When the elevator opens, you enter a long room with benches on the wall. The officer takes you into a smaller room and sits you at a table. Here they start filling out your paperwork and check your identity and see if you have a record or outstanding warrant. Then they take you back into the long room with benches where a nurse takes your vital signs and notes every scar, injury and anomaly on your body. The nurse then asks you pages of personal medical questions, with special emphasis on certain communicable diseases, addictions and whether you have in the past or are now contemplating hurting or killing yourself. If your injuries from crashing your motorcycle or from fighting with your drinking buddies and/or the officers are severe enough, the nurse will tell the officers to take you to the ER to get patched up or checked out further before they can bring you back. Depending on your behavior, your handcuffs would be removed either before or after the nurse's exam. All of your clothes will be taken and every one of your possessions catalogued, signed for and put in a large stapled shopping bag, and you will be given some very unattractive scrubs to wear. Unless you are taken directly to the sickbay for detox or psych observation, you will then be put in a holding cell, which is basically an empty well-lit room with the biggest windows you will see in this place. You will photographed and be allowed to make one phone call. You will be issued a change of uniform and taken to whatever unit you are assigned. Welcome to the county detention center.
The county jail doesn't look anything like that of Sheriff Andy Taylor's nor like the hellholes you see in films. It is a large concrete building painted in those bland colors that institutions must get a discount on because no one would use them on a place they loved. There are no bars anywhere. All the doors are heavy metal with a narrow but thick window and every section seems to work like an airlock, with 2 doors separated by an antechamber. Certain officers have keys but most staff don't. They push a button under a speaker beside every door, wait until a voice says "Control," identify themselves by title and state where they are going and then wait till the door buzzes before they can open it. To get anywhere within the jail means stopping at a half dozen doors at least.
The bigger units are huge triangular concrete rooms with all the tables and stools bolted to the floors. The cells line the 2 longer walls of the triangle and are on 2 levels. Each cell is roughly the size of our church kitchen, with 2 metal shelves that serve as beds, a metal shelf that serves as a desk, also used by the prisoner on the top to climb to his bunk and a combination toilet/sink/drinking fountain. The only things not bolted down are the blue mattresses. The door is metal with a vertical slit of a window.
The whole place is loud, due to the total lack of soft surfaces. The main part of the unit has 2 moderate sized flat screen TVs bolted to a wall or pillar. People play cards or write letters at the various tables. There are long horizontal slits of windows high up on some walls. In one corner is the bath and shower room with a screen high enough to shield your torso from view but letting the guards at their desk observe legs and heads. You have lost, along with your freedom, any expectation of privacy. What you do have is time: time to read, time to scheme, time to reflect, if you can hear yourself think over the din of the Tvs, the inmates, the radios and shouted orders of the guards. You will be told when to get up, when to shower, when to eat and when to sleep. It's like a monastery in which the rule of silence is treated as heresy.
A few years ago I worked as a night nurse at the jail. Now I am serving as chaplain there. There is a contrast between the jobs but it is more than merely treating the body or the soul. The hardest thing for me to learn as a nurse there was to turn away patients. At the hospitals and nursing homes I've worked, you pretty much have to take anyone they send you. But the jail's infirmary is more about health maintenance and management. If someone was brought to intake with anything that required more than the most basic kind of first aid we were to send them to the ER. At intake once a gentleman with a very high blood pressure told me he had no such problems previously. And I believed him, putting it down to the shock of being plucked off his cruise ship vacation for an old but still outstanding warrant. Such things are often picked up during the authorities' routine check of the identity and records of everyone entering the port of Key West. I was reprimanded about not sending him out to the hospital to be treated for his possible chronic hypertension, though when I rechecked his blood pressure later it had returned to normal limits. While they have crash carts and emergency protocols, in a serious medical crisis the jail infirmary is not really designed to do more than immediate intervention. We're kind of like school nurses, albeit ones who can test and treat you for pregnancy, STDs, TB, HIV and a scary alphabet of diseases.
When you are responsible, even within limits, for the physical and mental healthcare of over 500 inmates, the time you can spend with any one of them is extremely limited. I used to grumble about the fact that I could legally be assigned up to 40 patients in a nursing home. In the jail I routinely poured and passed meds for anywhere from 150 to 190 inmates in a shift. Like an assembly line, the emphasis was on speed, accuracy and quantity. Offering more than a basic level of human consideration was frankly impossible.
