“I was in prison, and you visited me,”
For more than ten years, I served as the fulltime chaplain at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, a maximum-security provincial prison on Wilkinson Road in Victoria. In my time with BC Corrections, we struggled to support and care for incarcerated men while contending with the effects of the Opioid-Fentanyl epidemic, the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, a dearth of mental health resources, and a drastic increase in gang activity and violence in BC. All this, plus the everyday strains, traumas, crises and stresses that inmates and staff must navigate to stay safe and healthy while “doing time.”
In early February, the editor of The HighWay asked me if I would be willing to write an article, or perhaps even a series, on my experiences as a prison chaplain. Without hesitation, I said “Yes!” But in the weeks that followed, as I tried to craft something worth reading, I found myself mostly staring blankly into the computer screen. Where do I even start? What to share? What to leave out? How do I tell these stories?
Have you ever had an experience so profound, so life-changing, and yet so emotionally complicated that you struggled to find words to disentangle the Gordian knot of thoughts, emotions, wisdom, and grief that surrounded it? It can take a lifetime to plumb the layers of meaning in our powerful, personal experiences. Spending significant time in a prison is like that, whether you’re an inmate, a correctional officer, or one of the few helping professionals who work to support everyone. Like hospitals and military bases, here we are confronted by the human condition in all its complexity: our dignity, our frailty, our heroics, and our failings, where life and death decisions are everywhere on display.
Often, I would remind the prison staff, “We keep human beings in cages against their will. We should never think this is normal.” It’s why we have chaplains in these places: when navigating hazardous spiritual climbs, it’s best one has a guide, or at least, a companion on the journey.
In time, I became very close to staff and inmates, and they frequently ministered to me. I first met “Joe” (not his real name) in his segregation cell shortly after he arrived at the prison to serve a lengthy sentence for violent crimes and drug charges. He was angry, and difficult to manage in custody, hence was confined to his cell for up to twenty hours a day.
Joe was French Canadian and dreamed of returning to Quebec to become a pop star. In our many hours visiting, he would talk about God, scripture, his life and childhood, and his endless struggles. He would sing to me his newest pop songs (in French!) and practice his latest dance moves before an audience of one.
About a year after I met Joe, I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that required me to take several months of medical leave from the jail for treatment and recovery. During that time, Joe would write to me at home, sometimes multiple letters a week.
Alone in his cell for so many hours, he would describe to me what he ate that day, how many push-ups he did, the number of cinder blocks in a cell wall, or the latest scripture he was pondering. Above all, Joe would write, “Jesus loves you, Chaplain Kevin. Keep fighting. Be brave. It’s going to be okay. Your family needs you. We need you back here.”
When I returned from my medical leave, Joe was the first person I went to visit. As fate would have it, he was being released the next day. We laughed together as I thanked him for all his letters and he told me of his plans: a bed in a treatment program, re-connecting with his adult daughter, and of course, future French Canadian pop stardom! We hugged, full of hope and joy, and said our goodbyes.
The next morning, Joe was released at about 8:00 a.m. The police arrived at the prison about noon, to tell us that Joe had been found in a nearby park, under a tree, dead from an accidental overdose. Shocking.
Whatever misdeeds Joe might have done throughout his life, I believe he earned his sainthood, and his eternal rest, in those last few
months as he ministered to me, so generously and lovingly, in Christ’s name, and perhaps, in Christ’s guise. “When was it we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” the righteous asked (Mt. 25:39).
We are complicated creatures. The same journey that lifts us higher than we could imagine can also be the one that wounds us, deeply and permanently. But we are also resilient. The great Biblical themes bear this out: exile and return, slavery and freedom, death and resurrection – these are our stories. It is a joyous thing to be alive. If “St. Joe of Segregation” could bear witness and minister so powerfully from his small cell, imagine what we can accomplish, with Christ’s help, in the places we live, and move, and have our being? Be brave. Don’t give up. The world needs you.