||Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed|
Christmas through a Looking Glass
By: Dale Recinella
It is Christmas Eve morning, 1990. Nothing could have prepared me for this.
I process through the guard station and collect my chapel keys.
Spirals of razor wire are heaped two-stories high on the three rows of electrified fence. The silver-gray teeth glisten like tinsel in the crisp morning air. A dozen inmates peer at me from the other side. They are huddling at the gate that separates the chapel from the prison compound.
"Merry Christmas," smiles the officer.
My stomach tenses into a knot.
She hits the button that releases huge electric locks on the steel access doors. A loud bang echoes through the sally port. I step inside the prison. The knot in my belly tightens.
The inmates at the gate beat their arms, warming themselves against the December chill. Small clouds of breath hang in front of their blue fatigues.
Why does this picture jar me? The specifics are no different than usual. It should be just another other day as a volunteer spiritual counselor at Florida’s Appalachee Correctional Institution.
But this isn't just another day. It is Christmas Eve.
In that moment, I am amazed that I have never wondered what Christmas is like behind bars.
Chapel appointments with volunteers are by "call-out," written requests processed through administration. We open the chapel. A clerk hands me the day's roster -- 19 call-outs. A normal morning is five.
I phone my wife, "I'll be here until 6:00."
I am wrong. We won't close the chapel until 9:30 Christmas Eve night.
But there's no way I could know that. It's my first time in prison on the morning before Christmas.
I dig in with coffee and my first inmate appointment at 8:30 a.m. We pray and I ask, "What's on your heart this morning?"
"Give me a reason to not go for the wall," he whispers.
We both know the term is prison slang for feigning an escape attempt in front of the guards, in the hope they will have to kill you.
Men are said to have done such things when they received a "dear john" letter from their wife or learned of the death of a child. Is Christmas here that painful?
We talk, we cry, we pray. Man after man, blue shirt after blue shirt.
Murderers. Rapists. Molesters.
No one to call at Christmas. No one to write. No one to see.
Their children severed and adopted by other fathers.
Their children too far away to visit.
About 5:00 o'clock I tell the clerks we need more "prison Kleenex." The rolls of toilet paper we unwrapped that morning are all down to the cardboard.
My last call-out, an intelligent and verbal man, has met regularly with me all year.
"I'm not saying I shouldn't be here," tears tug at his eyes, "I did terrible things and don't even know why. I can understand why society wants me behind this fence. I'll be here the rest of my life.
But I'm a human being. I still need friends and relationships with normal people. I'm a baptized, practicing Christian. Christmas is our day. Where are the Christians?"
My lame response about people confusing compassion toward wrong-doers with approval of their bad behavior only angers him.
"Jesus said that when His followers visit an inmate, they visit Him!" he grips the tissue roll with both hands. "Jesus didn't say the inmate had to be innocent. Why isn't anybody visiting Jesus at Christmas?"
Looking away, I stammer, "I don't know."
Soon, it's time for us to end.
"What do you want to pray for?" I ask.
He leans back in his chair, as if he is talking to the ceiling, "What do I want God to give me for Christmas?"
"Sure," I reply.
"That every Christmas all the prisons in Florida will be busting at the seams from all the Christians trying to get in to visit Jesus."
"Brother," I caution, "that prayer could take a long time to answer."
He shrugs, "I'll be here."
First published: Radical Grace, 1997. Also published in The Florida Catholic, December 23, 1999
© 1995 Dale S. Recinella
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.
I Was In Prison
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Dale S. Recinella
, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella
, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed