“From Behind the Walls” is a series of stories and prayers on encounters Michael McRay had while serving as a volunteer prison chaplain.
Disclaimer: Contains somewhat graphic descriptions of blood and violence. All names of inmates have been changed.
That particular Friday in December began as my Fridays usually did: quiet morning of conversation with my grandmother, silent meditation, and a thirty minute drive to the prison where I volunteered as a chaplain. The first couple of hours inside the compound were filled with laughter, as the chaplain’s department held a pizza party celebrating the completion of Christmas package distribution. I personally made quick work of four pieces, and then, grabbing a handheld radio, headed to Unit 4 – where I would not be making quick work.
This was my third visit to Unit 4, a maximum security unit, where two of the four pods – the ones to which I was assigned – contain 24 cells that hold both young and old men designated as “mental health” inmates. This unit is certainly the most violent in the prison as stress levels stay dangerously high. I breathed in deeply and walked through the razor wire gate and into the concrete building.
The smell hit me first, as it always did. With so much blood and human waste regularly decorating the walls, a vulgar stench remains, no matter how much scrubbing occurs. Because of “incidents” that day, the Officer-In-Charge would not permit any inmate to be brought out for conversation. I would have to go cell-side.
Before entering, an officer warned me that the pod had “been crazy” all day. Acknowledging his caution, I called into the radio unit, “Charlie main, Charlie gate, ” and within seconds, the thick steel door and iron gate opened, granting me access to the pod. As soon as the gate closed behind me, a cacophony of “Chaplain, chaplain!” sounded from all corners of the pod. I shouted from the entrance that I would be around to see each man. I started with Mr. Freeman, a man I met just a few weeks earlier in the infirmary after he had set fire to the shirt on his back to get attention. We seem to have connected surprisingly well that day, and he had asked me to come see him whenever I could. I had given him two books to read – one, a book on violence and shame; and the other, my own book on my work in the West Bank. Talking through the small gap where his steel door meets the wall, we discussed the books and how he was doing.
As I moved through the pod, I began to notice escalating noise coming from a cell in the center of the far wall. I skipped ahead to that cell, one that belonged to Mr. Saylor, who within two hours would be rushed to the hospital, close to death.
“Howdy, Mr. Saylor, ” I greeted cordially. Having never met him before, I introduced myself. “I’m Chaplain McRay.”
“OK, ” he shrugged, smirking. His clean face looked young, and I guessed we must be very close in age. An internet search later confirmed my suspicion and informed me that he had just begun his eighth year of imprisonment. Giving him the simple sign of respect I give to all men I visit, I looked him in the eyes while we talked. Many of the men’s eyes show despair, windows into souls battered under the current system of retribution. Mr. Saylor’s showed something different: fire.
“Are you doing OK?” I asked him smiling, trying to keep a positive demeanor so as not to provoke any aggression.
Mr. Saylor titled his head as he looked at me through the glass. He was bouncing slightly, almost as if he was excited about something. Then his right hand took a small razor and quickly cut his left forearm. Raking his hand through the blood, he then smeared it down his face, over his nose, mouth, and chin. One glob rested above his eye.
“Do I look OK?” he challenged. His whole demeanor suggested he wanted me to be intimidated, impressed, perhaps even to quiver in awe. I laughed instead, trying to play a different role than the seeming “terrified spectator” part he had scripted for me.
“No, sir, ” I chuckled, “you do not. You actually look very not OK.” He just kept smiling. “Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked.
“Just get me a straight ticket to the road to hell!” He had a lively country accent, and he swayed back and forth as he spoke. I asked him why he wanted to go to hell. “Everybody wants to go hell!” There was an unsettling confidence in his laugh.
Calmly, I countered, “I don’t think anyone really wants to go to hell. Why do you?”
“Ah, it’ll be fun, ” he told me, the fire in his eyes intensifying, “All that buurrrnin!” The way he drew out his words reminded me of Andy Taylor in the early seasons of The Andy Griffith Show.
