The Christmas morning entourage had to practically shuffle sideways through the dingy corridor of Men’s Central Jail, module 1750. Built in the early 1960s and expanded in the ‘70s, the green-barred single cells lining one side and reserved for high security inmates are the oldest in MCJ.
Deacon Paulino Juarez, Archbishop José Gomez, Priest Secretary Father Brian Castaneda, Senior Chaplain Patty Bartlett, Chaplain Father George Horan plus Captain Joseph Dempsey and other members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department made their way cell by cell.
The archbishop stopped to shake hands and wish each inmate a “Merry Christmas.” He gave each a candy cane along with a copy of Jesuit Father Mike Kennedy’s booklet “Wisdom from the Cells.”
The young men, some shirtless and adorned with tattoos, stood just inside the green bars. They often returned the archbishop’s greeting with a smile and “Feliz Navidad.”
Meanwhile, Captain Joseph Dempsey, who runs Men’s Central, one of the largest jails in the world, was telling another visitor how these were “high power” inmates who had to be kept away from other inmates. “So they’re housed in one-man cells,” he said. “And they’re handcuffed wherever they go. So it could be they’re prison gang members. Or they could be a celebrity. There are various reasons for them to be kept away. It’s for their protection or the protection of other inmates.”
Earlier that day, the archbishop celebrated Mass for some 400 other inmates in the jail’s white-walled chapel. Filling the pews on one side were “trustees,” well-behaved inmates dressed in loose lime-green jumpsuits; men in similar dark blue garb from the “general population” sat on the opposite side.
A choir from St. Agatha Church, which comes to the jail every weekend, warmed up those gathered with hearty renditions of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” The nine singing members of the choir formed a line in front of the raised altar.
Deputy sheriffs, in their tan-and-green uniforms, stood erect along a wall, with others up in choir loft. Their eyes seemed locked on the inmates. Occasionally, there was a crackle from a two-way radio.
The liturgy started a little after 9 a.m. with a trustee leading the procession holding a wood pole topped with a cross. Three deputies held up the rear. Inmates got up to do some of the readings.
During his bilingual homily, Archbishop Gomez pointed out that Christmas is a special, happy day. “So, why is that?” he asked. “First, because Jesus is here, and Jesus brings joy to the world. It’s not just a movie or some story that somebody was saying. It’s true. And the second thing that makes today very special is because Jesus is really the son of God.
“And one more thing why we should be happy. He came because he loves each one of us. So he came to give his life for each one of us. That’s our gift here today, and people are happy everywhere because we celebrate the birth of Jesus. We need some light. Without light, we cannot go anywhere. And Jesus is the light for the world.” The archbishop pointed out that it was important to get to know Jesus. As the angel told the shepherds not to be afraid, people today should not be shy in seeking God.
“It’s important to know that Jesus came to earth because he really knows each one of us,” he stressed. “And he cares about us. And he loves us. And he wants each one of us to be happy. He’s not some God way out there. Jesus knows you and he knows me. He knows everything about us, and he gave his life for you and me.
“It’s beautiful when you think about it — the love that God has for each one of us, to come to earth and be with us and to suffer and die for us just because he loves each one of us,” he added. “That’s why today is a happy day. God loves us.”
Members of the Catholic pastoral team who minister to the inmates agreed that Archbishop Gomez made it a happy day for those they serve.
“Jesus came for the people who were lost,” said Deacon Juarez, who has been a presence at Men’s Central for 16 1/2 years, and currently serves as chaplain. “And people are here for different reasons but God is close to them. And they need to feel that — God’s presence. So this is a wonderful sign, the archbishop coming here. You know, the church is special everywhere and, especially, in these places.”
Another chaplain said it boiled down to a few words. “I think it just lets the men know that they are cared for, that they’re important,” Father George Horan noted. “The fact that the archbishop would be here on Christmas lets them know that there are people who appreciate who they really are and want to try to make it a little bit better, a little bit happier for them on this day. Because they can’t be with their families.”
Senior Chaplain Patty Bartlett said a few inmates had told her they passed up having regular visitors on Christmas to be at the archbishop’s Mass. But just as important was his personal visit to the tiny green-barred cells.
“I was really happy we went to those rows with high power prisoners and celebrated with them,” she said. “Cause there’s been a lot of sadness there all week.”