Mischief in the Prison Chapel
“Is there anyone out there whom the Holy Spirit has touched, who wants to be healed by the blood of the Lamb, who wants to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior? Raise your hands!”
When it comes to religion, I personally believe that one can benefit tremendously from any of the numerous faiths one chooses to believe in. I speak from experience, for I was a believer. As a young, misguided, lost 19-year-old college student who was in a fraternity, partying day and night at the frat house, I felt empty, like something was missing in my life.
Then, one day my hot young blonde girlfriend invited me to church. I took up the offer. Attended a Foursquare Church. A Christian faith. While there the first time, I felt a sense of peace, of belonging which the fraternity lacked, was overwhelmed by the blissful, soulful, hypnotic music. Felt high, like I was at a Rolling Stones concert, but without the joint.
When the preacher called out, “Is there anyone out there whom the Holy Spirit has touched, who wants to be healed by the blood of the Lamb, who wants to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior? Raise your hands!” I raised my hands high. I slowly walked to the altar, mesmerized by the black man’s fancy finger work moving along the chapel piano keys, and the numerous audience members who laid their hands on my body. Like a dope addict who just slammed an issue of heroin, I slowly fell to my knees in tears and repeated the preacher’s words, the “sinners prayer,” accepting Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.
It was a powerful, unique experience, much like the first time I fried on a tab of LSD. I felt the love equivalent to the effects of ingesting a tab of ecstasy. I hugged people I didn’t know, felt accepted, felt I had a purpose, that there really was a higher power out there. I soon became a regular, like a drunk at a local bar, babbling about the Ten Commandments, about the twelve apostles, about the book of Revelations and the Antichrist who will be recognized by the number of the beast — 666.
I began to take bible study courses. Actually went to nightclubs and keg parties to tell the stoned and the drunk that Jesus loves them, handing them tracts to read. Most people threw the tracts on the ground. Caught up in the midst of this utopian society, I had forgotten that my girlfriend and I quit having sex. The bible says to not fornicate. I was reminded of my need for sex every day when I woke up with morning wood. I was missing out on the good life. Had to bust out the porn to satisfy the moment since my girlfriend stopped sleeping over.
When I approached the pastor, he told me sex before marriage was indeed fornication, as was stashing porn. It was better to marry than to be in sin, lusting, being cast into the lake of fire, he said. But, as a young man in my sexual prime, full of testosterone, it was a difficult decision to resist the natural temptations when I was around my hot-looking girlfriend. Instead of the very revealing clothes she used to wear, she started wearing baggy clothes, so I wouldn’t lust over her.
Nine months into our sexual abstinence, it was too much for us to handle. The lust of the flesh consumed us. Acting on primal instinct, I rocked her world in the back seat of my VW bug — no time to make it to the local motel. I was just as aggressive and creative as a convict who spent a decade in prison, and just got paroled, like Ben Affleck in the movie, “Reindeer Games.” She performed like a nymphomaniac porn star, having repressed her wildest fantasies for months.
It was the best sexual experience I’ve ever had. We realized that we couldn’t follow the biblical teachings, and were human beings, and so we dropped out. I view that religious experience as a phase in my life.
It was 1997 when I arrived at the maximum security prison in Tehachapi, California, located high above the Southern California mountains. There was no grass, no trees, no flowers, just a concrete jungle, barbed wire and asphalt. There was an aura of misery.
Within the first few weeks, I was assigned a prison job as a janitor in the prison chapel. On my first day, I was interviewed by the prison chaplain, a youthful 40-something Latino man with trimmed mustache, dark brown hair, and trendy Calvin Klein eyeglasses. His name was Pastor Chavez.
“I see here in your file that you have clerical skills. My clerk happens to be leaving next week, transferring to medium security. Tell me, what is your faith?”
Feeling it was a trick question, not knowing what faith he believed, I replied with confidence, “I’m agnostic. Don’t believe in anything.” This seemed like the perfect diplomatic answer.
“You’re hired! I need someone like you. We have several different faiths that utilize the chapel, so you will be perfect! You won’t take sides or show favoritism.”
I started the job immediately. The outgoing clerk, a tall, lanky white guy, with long blond hair, who looked like a stoner, trained me, gave me the scoop.
“Dude, you’re going to see a lot of funny things go on around here. My advice, keep your mouth shut. A lot of convicts are scandalous, using the church for personal benefit. They are opportunistic human beings. Just turn a blind eye. You got it?”
