It was to be my first time in a pod. I had prayed in the car beforehand, because I was nervous. I’d been in the jail before, but only in the all-purpose meeting rooms where we conducted chapel services. Tonight I had been invited to accompany one of the chaplains into a housing pod where inmates spent most of their time. The pods are large indoor areas; very sterile, white and brightly lit. Recessed into the walls, on two levels, are the metal-doored cells. The open floor area in the middle of the pod contains foldable tables with attached stools (so that they can’t be thrown or used as weapons). A communal TV hangs from one wall, out of reach. In the center of the pod is a high-tech desk where the corrections officer keeps an eye on things. In one corner is a glassed in area about the size of a conference room, but lacking a table. It resembles an aquarium and provides respite from the constant noise echoing through the pod. Inmates are sometimes taken into this room when bad news is delivered to them, such as a death in the family.
Each pod is a community unto itself. Different pods exist for different types of inmates: short-term, long-term, low-risk, high-risk, etc. The pods are connected by hallways. Entry into (and, needless to say, exit from) the pods is tightly controlled via cameras and electronic doors.
Alexei, a pastor of a Russian congregation, and I are shadowing Chaplain Ron. Ron is a big teddybear of a man with a gregarious, easy-going manner. His modus operandi is to walk into a pod, circulate a little bit around the center of the room dispensing greetings, then sit down at an available table. Before long, inmates will drift over, wanting to talk. Ron leads us through a labyrinth of hallways to the “new wing” of the jail and ushers us into a minimum security pod. We circulate and sit and before long we have six inmates at the table, plus Ron, Alexei and me. Ron asks the officer in charge if we can move the group into the glass room in the corner of the pod. The officer gives his ok.
We move into the smaller room and seat ourselves on grey plastic chairs in a circular formation. We begin talking about Jesus and particularly about how when we feel overwhelmed and not in control of our situation, we can rest in Jesus. I bring up the story of the two men on either side of Jesus at the crucifixion: One was bitterly cursing his fate while the other put his trust in Jesus. Suddenly Ron stands up and says, “Well Danny, I’m going to take Alexei to some other pods to see if we can find some Russian speakers who he can minister to. I’ll come back for you in a little while.”
When I had prayed in the car before coming into the jail, I had prayed for peace. Now, here in this glass room with these men, I feel it. Some of the men had been initially agitated but gradually have calmed. Imagine being arrested and not knowing what has happened to your children or your car or your pets or your job? It is a feeling of complete loss of control over one's life; a feeling which causes great stress. Add to that withdrawel symptoms from drugs, alcohol and nicotine. One man has been vascillating between panic, anger and abject sorrow. He explains that he has been accused of molesting his children. He swears his innocence. Another of the men periodically goes into rambling rants which are hard to follow the thread of. Gradually though, the agitation and tension dissipates in the little glass room and the calming, peaceful presence of God takes its place. The men become quiet as we talk about Jesus. We discuss some Bible verses together and we pray together. Each man is hungry to be prayed for and so we all take turns praying for one another. The little glass room has become a momentary oasis of tranquility-—as peaceful as a cathedral. We are having such a good time that I have lost track of the hour. When I finally glance out at a wall-clock in the pod I am surprised to discover that nearly two hours have passed since entering the pod. It is now after 10pm. Chaplain visiting hours have already ended.
I dismiss the meeting—-not wanting to get the guys into trouble-—and go to the officer in charge, apologizing for staying so late. He seems unperturbed and releases me from the pod and I walk down the secured hallway trying to figure out how to get out. Suddenly Chaplain Ron appears. He looks worried.
“I’m so sorry!” he says. “I don’t know how I did this; all these pods in the new wing look the same.”
“That’s ok,” I say, “the officer in charge didn’t seem upset about me running late.”
“No, it’s not that,” Ron replies, “I accidently made a wrong turn and took you into the wrong pod. That wasn’t the minimum security pod, it was the psychiatric pod!”
I probably would have been intimidated if I had known going in that I would be alone ministering to inmates deemed to have “psychiatric” issues, but because I lacked the information to pre-judge my companions in the small glass room, I had a great time—as did we all—in the presence of the Lord.