As a chaplain the reverse is true. I usually only have 2 or 3 requests to be seen on each of my visits and so I can take the time to listen. When I have no appointments and just tour the units and dorms, one or two inmates in each will ask me a question about the Bible, or about God, or ask for a Bible, a rosary or a prayer. And so comprehensive are the safety rules that listening to and praying with and for the inmates are about all I'm allowed to do. But in the cacophonous and regimented world of the inmate, having someone take the time simply to hear you out is precious.
It is my experience that those who send for me, for the most part, really need my attention. There was the young woman who was grieving for her grandmother, whose funeral she could not attend because she was in jail. There was the father weeping over the fact that he was most likely going to be shipped off to prison and worried if whoever got custody of his little girl would be willing to bring her to visit him. There was the woman who wasn't there when her sister gave birth. There was the inmate who could not be at the bedside of a friend who was in a bad car accident and the one who wished she could be with her sister as she underwent chemotherapy. The reality of being in jail, of being taken out of the everyday lives of your family and friends, hits these inmates hard. I do a lot of grief counseling at the jail, helping people deal with the loss of lives, relationships and dreams.
More than 55% of inmates are abandoned by their families while they are in prison. Jail time tends to be less but I still hear tales of boyfriends, roommates and even spouses throwing out the inmate's stuff and washing their hands of them. Often a prisoner will talk of the one family member still on speaking terms with him or her. A surprising number will admit their responsibility in destroying these relationships. One inmate said he has learned there are no rewards or punishments for his behavior, only consequences. I might quibble a bit with his thinking one set of terms excludes the other but the basic idea is true. You reap what you sow.
No one has told me he or she is innocent. More often they feel their arrest or sentence is out of proportion to their offense. But for the most part they do admit they have screwed up their lives. Only a few try to feed me a line of B.S. and I can be a bit more direct with my questions and advice. After a while, illusions wither and die under the harsh light of prison life.
Faith is heartier and while some inmates may just be shining me on, others really look at their lives and decide they need God in their lives. And while the chaplain's office has enough New Testaments to last till Jesus returns (and, thanks to those who contributed, enough Spanish New Testaments and rosaries to last a while), I have a definite lack of books on living the Christian life. So I typed up a basic outline that covers the main spiritual disciplines of following Jesus on a 2-sided sheet. Then I followed it with another two-sided sheet of helpful Bible verses and prayers for addiction, anger, bitterness, depression, fear, grief, guilt and peace. These I use, not as a substitute for a visit from me, but as a supplement and follow up to a visit.
According to one source, 95% of inmates in this country are incarcerated on alcohol and/or drug related charges. Another source says as many as 85% of prisoners have mental health problems, with a large overlap of these being addictions. After 30 years of nursing, I'm convinced that a lot of substance abuse problems start as attempts to self-medicate. Alcohol and other drugs do not so much help you deal with emotional pain as avoid it. In jail, you either learn other methods of denial or you finally face the demons that drive you. Since I started out as a psych nurse, I can usually tell which people need to talk to the psychiatrist. But when it is not a disordered brain but broken spirit which bedevils an inmate, then I can be of help.
When I was a nurse, I had one inmate in Alpha, the heavy security unit, who used to verbally abuse me. He wasn't even one of my patients but for some reason, though we only saw each other's faces once, he would rail at me from behind his closed door and covered window the entire time I passed meds to those who were ill in Alpha. That has not happened to me as a chaplain. I even sat down with a shackled Alpha resident who told me that after a life of being someone who just went to church because his mother or his girlfriend or his wife did, he wanted to get more serious about following Jesus. He was my impetus to write up my two-sided sheets.
I'm not naïve. I know that 3 out of 4 inmates return to prison. I know many have a hard time staying out of jail because of several factors from their childhood: poverty, abuse, humiliation or neglect as a child, having a parent who is an addict, early use of alcohol or drugs as a child, and a single parent childhood, especially if the father was absent. I also know that to stay out of jail an inmate ideally needs 6 conditions. He or she needs good mental health. He needs a spouse. He needs higher education than the average 5th grade education most inmates have. He needs to be at least 28 years old. He needs a job. And finally, he needs to believe in something outside himself.