I nodded yes, but did not understand exactly what his cryptic message meant until he transferred.
Suddenly, I was in charge of the prison chapel. Had my own office, desk, computer, institutional phone. Was trusted with outside guests’ personal information (social security, driver’s license numbers). Had to establish a schedule for every faith to give all believers a fair share of chapel time. I became exposed to jailhouse religion, and soon, understood what the outgoing clerk was trying to tell me.
Prison chapels run like churches in free society. The Protestant believers have elders, deacons, and other lower level servants. Elders were like gods, and they had the juice card, could come in and out of the chapel without reason. They sat in on all the meetings with the chaplain, dictated policy, were like high-level managers. Deacons did the elders’ work. They aspired to be elders. Lower-level servants did what the deacons told them to do and aspired to be deacons.
On the surface, it was like organized crime; everybody in the know had to answer to the boss and strived to be somebody, having to earn their bones to rise to the top.
Deacon Bob, an intellectual looking man in his 40s, serving life for killing his wife, was in charge of the prison outreach section. Hundreds of cassette tapes from outside churches were sent to the chaplain to be catalogued and made available to the Christian inmate population. There were six non recording tape players available for check out.
Deacon Donnie was an African American inmate in his 50s, serving life for killing a rival dope dealer in Oakland, and was in charge of prison ministries. He solicited by mail outside churches to donate books, tracts, greeting cards, which could ultimately be distributed to inmates.
Elder John, a tall, very buff, scary looking African American inmate with a bald head, was serving time for killing three men who raped his daughter. He worked on getting outside speakers to come in to preach to inmates. He spent hours on the phone kissing ass to outside pastors and seminar speakers, like a record label public relations executive talking to program directors trying to get a record air play.
These characters ran the programs with an air of professionalism. I’d never speculate that any of them were abusing their authority or still indulged their character flaws. But as time progressed, their true intentions were revealed.
“Brother Bob, I did a count of the cassette tapes that came in this month. The chaplain logged in 200 cassettes. Why does your log say 100 tapes?” I asked with a tone of confusion.
“Uh, sit down, my man. Here’s the deal. The churches send us two sets of everything. The other set, well … we make use of them.”
“What do you mean?”
“Guys on the line, they need the tapes to use as blanks. Some guys have contraband recording devices. They can record off the radio or duplicate CDs or cassettes. I sell them tapes for two bucks apiece.”
“Really? Does the chaplain know about this?”
“Only if you tell him. You don’t want to do that. Think of all the men who count on these tapes. Christian men who record Christian rock off the radio stations. The tapes are still being used for God’s will. There is no harm.”
“Okay, but what do I do about the log?”
“Just turn that number two into a one. Praise the Lord!”
Learning as I went along, I then came across deacon Donnie, who was sorting through thousands of Hallmark cards, donated to us by the Hallmark corporation.
“Donnie, the chaplain logged in 10,000 cards, which he picked up at the prison mail room today. Why does your log say only 5,000 cards arrived?” I asked, with a tone of confusion.
Speaking in the tone of a ghetto hustler, he answered, “My brotha, there’s only 2,500 inmates on this yard. We gonna give each convict who comes to the Christian services this Sunday two free cards. Believe me, every convict is gonna show up this Sunday. Everyone is coming for the free cards. Dope fiends who will sell them for Top Ramen soups or a bar of soap. I keep the extras, the other 5,000, to get my hustle on, know what I’m sayin’?”
“Damn, how do you get rid of so many cards?”
“I sells ‘em four for a dollar. No harm done. Convicts benefit. Cards in the canteen are one dollar apiece. Just spreadin’ the love of Jesus to those can’t afford to pay a dollar a holler. Here, take a stack, get on your hustle, homie. We straight?”
Then there was elder John. While replacing filters in the air conditioning unit, I found three hardcore porn books inside a manila envelop, stashed and hidden in the back of the unit.
“Elder John, there are only two people who have the keys to open this unit — you and the chaplain. The chaplain gave me the keys this morning. What’s up with this?” I asked, with a tone of confusion.
“Dave, I been struggln’ with porn. I got life without parole, will never be intimate with a woman again. I been prayin’ for the Lord to heal me of this addiction.”
“Why don’t you just stash it in your cell somewhere?”
“Cell searches. What would officers think if they found these? I’m the elder of the church. What would my cellmate think? He is an elder, too. Please forgive me. I’ll get rid of them now.”
