April 17, 2016
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #431: On the Road … Again
Spending the night at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison was an adventure all its own. The accommodations weren’t exactly luxurious, but I’ve learned not to expect a whole lot of creature comforts in California prison facilities. If I’d read the Airbnb reviews ahead of time, I never would have expected a hot shower before bed. Or a change of clothes. Or a pillow.
So, yeah, it wasn’t anything to write home about; then why, you ask, am I writing home about it? Two words: Sim Pathy. And, if I never wrote about it, who would ever believe that I’ve spent time in “The Hole,” our nickname for Administrative Segregation, or Ad-Seg? Granted, my stint in solitary confinement was confined to a single night, but hey, you know I made the most of it. I’ve done hard time, people.
From our holding cell, our little crew of transported-from-Arizona inmates were handcuffed and shackled before being taken by van to the Ad-Seg housing unit. Why handcuffs and shackles? Probably to make climbing up into the back of a van more memorable, is my guess. They guy next to me was a diminutive Chinese fellow who was nearly swallowed up by the one-size-fits-all paper jumpsuit he was wearing. (I’ve found that paper is an extremely breathable fabric, especially in cold weather.) As we unloaded from the van, two inmates exercising in a cage yelled out to me, “What is THAT?!?” meaning the tiny thing in handcuffs next to me. I wanted to say he is an Olympic gymnast, but the guard glared at me to keep silent.
Put into a cell by myself with just a sheet and blanket, soap and towel, and toothpowder and brush, I quickly asked a very friendly chaplain who was making his rounds if I could get a Bible, and he obliged. I took what we call a “bird bath,” which involves a very strategic positioning of oneself over the sink/toilet combo unit, filling a tiny cup with water and spilling it over yourself like an ancient Italian fountain in a town square. You know, the kind you instantly avert your eyes from? That kind. It’s harder than it looks.
The next morning’s bus ride took us farther north, where we stopped for lunch at a Panda Express. No, we didn’t eat there; the bus driver did while we all stared out the windows. You do not want to visit a Panda Express with your family while a busload of prisoners is parked outside; trust me. I was offended by the crude comments and the letdown of a simple PB&J, which could not mask the smell of cheap, commercialized, Asian fast food.
Eventually (a word that allows you the privilege of skipping past the overly mundane parts of the journey), we arrived at Golden State MCCF (Modified Community Correctional Facility), a private-corporation-run facility housing just 650 inmates, all low-level offenders (compare with La Palma’s 3,000).
Hours and hours slipped by as we plodded through the lengthy intake process, meeting with correctional staff and medical staff and receiving our bedding, clothing, and other basic supplies. A few guys also received their personal property, while the rest of us were told we’d get ours the following day. Apprehension built as we wondered who we’d end up being housed with. I’d kept a close friend of mine with me the whole way, a sweet Hispanic man I’ve known since the beginning of my term, the only guy who’s been at every prison with me. I think he’s paid to spy on me and report back to my mom. I told him I’d double whatever she’s paying him if he tells her I’m doing great.
Well, we all split up, and my buddy and I couldn’t be farther apart. Instead, I got housed in the same dorm as two young guys, Mogly (because he looks like the Jungle Book character) and Hector (because his mother named him that). Mogly doesn’t believe in God yet and Hector isn’t strong in his faith yet, so I’ve got a challenge ahead of me. As soon as I entered the dorm, two very close friends of mine came up to me. Both have sung in worship teams and choirs I’ve led, so it was a huge blessing to see them. One guy has told people here about me, in the hopes I might arrive.
I found my bunk and immediately ran off to a Prison Fellowship ministry-run service for two hours, meeting lots of the core group of Christian brothers.
The next day, while receiving my property and trying to keep it all organized, I came across sheets of music with familiar writing at the top. Written by my favorite person at La Palma, Sister Peggy, it was her notes on something she’d said to a church group of inmates four years earlier. Packed in with my music, I saw it for the first time ever while kneeling next to bags of my personal things, there in the Receiving and Release department. It said: “Be the light for everyone here at this facility. You look around, and there are a lot of people in here who may not have God in them, who need to know and feel God’s love. Let God use you to be that vessel; bring that Love of Jesus to them.” The words cut deep into my soul, and I thanked God for His incredible way of getting through to me. Sometimes I need Him to just be really clear with me, and that message and its timing? Pretty clear.
Most guys here are heading home soon, including four from my very dorm of eighty-five guys this month alone. I’ve been memorizing a passage in Isaiah 61 recently, which has more significance now: “ … The Lord has… sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” May He give me wisdom and grace to know how best to reach out, comfort, encourage, and bless in this place for His glory.