by Martin © copyright 2015
This is a true story; only some names have been changed.
Recently, I was at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility, answering kites, requests for spiritual services. Chaplain Terry was there as well, overseeing her semi-annual greeting card distribution. The cards are important to the women, who look forward eagerly to the regular gifts. The cards help them to maintain their relationships with family and friends, vital to successful rehabilitation and re-entry, and for many indigent offenders, represent a value far beyond any monetary consideration. This project involves tremendous effort and organizational skills. Over several months Terry collects donations of greeting cards, thousands of them. She has a regular crew of inmates who volunteer their time to organize the mass of cards. The cards have to be screened for suitability (family-friendly, no drinking or sex themes), the envelopes must be stamped as mail originating in a correctional facility, and the cards sorted into packets for distribution, with no duplications in a packet. It culminates on a day when she and her crew drag carts loaded with boxes of card packets, about a thousand of them, to the living units and work stations to distribute, checking names on the facility master list as each packet is handed out. It's a huge undertaking that requires coordination with housing and security staff, as well as the effort to get a packet to every inmate in the facility. It also must be scheduled between the meal and count times, which are inflexible.
I had seen Chaplain Terry and her crew moving between the chaplain's office and the living units, so I knew the card distribution was occurring, but we hadn't had the opportunity to speak until we ran into each other in Unit 5. I was returning a couple of women from the chaplain's office to the unit. She was in a pod with her crew, handing out packets to a line of inmates while a couple of officers supervised the activity. It was getting close to the afternoon count time, and she was frantic with trying to finish on time. She shoved a packet of greeting cards at me and blurted, “Can you take these to the infirmary? I got a kite from a woman who's over there and I won't have time to do it.” I got the woman's name and registry number, took the packet, and set off.
The infirmary is at DRDC, the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, which is part of the Denver Correctional Complex. Getting to the infirmary requires transferring between facilities, and being passed through numerous locked doors and gates, and long walks along concrete walls and fences topped with coils of razor wire. It is a trip I have taken many times. When I got to the infirmary, I told the nurse in the security station I had a card packet for Offender Howard. She pointed to the row of medical cells and told me she was in number eight. I went to the door and pushed the button labeled “8”. The heavy door clicked. I pulled it open and went in.
The room was dim, light coming from a single bulb over the door, and a muted television on the wall, playing a game show. There were two medical beds, only one of which was occupied, and was raised partially at the head to allow the woman in it to sit comfortably. Her hospital gown was clean and pressed, the folds still showing in the fabric. The bed linens were crisp, recently changed, the blanket neatly folded back. An OCA, offender care aide, dressed in her prison greens, moved quietly around the room, cleaning and straightening. The room was tidy and fresh, although small and sparse. There was no odor of urine, feces or sweaty bodies that pervades as an undercurrent in some care facilities. As I watched, the woman on the bed, a short, thin, wizened figure, let loose with a shriek. She sucked in a breath, opened her mouth, and screamed again.
I made a conscious decision to not run away.
I approached the bed. “Ms. Howard.... Ms. Howard.” I took in the sparse wisps of gray hair floating around her mostly balding head, the wrinkles around her face, the many liver spots dotting her fragile skin. I estimated her age to be at least eighty years or more.
She looked at me with a momentary bewilderment. “Who are you?” Her voice was soft and quavering.
“I'm Chaplain Martin, Ms. Howard. I've brought your card packet.” I showed her the greeting cards I carried.
Her face brightened in a smile. “Oh, that's good. I needed more cards. I haven't been able to send any to my family for a long time.” She drew a breath, leaned her head back and screamed again. Her throat sounded raw and sore, and although startling, the volume she was able to achieve was barely louder than a normal speaking tone.
“Ms, Howard.” She looked at me. “Why are you screaming?”
“Oh it's nothing.” She waved her hand dismissively. “It's the only way I have to keep from hearing the voices in my head.” She leaned her head back and screamed again.
I leaned in close, and held up the card packet, hoping to distract her. “Ms. Howard, where do you want the cards?”
She gestured. “Oh, put them in the dresser, top drawer.” I went to the dresser, pulled open the drawer, and laid the packet on top of a notepad, noticing a couple pencils and other personal items in the drawer. I pushed the drawer shut and moved back to the bed.
“Ms. Howard, I put the cards on your notepad.”
“Excuse me Chaplain.” The OCA spoke softly. I turned to her. “I've been at work all day. I haven't gotten my card pack yet.” She shrugged helplessly. Beside me, Ms. Howard shrieked again. I hurriedly pulled out my kite pad and a pen and handed them to the OCA. “Write me a kite,” I muttered quietly. I quickly turned back to Ms. Howard.
“Ms. Howard,...Ms. Howard,” I interrupted the shriek. She looked up, a blank expression on her face. “Ms. Howard, I'd like to help you with the voices if you want me to. Would you like that?” She nodded. “Okay, when the voices get too loud or distracting, breathe in a slow deep breath, and feel calmness and peace fill you. Then breathe out, and feel tension and anger and worry leave you with the breath. It will help the voices get quiet. Would you like to try?” She nodded. “Okay, breathe in.” I demonstrated, breathing in slowly and deeply. She drew a breath with me. “Now breathe out.” Again, she breathed with me. “Now do it again, slowly, and feel yourself fill with calmness and peace. Then breathe out, and let the tension and fear leave you.” As I watched, the tightness in her arms and shoulders and neck relaxed, and an expression of bliss crossed her face. “Do the voices get quieter now?” She nods. “Do you believe in God, Ms. Howard?”
She looked offended. “Of course I do.”
“If you pray to God, Ms. Howard, and ask Him for help with the voices, He will help you. And remember to breathe, and find the place of peace and calmness in yourself. It will help. Can you remember to do that, Ms. Howard?”
She nodded, and reached her hand out to me. I grasped her hand in both of mine. Her thin skin felt smooth and soft over her long, narrow fingers, her hand so slender it was no more than skin and bone. I held her hand gently for a moment.
“Thank you for coming to see me. It was nice to meet you,” she said.
“It was nice to meet you too, Ms. Howard. God bless you.” I released her hand and turned to the OCA. She handed me the pen and kite pad. “And God bless you too,” I said quietly. “You've got a very difficult job. I'll make sure Chaplain Terry gets this.”
“Thank you. There are about four other women up here today. They'll need cards, too.”
“I'll make sure she knows.” I moved to the door, and pushed the button that buzzed in the security center. While I was waiting for the lock to click open, I turned back to Ms. Howard. “Goodbye, Ms. Howard. I hope things go well for you.”
She looked at me, confused. “I'm sorry. Do I know you?”
The door clicked, and I pushed it open and stepped through. As the door swung shut, I heard another shriek from inside the room. The solid thud of the door locking shut cut off all sounds from the dim hospital cell. I walked away slowly, shaking my head.