It was to be my first time in a pod. I had prayed in the car, in the parking lot, beforehand—because I was nervous. I’d been in the jail before, but only in the all-purpose meeting rooms where chapel services were conducted. 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. Within each pod, recessed into the walls on two levels, are metal-doored cells. The open floor area in the middle of the pod contains foldable tables with attached stools (affixed 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 of the pod is a glassed-in room, about the size of a conference room, but lacking a table. The room resembles an aquarium, and provides some respite from the constant noise echoing throughout the pod. Inmates are sometimes taken into this room when a semi-private meeting is required, such as informing them of news regarding their case, or relaying an urgent family message, such as the death of a loved one.
Each pod is a self-contained community. Different pods exist for different types of inmates: short-term, long-term, low-risk, high-risk, etc. The pods are connected by secured hallways. Entry into and, needless to say, out from the pods is tightly controlled via cameras and electronic doors.
Alexei, a pastor of a Russian congregation, and I are shadowing Chaplain Ron tonight. Ron leads us through a labyrinth of hallways to the “new wing” of the jail and ushers us into a minimum security pod. Ron is a big teddy-bear of a man with a gregarious, easy-going manner. His modus operandi, he explains, is to walk into a pod, circulate a little bit around the center of the room dispensing greetings, and then sit down at an available table. Before long, inmates will drift over, wanting to talk. We circulate and sit and soon 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 in a circular formation on lightweight grey plastic chairs with rounded corners. We begin talking about Jesus and 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 would like to talk to him. I’ll come back for you in a little while.” Ron and Alexei leave.
Prior to coming into the jail, I prayed for peace. Here in this glass room with these men, I feel it. Some of the men had seemed initially agitated. Imagine you have been arrested and are unsure of what the outcome will be: you don’t know what has happened to your children or your car or your pets or your job. You may be released at a moment’s notice or you may remain for weeks or months awaiting trial. You may end up in prison. It is a feeling of complete loss of control over one’s life; a feeling which causes great stress. One man in our group has been oscillating between anger and abject sorrow. He explains that he has been accused of molesting his children. He swears his innocence. Another man periodically goes into rambling rants, and it is hard to follow his thread of thought.
Gradually though, calm has descended upon the little glass room. I feel as if the peace I prayed for outside has come in with me and is now radiating outward to these men; soaking into them. The quiet glow of a peaceful presence has gradually filled the room. The men have became quiet and we talk about God’s amazing, unfailing love. We pray. Each man is hungry to be prayed for and we take turns praying for each other. The little glass room has become an oasis of tranquility—it is a holy place.
Things are going so well that I have lost track of time. When I finally glance out at a wall-clock in the pod I am surprised to discover that nearly two hours have passed. It is now after 10pm. Chaplain visiting hours have already ended. I dismiss the men—not wanting to get them into trouble—and go to the officer in charge at the center of the pod, apologizing for running so late. He seems unperturbed and releases me from the pod and I walk through the maze of secured hallways trying to navigate my way 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 took a wrong turn and put you into the wrong pod. That wasn’t the minimum security pod, it was the psychiatric pod.”
I probably would have been extremely intimidated if I had known going in that on my first visit to a pod I would be ministering alone to inmates deemed to have “psychiatric” issues. But I lacked that piece of information with which I might have pre-judged my companions and which might have prevented us from sharing a wonderful, blessed time together.