I greeted them with As sala'amu alaikum.
Religion not only comforted the afflicted, it was used as a tool to separate. The inmates intentionally separate themselves into religious communities and were 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. Religious services are provided based on what they have indicated on the back of their card. Changing religious preference often requires an interview with an outside representative from that religion, which is not easy to do. The inmates learned to use the system. Catholic Mass often turned into a gang meeting. And if you are a vegetarian, the only way to receive a vegetarian meal was to become a Hebrew Israelite. My tradition 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 rough theological compromise that all religions might have some threads in common. They often identified with a major religion in order to attend a service. Initially this compromise was often forged of two men of different religious traditions placed in the same cell. In this 6 by 13 foot space, they were forced to work out their differences in order to live together. They questioned the wall between them and put down a few of their stones.
That first day as a chaplain, I have a picture that could have been on the cover of LIFE magazine emblazoned upon my memory. I had just made my way down the corridor, talking with the 30 or so new inmates. They were scared. They wanted into general population where there were blankets and heat, and the routine was more familiar. You see with the rate of recidivism in the United States, the majority of the men I met in the classification had been to prison before.
After talking with nearly thirty of these men, I realized that they were desperate for reading material and especially calendars. One way to cope with detention is to live in the past prior to incarceration or to live in the future focusing on an out date. A sense of time offered a sense of place that nothing else did. There is a reason it is called doing time. That day, I remembered that there were plastic wallet sized calendar cards in the chaplain office provided by the Salvation Army.
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 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, hands and arms: grasping, stretching for the calendars that I was offering them. They were mainly brown hands and brown arms… extending all along the length of the corridor from the chuck holes on both sides.
We are part of a society who primarily incarcerates minorities. We are part of a society who mainly incarcerates the poor, the addicted and the mentally ill. I am part of a state who incarcerates more women than any other state in the United States. We cannot let the society that we live in, a society that we are a part of, wall off suffering. I wish every religious conflict could be worked out... maybe by finding some greater common cause like cohabitating in confined space. I wish that every voter, every elected official, every lawmaker, lawyer, prosecutor and judge would take a tour of duty behind the wall and experience life and the people there.