by Jackie Falk
Just a few guidelines shaped my chaplaincy in the local county jail. Flexibility. All plans made by me fell to any demands of the institution. Fairness. My door was open to everyone without fear or favor. Compassion. In the words of Helen Prejean, “You are more than the worst thing you have ever done.”
And in turn I offered just one guideline to each individual who came through my door. “I am the only person in this place to whom you may say, ‘No.’
In the shelter of those guidelines flowed tears, words of remorse, words of rage, words of grief, words of decision. Sometimes words that had been rehearsed many times or words never spoken before.
However, just as the prologue of the Gospel of John affirms, “In the Beginning is the word…” Words spoken and heard with regard and human warmth are the home and the beginning of connection.
Somewhere in the second year at the jail I met Jake.* He was a “frequent flyer.” Sadly, he knew how to take care of himself in the jail. And his 13-year-old daughter, maybe using, maybe doing unsafe sex, was heavy on his heart. He remembered having a sense of faith at one time. He wanted to fit in some Bible study around his kitchen duties, hoping that his return to faith would help him help his daughter.
I put together some readings for him and he came back to talk about them. He talked and I listened. Bible reflection would fade and then he wept telling the stories of his daughter’s struggle to succeed and not run from her third foster home and her anger at him for not being there.
Anger at him for not being there led him to wondering when he became so angry, such a fierce, quiet, hidden anger.
When he was five years old, he witnessed his father knife his mother. Jake was made to testify against his father. His testimony convicted his father, sent him to jail and Jake never saw him again.
His mother lived, but in words he seemed to have repeated many times, neither of them were the same. “Too much for his mother,” at the age of six or so, Jake was moved “into foster care.” “Too much for foster care parents,” Jake was moved into a “treatment facility” at the age of 12. He did not think any of that was when he became so angry.
At 13 he ran away from the treatment facility.
That was when he became so angry. With closed eyes, new words, in a fierce voice he said, “They tried to make me talk about IT. They had no right to do that – make me think about that. Make me remember my mother, bleeding; Make me think about what I did to my father. No right to force me. I ran.”
About a year later into my chaplaincy, I met Dylan.* I was called to intake to meet a new arrival who requested “the chaplain.” Just delivered from the ER, he stood at the counter in a hospital gown and robe with paper slippers on his feet. He was pale and unsteady. The intake officer motioned me over to a small holding cell and brought Dylan to me. He mumbled, “I didn’t mean to.” I offered to pray. I prayed for him. He was taken to complete the intake process. The officer came later to tell me the night before he had knifed his wife in front of their three children. She did not survive.
It was some time before I saw Dylan again. One of the counselors brought him to my office. I knew likely why. Individuals charged with crimes that harm women and/or children are largely shunned by others. In the unit in a social hierarchy of sorts has evolved among the jailed; Dylan was among those on the bottom tier. In his jail blues, he looked pale, tired, and drawn.
He dropped into the chair across from my desk. He said I miss them so much and then cried. He stayed for a while, asked me to pray for him, then asked to return to his unit. We developed a rhythm. He came to my office once a week, mostly to cry safe from the sight of his cellmate or the others in the unit, pray, then return to his unit.
As the weeks went on, he talked more, about his three little girls and how much he missed them; what they might be doing. He took up small Bible studies. Our connection made unsteady by tentative, false starts and tense silences. He took communion and sometimes came to chapel.
Ineligible for bail, Dylan’s time in jail until trial was long. Our conversations focused on the seesaw of this decision: his public defender encouraged him to plead innocent and so go to trial rather than accept the prosecutor’s settlement offer. Gamble the jury’s decision or take the prosecutor’s settlement offer. In indecision, he teetered, leaning first one way, then the other. One day he came in firm in his conviction. He would take the settlement offer.
New words came from Dylan. Another man in his unit had begun joining him in their endless walks around the unit. They got to talking. His walking companion told Dylan the story of being made to testify at his father’s trial when he was five and how much pain that caused in his life. Dylan spoke, “I took the settlement. I am not making my three little girls testify.”
*names have been changed