Twice a year, as Christmas and Easter, we go into the entire jail to serve communion. The main jail chaplain and served communion in the maximum security and high-max units. What I appreciate about these times is that we are allowed to go to the high-max units that normally have no contact. One correctional officer explained that high-max is being used as overflow for the mental health unit. Men who are too dangerous and unpredictable to stay in the mental health unit were sent to high max. These men are typically alone in their cell for 23 hours a day — often alone with only the voices that are tormenting them.
In the maximum-security unit when we come any men who are out for their rec. time are sent back to their cell. From the control center one of the guards will contact each cell through the intercom and ask if they want to participate in communion. If they do then the guard in the control center electronically opens the cell door and the man walks out of his cell to the main door of the unit. Through a small slot in the door we ask the man’s name. In a place where a person’s identity can be stripped away this is a moment where their humanity is recognized. The God of the universe calls them by name to participate: “This is my body which is for you, do this in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” For a brief moment that door, which is designed to separate them from freedom, becomes a holy place where the gift of forgiveness and restoration is remembered.
After we finished in the maximum-security unit we went to high-max.
We waited for about 20-30 minutes because one of the men in high-max was having a mental health crisis. This is a risky situation. Earlier in the week 5 guards were injured by a single inmate in high-max. Consider where the gospel of Mark records, ”…and no one could bind him anymore, not even a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.”
As we waited that morning the correctional officers were eventually able to get the man calmed down and were moving him to a different area. The head chaplain knew the man and was able to briefly speak to him.
In the high-max units, rather than the men coming out of their cells, we instead go into the unit and go cell-to-cell. The correctional officer who accompanied us in the unit was very respectful and supportive of what we were doing. I actually prefer this. Men to participate who normally would be reluctant to leave their cell. Symbolically it brings communion to where they live. For some men this extended isolation is soul-crushing. While in the unit we would occasionally hear cries that sounded more animal than human.
Other men in the unit have found a way to adapt. One of the men had used crayons and covered the walls and ceiling of his cell with his artwork. He had transformed his cell into a chapel and a place of worship.