Last August, I visited the A-yard and C-yard chapels in New Folsom State Prison in California for the first time in over ten years. My history as a volunteer at the men’s maximum-security prison dates back to August of 2004, when I started a one-year commitment as a full-time volunteer Catholic chaplain with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Over the last ten years, there have been significant changes to New Folsom including the building of a large medical facility on the B-yard. Still, much has remained the same. The powdery dirt, yellow grass, and cement that cover the recreation yards look the same. So do the cold, gray, cinder block chapels. Further, a tremendous amount of pain, violence, and suffering continue to permeate the prison grounds. After all, prisons in the United States are dark places that largely follow a model of retribution instead of rehabilitation.
Nevertheless, what struck me most was not the visual and structural differences and similarities. What struck me most was the similar feeling that returned to my heart when I walked through the sally port and past the deadly electric fences. It was the same feeling that I felt as a twenty-two-year-old young man when I attempted to make sense of a place where extreme rage, destruction, and death somehow co-existed with profound love, healing, and new life. I again felt the presence of Christ in a way that I do not experience anywhere else. When I pause and listen closely, this presence subtly and boldly proclaims themes familiar to followers of Jesus: life over death, trust over fear, love over hatred, hope over despair, non-violence over violence.
One thing that has become more and more clear in my heart and mind since I entered New Folsom fifteen years ago is that my deepest encounters with Christ have all been when I was in the company of persons who are oppressed and marginalized by society. Thus, I believe the presence I feel at New Folsom also boldly proclaims that in order for me to experience Christ in such an authentic manner, I need to continue to make choices and changes in my life that allow for new relationships and kinship with those who are most vulnerable. I suspect this is true for many other followers of Jesus too. So, as the new calendar year begins, my resolution is to stretch myself beyond my comfort zone and to challenge myself to love fiercely in new ways. I do not know what this will look like outside of New Folsom, but I’m excited (and scared) to find out! My wish for you is that you too stretch in ways that the Holy Spirit invites you.
Written by Greg Mellor. Greg is Catholic Chaplain at New Folsom State Prison in California.