(Day 44) On being overwhelmed by a mass of humanity... and the goodness at its core...

This morning I arrived at Oregon State Penitentiary at just after 9AM.  Arriving at the main gate I had to announce my arrival on the grounds before I parked.

Entering the main reception area I showed my identification tag and signed in.  Yes, I had to walk through a metal detector, even take off my shoes... but there was no ION ccan machine, no drug detector dog and, I was informed that staff did not have to walk through the metal detector.  First thing of note that is different here... and they have 2,300 inmates in this facility!

I shared with the guard on duty the process that happens at our principal entrance in the morning and about the drug dog and ION scan machine and how they are used with visitors.  It was clear to me that she was on the one hand impressed with the tools we were using - but didn't think staff should be subject to them... interesting.

Chaplain Phil Holbrook took a few minutes to come and fetch me and I was soon to find out why... its called five flights of stairs!  Five stories he had to walk down to get me and five stories we climbed five times today.  If I worked here I would no doubt be in much better shape.

Phil and I spent the better part of the morning in his office sharing information about what we do in our respective contexts and why we do it.  Phil had lots of questions about the manner in which Chaplains work in the Federal system as he is a Canadian - originally from St. Catherine's, Ontario.  I was struck at once by the number of programs that the Chaplaincy Department offers - mostly through the use of volunteers from the community who are cleared to enter on their own.  Phil is quick to acknowledge that his role is more of that of a co-ordinator of the various groups, ministries, events and programs that take place within the Chapel space.

Along with the three offices, one for each of the Chaplains, there is one large multi-purpose space that can be sub-divided into three rooms (as it was later in the afternoon), and one library room.

We were jointed later in our conversation by Chaplain Richard Torres.  Richard is a Roman Catholic and practicing Buddhist.  As our conversation continued I was amazed at the similarity of our experiences and the shared commitments to diversity and openness that exist among us as Chaplains.  Richard had to return home to spell off his wife who is pregnant with their second child as she coped with a very energetic two year old, and Phil and I headed to a local diner where we enjoy a lovely meal and more engaging conversation.

Returning to the Chapel area meant climbing those five flights of stairs... I almost needed a snack when I got to the top!!  Man was the chapel space humming!  A Russian Bible Study was underway in the library room.  A Hare Krishna worship gathering was taking place in the first third of the chapel space, a Buddhist Meditation in the middle third and transcendental meditation in the far third of the chapel - and not a chaplain in sight...

After taking some time to meet the inmates and volunteers (learning how to say "hello" in Russian, and being invited to both the Buddhist meditation and the Hare Krishna service) we headed off on a tour.

It was like a movie set.  I will never forget the experience of walking into bottom tier of one of the ranges and looking up... and around... being overwhelmed with sadness that that we treat human beings in such a fashion.  The State of Oregon spends $2.25 to feed each inmate, each day and houses them in cells stacked five high with 550+ human beings in what is essentially one room with partial concrete and iron dividers.  A mass of humanity.

From the tier we headed made our way out into the yard.  The recreation schedule rotates and each range would get a block of recreation time every second day.  This is so they can manage populations and keep some of the gangs (usually affiliated along racial lines) apart.  Some of the men were in the weight pit, others were playing basket ball or baseball and others were on the phone.  A dozen or so phone booths outside - the only location and time for you to make a phone call home - every second day, outside in a phone booth.

Unfortunately I cannot remember the names of the many men I met.  The brother by the ball field, who through the chain link fence told me he wanted to "work with me", the fellows in the hobby shop, the silversmith and the fellow making hatbands out of horsehair and the many guys who work in leather that would have loved to sell me a wallet!  Such creativity.  Such energy channelled into the creation of beauty and practicality in the midst of a system that continually tells the human spirit it is nothing... nothing but a problem and a menace to society.

I found myself taking time to stop and admire each piece of work.  To look each man in the eye and tell them of the beauty and goodness I saw in their work.  I believe that this is part of the core of the work that we are called to as chaplains - to help each person we work with to come to see their own self-worth and value in the world.

From the hobby shop we made our way to the building that houses those with mental health issues and death row.  Two wings, two tiers high of what can only be described as cages.  No bars here - thick, steel mesh with holes about the size of a pencil - and not a window in the place.  The only natural light came from a recreation yard that split the ranges.  If you were not crazy when you came in here you would be when you left!  All programs and visitation is done with the inmates in such cages.  In the case of staff they are on the other side of the cage and can reach through the cuff slot.  As for family visits they are closed visits with the inmate always behind glass.

At the other end of the building was Death Row.  Upon arriving the Officer stated I could go no further.  Chaplain Holdbrook identified me and the Officer was about to get permission from the Warden for me to tour the range and I declined.

I could not bring myself to "tour" such a place.

It was enough to have passed the door that led to the execution chamber and know that since 1902 some 60 men had passed through that door... and that 22 lived with a death sentence within these walls...  I couldn't get out fast enough, back into the light - confronted with my outrage, shame, disgust and a whole host of other feelings...

From a place of death to a place of industry and enterprise... the work spaces of Oregon Correctional Enterprises: a woodworking shop and a laundry.  Not unlike CORCAN... but a little more sweatshop like.  The laundry had to have at least 100 mem working there.  Not a guard in sight.  It was hot back breaking work.

The prison laundry at OSP does the laundry for many of the area correctional facilities and also does contract work for nursing homes, hospitals and some private companies.  It is very clearly a money making venture and inmates are on wait-list to work here because they do get incentive pay.  The same is true for the woodworking shop where they make furniture and desks - just like at CORCAN.

Before returning to the office we ventured into A Range - the Honour Range - a smaller tier just about the shower room (think Shawshank Redemption and you have the image of the shower room).  A Range is kind of a reward range.  Still double bunked, but here you have your own key and can come and go into the common area of the range with some freedom.  As well they had their own TV room and Rec Room and your ID Tag for this range gives you more movement around the prison.  Clearly a place of honour amidst this mass of humanity.

Returning toward the office I was greet by two relative signs of normalcy within the structured chaos that is such a mass of humanity: a man throwing a ball to a dog and a large beautiful well tended guarden with a man on his knees smelling a rose as he tilled the soil around it.

The dog is supposedly being trained to chase birds off the property - a flop eared Australian Shepherd - and a couple of inmates are employed to feed and care for the dog.  I bet there is a wait-list for that job!  And as for the garden, Phil didn't know how it came to be there or how long it has been fenced... but it remains, a splash of colour in an otherwise drab tan world... and a reminder that the seed of self-worth once planted can bloom forth and bring joy and love to the world...

...on the Sabbath Road...

Please note: all pictures are from the web and identify areas of the prison that I did visit.  If you wish to know the source of each image please click on the image and it will take you to the page from which I have linked it.


Popular posts from this blog

A Blanket of Humility

Preparing for a Wild Goose Ride...

NSW (Day 9) IPCA VII Grieving, Strength and Landing on Your Feet