November 5, 2017
Sunday, 11:00 p.m.
Letter #472: Tracey and Me
You may have heard the phrase “Honor among thieves” to describe how even seemingly immoral persons have a certain code of conduct or standard of decency they uphold among themselves. Gangs won’t graffiti tag a church, corrupt officers who keep seized property for themselves return every dollar of an old lady’s purse they find, and hostage-takers often let women and children go free.
Prison is no different; you can, for example, walk right up to someone and tell him you want him to pay you twenty dollars or else you’ll beat him up, but shame on you if you sneakily swipe twenty dollars from someone without their knowledge. “No one likes a ‘jailhouse thief,’” the saying goes. In other words, you can get all kinds of admiration from your buddies here for your amazing robbery skills that brought you to prison. Just don’t do it here.
The only lower class of prisoners besides “jailhouse thieves” here are those who have crimes against the weak and are seemingly unrepentant. At this prison, where upwards of 80% of the inmates are sex offenders, no one typically talks about such things as what brought them to prison, and those who do are either gang dropouts, drug offenders who informed on others, or drunk drivers. Or, they’re lying. Well, I just met one of the lowest class.
Recently, it seemed that everyone at the prison was talking about one inmate who had been inappropriate towards female staff. He’d received a verbal warning, then a disciplinary write-up. Then, he was transferred to a dorm on the other side of the prison. He landed in a dorm that houses three of our four current elders and showed up to the next church service. An outgoing smiley guy, I noticed him right away and made sure to introduce myself after the service.
Tracey is a believer who seems to use the church and other Christians as his way to get what he needs. His relationship with God doesn’t bear much resemblance to the walk of faith spoken of in Scripture, and excuses are his currency of choice in many of his dealings. By the time I met him at church, the elders were fed up with him, trying to distance themselves from him as much as possible. I couldn’t blame them.
Later that week, I was pulled out of the chow hall while in the middle of teaching piano. A sergeant with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), this institution’s highest-ranking official (the warden is part of the private corporation that operates the prison, not CDCR staff), took me aside in the hallway and asked if my dorm would be willing to house a certain inmate who was now being housed in Receiving and Release (R+R), otherwise used as our “Hole” or Administrative-Segregation Housing Unit (Ad-Seg).
The sergeant told me that this particular inmate has given the staff many problems. I knew who he was talking about because the word was already out that Tracey had been inappropriate towards an officer again, just that morning. Now, the sergeant said, multiple dorms had refused to house him even until he can be transferred to a different facility. He’d been greeted at the door to other dorms with loud “Boos” and inmates blocking his path. I was asked to “do CDCR a favor” and house him in my dorm for around five or six days.
It seemed reasonable, so I said yes. I immediately went to the dorm and spoke with a few key guys, telling them that we just needed to keep this guy for a few days, to please let me handle him. They agreed reluctantly, but just in time as Tracey wheeled a cart of his belongings through our door.
Disdain and disgust filled the faces of the handful of men who weren’t still at school or programs when Tracey entered the dorm. Daniel, on break from his job as GED Tutor, and I helped him unpack and get settled in.
Honestly, it was so difficult to be seen with him, helping him, talking with him. Both Daniel and I wrestled with our pride, not wanting our good reputations sullied because of an association with this man who’d just done multiple despicable things. But Christ “made Himself of no reputation” when He died for me … so …
Over the next several days, I befriended Tracey. We talked at length many times, and because he was on restriction, I even called his wife for him to let her know what had happened. Tracey would come over and sit on my bunk next to me to get advice on what he should do next.
I have spoken with over one hundred sex offenders who have admitted to me for the first time ever or I’m the second one they’ve ever told about their criminal history. Of anyone I’ve ever talked to about this, Tracey is by far the most delusional, the most evasive, the most reactionary. He made excuses and even blamed officers for “trying to entrap” him for the offense he served four years for, before getting out and failing to register.
He’d never been completely honest with his wife, and he’d clearly never been completely honest with himself. He became frustrated and angry at me a few times before returning to apologize and admit I was right, and I didn’t let up on him.
He’s gone now, whisked away just as quickly as he was delivered to us, so I was left with asking God why. Why did God let me experience Tracey? I had to face the ugly parts of myself that might still think like he does, minimizing sin and blaming others and being a whole lot less than honest with those closest to me.
Tracey wasn’t about helping Tracey; it was God’s gentle reminder of how ugly sin looks to Him and how desperately I need God’s grace; Chief of Sinners, Chosen Son.