When I asked him if he enjoyed burning, he said, “Sure I do!” and then lifted his left arm. It was spotted with burn marks and blood from various razor cuts that day. Scars ran in between, telling me this was not the first day he had drawn blood from that limb.
“That looks quite painful, ” I confessed, removing some cheer from my tone.
“Nah, not yet!” he grinned. I asked him what was wrong: Had something happened that day? “Man, I’m just fuckin’ tired of it!” he shouted. “Nobody here cares about me!”
I looked him straight in the eyes, and said as genuinely as I could, “I’m trying to care, Mr. Saylor. That’s why I’m standing here talking to you.”
“Ah, you don’t give a shit about me, ” he hollered, turning around laughing. He walked back toward his bed, and I knew he had no reason to believe I cared. He had never seen me before in his life. Why should he trust me?
When he returned to the narrow door window, I told him I needed to call medical since he was bleeding. When I asked an officer to make the call he informed me I had to leave the pod. I protested, but in vain. Apologizing to Mr. Saylor, I turned to walk down the stairs, passing three officers on their way up to his cell.
Before I reached the floor, I heard one shout, “He’s squirting! He got an artery!” The corporal shouted through the radio unit, “Get medical in here now!” Then he yelled to me to run find latex gloves in the central staff pod. Searching frantically, I located two pairs and rushed back into the pod and up the stairs. Taking the gloves from me, the corporal instructed me to wait on the lower level. Four officers gathered at his open door, and from where I stood below, I could see it all.
Just as I had walked away from Mr. Saylor’s door, he had sliced clean through an artery in the bend of his left arm. Streaks of blood now covered his whitewashed walls, as if someone had taken a squirt bottle and turned circles in the room, squeezing constantly. I saw him sitting calmly on his bed at the back of the cell, a laser quivering on his chest from the Taser one officer was pointing at him. A large gash stretched across his arm, blood streaming down his forearm, onto his pants. His face, shirt, and bed were red with blood, and he just sat there, still, smiling at the prison staff in his doorway. The officers handcuffed him so he could not cut anymore, and the medical team wrapped a bandage around the severed artery. But by that time, he had already lost so much blood that he soon collapsed, unconscious.
Four officers carried him down the stairs, his arms and legs stretched out and his head hanging back over their shoulders. They carried him out of the pod and toward the infirmary. I stood there, perhaps in shock, unaware of any conscious thoughts. It was as if I was in stupor. Suddenly, I regained a sense of awareness as I heard another man calling for me. Hustling up the stairs, I moved toward his cell and peered into the window. I saw Mr. Jackson there, tattoos covering his face, anger in his eyes, and nothing in his cell.
In cries of anguish, he told me what happened. Yesterday, he had lived in the cell across the pod, next to Mr. Waylen, and when Mr. Waylen reached through his pie flap and threw something into Mr. Jackson’s cell, Mr. Jackson responded by throwing feces back at him. But these feces hit an officer instead. Mr. Jackson cried out to me, “I didn’t mean to hit the officer! I told him over and over, ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ But they won’t listen to me! I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take it!” He dropped to his bed, head in his hands, body shaking in anger.
My eyes scanned his cell. All his possessions had been taken in punishment. Nothing remained but a coarse blanket. The logic of retribution seemed to spread itself plainly before me: punish the wrongdoer, and when he reacts, punish him harder, and then punish him even harder. This system takes angry, broken people and locks them in small rooms, alone, with very few possessions or constructive human contact, and then acts bewildered when these repressed humans snap. Offering no more than one hour of recreation time per day in a metal cage, serving food that might repel even the most famished of dogs, and taking all one’s earthly possessions with each misdemeanor, our current system shames and provokes these incarcerated men until they erupt. And when they do erupt, they are punished more.
