A Jail Chaplain’s Story

Maximum In-Security/Inside Out: A Jail Chaplain’s Story

After serving ten years in maximum security, I had to get out. I never knew that a bomb might do the job … but the bomb might keep me in jail for a lot longer than I expected.

I have to tell you how I got there before I can tell you how I got out.

Graduating from seminary in the San Francisco Bay Area I held a Master of Divinity degree in my hand, but I didn’t feel like a master of anything, especially divinity. As a young father enduring a divorce, I wasn’t sure at all that I was made of the right stuff for serving in ministry. Pastoring a church didn’t particularly appeal to me and I wasn’t getting productive interviews anyway. Then I came across a job listing for a brand new kind of work with a newly formed non-profit. It was a position as a county jail chaplain for an ecumenical organization. Since I had taken a semester as a student chaplain in a county jail across the Bay, I felt a certain attraction to this para-church kind of ministry—in other words, a ministry where the congregation doesn’t look anything like a traditional church.

We created a model of chaplaincy that quickly outgrew the Christian-centered “ecumenical” name and transformed into a fully “interfaith”—inter-religious—agency with members and supporters who were Quaker, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Sufi.

I was responsible for “re-presenting” the compassion of these communities and free to shape the work around the people and the needs I was encountering behind the thick walls of the jail system.

Now, it may help to get a visual of the young chaplain: longish hair, black hat, beard and Birkenstock sandals. This was California, remember? Growing into my role, I wore a white plastic clergy collar (for quick identification), but over that I hung the small cross given me at ordination weighed down with a yin-yang, Star of David, Hindu “Om” symbol and a Buddhist wheel of enlightenment. Best I could do as the embodiment of something called interfaith. And a great conversation starter!

With that rather bizarre image in mind, let me say—before long, I was holding seven gatherings of inmates in various units of the jail each week. These became some of the best experiences I’ve ever had with groups, especially the amazingly open and honest discussions we would have, and the singing. Wow, the singing! My guitar and songbooks lifted the mood of many people in their most difficult time of life. Singing old songs like “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Lonely People,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Mr. Bojangles,” and a few hymns and spirituals, old and new, brought many tears, and the lightness of laughter too.

Apart from group meetings, I spent the bulk of my time “on rounds,” moving through the jail units to talk with the men and women detained in minimum or maximum security cells. Mostly it was about listening. And seminary, with its focus on preaching, didn’t exactly prepare us for a listening-centered ministry.

But there I was. A professional listener, encourager, counselor, practicing a style of service that is often underappreciated: simply being present with people. Presence. That word, that practice, became a central guide through all my years of chaplaincy.

I’m not sure if you know this, but most everyone behind bars, in a jail, is innocent. This is not some bleeding-heart liberal claim. Remember, jail is not prison. It is not primarily a place of punishment. People accused of crimes are detained, held to face trial, unless they can afford to bail out. So, in the best sense of our justice system, we ought to treat detainees as innocent until they may or may not be found guilty. I was the chaplain for bankers, lawyers, pastors, fire captains and police officers inside. . .on the other side of the bars.

Jails are “open” to any of us, depending on circumstances, and whether you’re caught. As we often said: “Do the crime … you do the time.”

As I mentioned, I spent my days, weeks, and as it turned out, years, going inside to talk and listen with inmates. Some of the most meaningful hours were spent in maximum security units—“Max”—the darkest, most dangerous corner, where chaplains fear to tread (most of the time I was too busy for fear). One was “Protective Custody” or “PC.” Up to eight men, eight strangers, crammed in a cell with one toilet, one shower, one steel table and one television. Oddly enough, one phone hung on the wall—for collect calls of course. Privacy? Are you kidding? The toilet was right below the television!

Men accused of some of the worst crimes were held in there, as well as men who didn’t fit anywhere else, and wouldn’t be safe in the general population of the jail.
These could be vulnerable younger men, gay men, trans men, men accused of sexual offenses or even ex-cops. A mixture of Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American. As you might imagine, guys in PC had to get along in that small space, no matter what they were charged with. It may sound crazy, but the hours I spent in there were often the most powerful, meaningful times that stayed with me a long time afterward.

Another maximum security unit was at the far end of a cement hallway lined with cells full of guys playing cards, watching tv, exercising, or trying to sleep. If I made it all the way to “Max” after passing all those cells, not getting caught in too many con-versations along the way, I would signal a deputy to let me in through the steel and wire-mesh door into Max. Once in there, I could only get out after pushing a red button above the doorway, waiting for another deputy to let me out.

One particular day I was locked into Max as usual. Handing a Qur’an to one man and a Bible to another, we discussed the comparison of scriptures; giving a meditation book to a Buddhist man, we bowed to each other; a mentally ill man in solitary confinement was animated in his description of delusions and dreams. Another waved his hand, turned his back and grumbled for me to leave him alone. “I don’t need no preacher.”

