I received an e-mail the other day from Jean (not her real name), a parishioner of a church I formerly served. She was frantic because her brother, Larry (not his real name either) was in Harris County Jail. I had met Larry some months ago and he told me then he was awaiting trial on some white-collar crime charge. Well, Larry had his trial and was convicted. He could receive 2-20 years. But for now, he’s sitting in Harris County Jail as he awaits sentencing. Jean asked me to go visit her brother since pastors can get into the jail anytime. Since I’m working on “doing good,” there was nothing else to say but, “I’d be happy to visit Larry.”
Truth be told, I’ve never visited Harris County Jail. I had visited the jail in the county where Jean lives, and even in that small county, visiting the jail as a pastor was a major hassle. Security is, needless to say, very tight. And I’ve yet to run into a friendly jailer. I could only imagine how much ‘fun’ it would be in the huge, 10,000 inmate Harris County Jail.
So the first thing I did was contact Chapelwood’s Bev B., who is a chaplain at the county jail. She gave me the low down. To register as a pastor, I’d have to go through a process that included finger printing and background check, etc. That was fine, but no way to get it done quickly. So I’d have to visit with the general public. Hours are very restricted. The only slot open for me was early Saturday morning. So I got up early today and headed out, prepared for a lot of bureaucratic hassle. I wasn’t disappointed!
First, with I-10 construction this weekend, I had trouble even getting to the jail which is located downtown. I finally found my way there. I had brought some change — Bev and Jean had both warned me — for the parking. But she failed to mention the cost was $5!! To make matters worse, I didn’t have a $5 bill. I had four $1s and a dollar in quarters. But I couldn’t stuff them all in the teeny, tiny, little self-pay hole at the lot. After 10 minutes of trying, I gave up and stuffed in a single $10 bill! I needed to know which building Larry was in, so I asked a uniformed officer I came across where the “Little Baker” building was. He pointed down the street. I headed off in that direction. On this July in Houston day, even at 9:00 a.m., it was nearing 90 degrees.
I went in the building I thought was “Little Baker.” I saw a line. I waited in it. But I noticed everyone in that line held a little yellow slip of paper with the inmate’s name and cell block info on it. I asked one young woman where she got that, “Over there.” She pointed to a long line gathered around a little black book. As I waited in the line, which looped in front of some lockers, a young black man excused himself to get in a locker. I noticed he had stored his cell phone, keys, etc. “Yea man, they don’t let you take ANYTHING back there.” He pointed to a sign that listed all the things you couldn’t bring. And how you couldn’t be dressed and what you had to cover up with what you were wearing. So after he removed his stuff, I put in mine. Another quarter to get the key. As I approached the little black book, I noticed a sign that said, “Bring your own pen.” I had just locked mine up. So back to the locker, got the pen, another quarter!
Finally armed with Larry’s cell block and jail ID number, I waited in the first line again. When I got up to the officer in charge, he asked for my driver’s license. He entered some numbers into his computer and said, “He’s over in the building across the street.” Oops. Wrong line, wrong building. So across the street I went. By now, it’s over 90 degrees.
This was a smaller building, but I learned later it holds 1,100 inmates. After first not seeing the line to check-in with the officer, and getting a stern look and hand gesture pointing to the line, I finally got checked in. I was ushered to the waiting room, which had about 15 visitation stations, thick glass, with some kind of muffled speaker. The room was filled to capacity. One little 6-year old boy next to me was smiling. I wondered, “Are you here to see your dad?” Poor kid. He kept smiling. I wasn’t sure the “protocol” for visiting with visitors. Is it OK to ask, “Who you got in here?” The lady next to me volunteered the info, I think, when she asked me, “Are you here to see your son, too?” “No,” I replied, “a friend.” I didn’t want to get into all the details — “the brother of a former parishioner who I’ve met only once…” After waiting about 15 minutes, they finally brought the inmates in. They were all wearing sandals and impossible-to-miss bright orange jump suits.
Larry recognized me and sat down and we began to visit. He thanked me for coming. I noticed he had a Gideon New Testament in his pocket. I asked him how he was holding up, what his trial dates were, what his days were like, etc. It was VERY hard to talk and to hear with all the noise in the room and the little muffled speaker thing. But we made it. After about 15 minutes, they called all the inmates out and my visit was over.
While I was feeling good about my “doing good” (which, I know, missed the point entirely), Larry told me that a group of pastors comes in every Tuesday to conduct a Bible study. Every Tuesday. And every Thursday, another groups leads a worship service. And those pastors aren’t even doing a 3 simple rules experiment! I have a long way to go…