Mr. Jackson could not take it anymore. I nearly wept listening to him. His desperation almost broke me on the spot, and it took all I had to keep it together. He plead with me, insisting he was in the right and that all he really wanted was to know when he would get his property back. “Just a date!” he cried out. “That’s all I need! Just a date. I’ll be fine if I just know a date. But nobody will tell me. Nobody will stand up for me!”
Numerous times while listening to him, I had to ask him to pause because I could not hear him. The pod had descended into chaos after Mr. Saylor was removed. Men were horse-kicking their doors, shouting at each other and at officers. Some were throwing things in fits of rage. I felt consumed in noise. Even with my ear pressed to the door and Mr. Jackson shouting on the other side, I could barely hear him. It was as if everyone had snapped at once, a collective breakdown.
Promising Mr. Jackson I would bring him a book to read to keep his mind occupied until the staff returned his property, I moved swiftly around the pod, trying to deescalate, calming those men with razors in hand and fury in their eyes. The pod was like a war zone. I felt I had no idea what I was supposed to do. What was I supposed to say? How was I supposed to say it? I was just making it up as I went. But one by one, the men began to put their razors away.
I headed out of Unit 4 and walked back to the chaplain’s office to get a couple of books for Mr. Jackson. As I walked into the crisp cold air, the only words I could verbally muster were the two lines that have begun monastic prayers for centuries: “O God, come to our assistance. O Lord, make haste to help us.” Over and over, I repeated the mantra as I walked.
Back at the chaplain’s office, the head chaplain was rushing out the door to catch the ambulance that was ferrying Mr. Saylor to the hospital. He was fading. She called me from the ambulance to ask exactly what happened. I told her and asked if he was going to be OK. “He may die, ” she said. I felt paralyzed.
When I regained mobility, I grabbed two books from the library and made haste back to Unit 4. Before I entered the unit, I closed my eyes and prayed the only other appropriate prayer I could think of: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.” Inside, I slid the two books under Mr. Jackson’s door. He expressed great gratitude, and his eyes lit up when I told him I wrote one of the books, and that it was his to keep. “This gives me some closure, ” he told me. I sighed gently from relief.
When I arrived back at the chapel, the Friday night service had begun. I snuck in quietly to a pew against a side wall. The chaplain was back at the prison, sitting just in front of me. She reached back and squeezed my hand, whispering that Mr. Saylor was stable. Just a few minutes later, I slipped back out, crouched in a corner of the hall, and wept.
I had not been prepared for what I saw that day.
O God, come to our assistance. O Lord, make haste to help us.
God, where are you? How come when we call in our hours of great distress, in our moments of deepest need, you do not answer?
Perhaps you too were weeping, crouched in the corner of a hallway, and could not get up. Perhaps you too choked on your tears and could not raise your voice. In some ways, if I knew that was true, I think it would help. To know you also can be so shocked by our horribleness to each other that you cannot speak, to know that you also can be so traumatized by walking in hell that you must stop to weep, would give me some manner of peace.
Jesus, you said that when we encountered the least of these in prison, we encountered you. I try to believe that.
But was that really you in there? Was that really you the officers carried out of the unit to the ambulance? I didn’t expect you to look like that. I didn’t think you would have a razor in your hand. I didn’t think you would smear blood on your face while I talked with you. Have the principalities and powers really broken you so brutally that even you can’t resist the demons of despair, fury, and self-hatred? I knew you would be in prison, Lord. That’s why I came. But I didn’t think you would be in hell.
O Lord, mother and father of a broken people, what we have created today, this so-called “justice system, ” is not justice. It is hell. It is darkness and flame. It consumes those who get close. It brutalizes souls. Some days I feel rage at those who have created and perpetuate such a demonic system. I know you said to forgive them for they know not what they do. But sometimes I think they do.
Teach us to improve our justice, Holy Spirit, and guide us in the way of mercy and truth.
Breathe into me your spirit of loving kindness, of a justice kissed by mercy, and a truth wed with peace. May I be as present as possible with each person I meet behind those walls. And may I always remember that whatever I do for them, I do for you.