Then, I crouched down to listen to a young Black man slumped over on the edge of his metal bunk. Leaning in close to hear his voice over the loud talking and blaring television, he sobbed, telling me about the family he missed, especially his dear grandmother.

He asked me to pray for him. Not an unusual request, but something I only did when asked, and as an interfaith chaplain, representing diverse faith traditions, I never said a prayer in a sectarian manner.

The young man put aside any shame he felt in front of his cellmates and knelt by the bars asking me to place my hands on his head. Fully conscious this was Maximum security, without hesitation, I reached through the cold, dusty steel bars, putting my fingers lightly on his spongey black hair, and spoke quiet, comforting words—mostly I just silently breathed with him. He stood and reached through to give a warm, firm handshake.

Sensing my time in Max was over for the day (and honestly, at times I felt pretty “maxed out” of energy), I walked to the door, reached up and pushed the button. Typically it can take a while for a response, so I walked back over to speak with a man reading on his cot. We discussed his book for five or ten minutes before I casually walked back to press the button again. Peering through the wires and bars I didn’t see any deputies down the hall. A bit concerned, I walked back to continue the conversation with the reader.

After fifteen or twenty minutes, and still no deputy, I pressed the button again. A man standing in a cell just outside Max, saw me and smiled. “Can’t get out, huh, chaplain?” “Guess I’m doin’ my time,” I joked back. He called out to a “trustee”—a working inmate—mopping the cement floor on the far end of the hall. “Hey, the chaplain needs out!” I saw the mopper look my way, then disappear. Several minutes passed. Finally, the shift sergeant walked the hallway, peered through the screen, and acted surprised: “What are You doing in there?,” he asked. As he unlocked the door, I stepped out. “I’ve been back here for several hours and I’ve been trying to get someone’s attention to let me out. You must be busy up there.” He didn’t reply.

As we walked back up to the front booking desk, I looked around. “Where is everyone?” Normally the booking area is full of activity. The sergeant casually explained there had been a bomb threat—“Someone called in a while ago with a threat,” he shrugged, “so we cleared everyone out.” Raising my eyebrows I smiled at him: “Oh … well, that’s good to know.” In that moment it hit me—

All jail staff were evacuated along with administration, nurses, psychiatrists, public defenders, the librarian with his book cart, all visitors, family members—everyone. Except … the shift sergeant—one person to manage the whole jail—, and the chaplain!
I guess I should have asked if he needed any help!

Unconcerned and in no apparent hurry, he buzzed me out through the heavy steel doors. I stood alone in the eerily quiet waiting room, took the empty elevator to the lobby, and walked out the front doors to freedom, safety. Standing in the sunshine, taking a long, deep breath, I was filled with gratitude, relieved to be back out in the free world where I could choose to come and go as I pleased, where I could freely choose when to return and enter the un-free world where I was privileged to be present with so many waiting and waiting for another human being to listen, to touch, to remind them of their own humanity, when most in the community, in the cars zipping by on the freeway, in the locked-up houses of God, see them as criminals, people to fear and wall away, out of sight, out of mind.

And as I walked away, with the locked-down and “secured” building behind me, I thought of all those in my strange, hidden congregation who couldn’t be evacuated— those whose lives were perhaps in the most danger right then, even as those of us on the outside may feel they are a danger to us. As I sat in my car, staring across a pond full of ducks and geese, I was acutely aware that I spent more time among addicts and drug dealers, prostitutes, thieves and murderers, than among my own friends.

And I thought of one lasting lesson from my years as a chaplain: no matter what someone has done, or may have done, it can be liberating to see them as human first, a member of the human congregation. That feels more like a church, a sanctuary, to me. It can turn your beliefs inside out.

In this congregation of outcasts (cast IN, really) I learned that we have to keep pushing a lot of buttons until we find the meaning of freedom.

Chris Highland

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  1. Great story Chris. I am going to save it and share it with some of my chaplain friends. We are putting together the first Humanist Chaplaincy Committee under the direction of Humanist Canada. There are 4 or us now but we will be growing each year. We have no prison chaplains as the M.Div or Pastoral Counselling degrees are not a preferred education for Humanists as you well know. We are working on equivalent degrees and a application process currently. Thanks for a very personal story….I am glad you made it out of the bomb threat although in a place where threat is everywhere, a bomb might not be all that bad. JK!

    • Thanks, Marty! Excellent work with piecing together the HCC in the northland. I could see you finding a way “inside” the jail/prison system at some point. “Interfaith” may be the way to go with that? Keep me in the loop as you create a new path to serving the most vulnerable. Peace and health

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