“Don’t trip. I’ll put them where I found them. Ain’t my business.”
As time progressed, it got wilder. During Protestant services every Sunday morning, I began to notice the chapel inmate bathroom was being used as a private motel room. Guys went into the windowless bathroom to jerk off due to their cell mates who never left the cell. Some guys smoked weed, or slammed. At times, the bathroom smelled like ass and coconut butter lotion. It wasn’t until the chaplain walked unexpectedly into the bathroom and espied a graphic homosexual encounter in progress that he ordered the prison plant manager to install a new bathroom door with a see through window.
The pages of small Gideon bibles were being used as rolling papers to smoke Bugler tobacco. The hardcover of donated bibles were being used as backings for custom made greeting cards, which inmates sold for a dollar a piece. After spending months to organize the chapel to where there was equal time for Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Black Jews, suddenly along came a new faith — the Wiccans.
“Yo, clerk, we needs to get chapel time for OUR faith,” said a lanky young African American inmate with long dreadlocks.
“What is your faith?” I asked.
“Wiccan. We believe in nature. The woman is our Goddess.”
“Okay, no problem, sign this form. I’ll set you up with a couple hours a week in the small back-room. The chaplain will extend your time as your membership grows.”
They only had four members. Soon, a flyer was distributed to the inmate population stating that at the next equinox a woman would be coming as a guest, and would disrobe naked so believers could worship her. Well, in just seven days, the Wiccans had a membership of more than 800 inmates. I had to give them time in the main chapel, scheduling out the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“I can’t believe this,” said the chaplain in a confused tone of voice. “The Wiccans actually put in a request to me to allow this woman on the flyer to come in and disrobe naked. This is a first.”
I looked at the flyer again. The voluptuous woman, who called herself a priestess, had long red hair, a nice rack … I’d be quick to sign up as a member, too, just to get a peek at her. She looked like a porn star. Do you want me to process the paperwork?” I asked the chaplain.
“No, I’m referring this matter to the warden and Legal Affairs in Sacramento.”
The higher-ups denied their request. The Wiccans put up a fight. A public interest law firm from Sacramento filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections on their behalf, on religious grounds. The court held that a disrobed woman in the presence of convicts would disrupt the safety and security of the institution. However, the court ruled that the Wiccans could post a naked photo of their high priestess on the wall to accomplish the worship rituals.
Quickly, when news broke out about the court ruling, membership dropped back to four inmates.
I worked as the chaplain’s clerk for three years until it was my time to transfer to a medium security institution. Despite the selfish and deceptive motives of the many convicts who volunteered time in the chapel, I reasoned that they are human beings. Everyone struggles with personal addictions or the desires to steal or abuse their positions of authority. Who was I to judge other people when I was not sinless myself? Nor others. My staff was not paid by the state of California; they were volunteers who worked long hours for free, to spread the gospel to sinners, to try and turn them into better people. These men have to eat. Prison is about survival.
The prison chapel, like most churches in free society, operate from receiving donations and contributions, and welcomes the dopers, hustlers, prostitutes, offering a new life, a new direction. Even Jesus never turned a blind eye to such rogues. I’ve seen many men’s lives changed for the better by becoming involved in one of the numerous faiths available. Religion can be beneficial.
On my last day at Tehachapi Prison, looking forward to transferring to CMC in San Luis Obispo, I trained the incoming clerk, a hippie looking white guy with long curly hair who resembled Tommy Chong, the legendary comedian. He was also a non believer.
“My friend, you are going to see a lot of funny things going on in here. Just keep an open mind. Cool?”
“Yeh, man, I get it. Here’s a going away present from me to you, man. I bought it from Hustle Man a year ago. It’s a recorded copy of Led Zeppelin IV.”
“Thanks, man. I’ll listen to it when I get to CMC.”
When I arrived at CMC, once I was given my personal property, I placed the dubbed cassette into my Walkman and enjoyed many hits, including “Black Dog” and “Stairway to Heaven,” while I strolled the yard. At the end of side one, as the song faded out, a black preacher’s voice abruptly came on, very loud — the voice of legendary preacher, T.D. Jakes.
“HALLELUJAH! PRAISE THE LORD! Thank you, Jesus! Amen. Turn over to side two for a spoken word on the book of Mathew…”
Turning over to side two, the Led Zeppelin song “Misty Mountain” came on.
Written by anonymous while doing time in California.