That's where I can help. The inmates know a lot about Christianity but have trouble with the practical parts. And by that I mean faith, hope and love.
Faith is trust and a lot of these men and women grew up in unstable and chaotic homes. It's hard to learn trust when your parents are untrustworthy, when they may use any cash they get to buy drugs for themselves rather than food for you. Or when you come home to find you've been evicted again. Or when your parent's partner changes every few months or years. If you don't have a good father or any father, how can you learn to trust God as Father?
I try to teach trust by being trustworthy myself. I don't make many promises and those I do I keep. Trust was seldom modeled for these men and women in their families. I do what I can to put a face on trust.
More importantly, I teach trust by trusting God. I never know what I'm facing when I enter the jail. Will I be answering a technical question about the Bible or listening to a tale of horror while trying to maintain an expression of non-judgmental understanding? How do I broach the subject that when a man pulls a gun on his family it's going take a lot of hard work over a long time before he can expect them to want to see him again? How do I tell a woman to look for God's hand at work in her life when her life has gone downhill from the time her aunt's boyfriend raped her as a child? I have to trust God that his Spirit will give me the wisdom to not only say the right words at the right time but also to know when to say nothing.
Hope is the future tense of faith. We trust God not only with the present but we hope that he will lead us into a better future. However, if your past has left you bitter and your current reality isn't much better, your future is apt to look dark. I see those whose outlook is wry at best and grim at worst.
How do you keep hope alive in a place where you only see the sky through the chainlink fencing that covers the top of the exercise courtyard? I point out how many of God's people spent time in prison: Joseph, Peter, John, James and Paul. I point out that they were able to serve God even in jail and that for Joseph his time in prison actually led to a better life and greater service to God after he was released. If you let God work in your life, your past, no matter how bad, need not determine your future.
Love is the hardest thing to communicate. I'm forbidden to pass messages from inmates to family and friends outside, or vice versa, or from one inmate to another. I'm forbidden to give inmates any gifts or money or do them any favors. I'm forbidden to give them my phone number or address. I'm forbidden to touch them except by handshake. All I have are words: my words, the words of prayer, the Word of God. With those I have to convincingly communicate God's love to people who chiefly know humanity's hate and neglect.
Love is basically wanting the best for another person. So I listen to their needs, desires and fears. I jot down their names and the names of their loved ones. I offer to pray for them and their families. I tell them that 2 churches will pray for them but will only have their first names because God knows who they are. I give whatever wisdom, psychological or theological, that seems appropriate. I ask them to tell me how things work out.
As a nurse there, I could give a pill or an ointment or a bandaid, something tangible, to help an inmate. Here I have only words. But the right word, rightly received, meditated on and applied, will last longer than any pill, cream or bandage. The right word will encourage the dispirited, enlighten the confused, comfort the bereft, redirect the lost, strengthen the faltering, and inspire the enduring. The same word, passed on, can even help others.
A jail or prison ministry is largely a ministry of presence. At times all you can do is be there for them. But I am not alone. There are more than a dozen volunteers who minister at our jail. They provide worship, Bible studies, uplifting movies. They are Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Jewish, Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, and non-denominational. We are there to serve those who have been wronged and who have done wrong. We are there, sinners helping sinners, because we believe in a God of mercy and redemption.
In Matthew 25, in his parable of the last judgment, Jesus says, "I was in prison and you visited me." And when the righteous ask when this happened, Jesus says, "And the king will answer them, "I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me." When my friend, the Rev. Don Roberts, said he was retiring as chaplain at the detention center and asked if I would succeed him, I thought of this verse. Jesus did spend time imprisoned, on the night before he was crucified. When I was in Israel, I went to a Catholic church that was built over what archeologists think was the house of Caiaphas the high priest who condemned Jesus. I saw the excavated room they think was the cell where Jesus was held after his interrogation by Caiaphas. The Son of God wouldn't have been there if it weren't for us and our sins. I am in the jail because of him. He is the God who is always there for us. How can I do less for those who really need to know in a concrete way that though society has quarantined them and separated them from those they love, God has not given up on them? We serve a God whose faith, hope and love never quits. And neither should we.