[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”1626982848″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/41bEkqiECgL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]Bearing Witness Within The
Ineffective Prison System
A Review of
Refuge in Hell:
Finding God in Sing Sing
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2018.
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Reviewed by Mary VanderGoot
Ronald Lemmert was a Catholic chaplain at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York for sixteen years. Refuge in Hell is his memoir. It is the story of why he chose to be a prison chaplain, why he stayed as long as he did, and why he left abruptly.
Prisons are grim places. The environment is rigid and unforgiving, but it is also unpredictable and dangerous. By reputation Sing Sing is among the worst. The first time Father Lemmert celebrated mass only twelve men from a population of 2000 attended. The chapel was “dirty and dingy….paint of the chapel walls was peeling….a large asbestos ceiling tile had become unglued and was hanging down.” (30) Lemmert determined to revitalize the chapel space and make it a place of refuge and calm.
With the help of loyal parishioners Lemmert created dramatic events for the liturgical year, and he recruited workers to refurbish the chapel. His homilies mirrored the spiritual dramas playing out in the lives of the men at Sing Sing, and chapel attendance grew. It also attracted those who used services to transact business deals in the back rows, and Lemmert discovered that some assistants were receiving stolen supplies at the chapel and reselling them on the units. Lemmert had to be tough to defend his turf.
Recollections of Father Lemmert’s time at Sing Sing offer a candid look into prison life. Personal accounts reveal that restoration and brotherhood are possible even in a setting where dark forces are ever present. That is three quarters of the book. The other quarter is an account of Lemmert’s discouragement. Soon after his assignment to Sing Sing he met with one of the old chaplains he admiringly describes as “revered by his men, feared by the guards, and hated by the administration.” The members of the Executive Team (the warden and staff) are not his friends, this old priest warned Lemmert. “They work for an evil empire that is devoted to destroying the lives of the people we are trying to save.” (27) This senior chaplain was Lemmert’s role model.
Frequently Lemmert worked behind the backs of the Executive Team. Instead of asking for approval when he thought there was a possibility it would be denied, he went ahead without permission and let the chips fall where they may. In his account Lemmert rages against corrections officers whom he describes as poorly trained, poorly supervised agents of persecution. He recounts how drugs, pornography, and contraband are brought in by staff. With only a few exceptions he considers the staff to be his enemy. The faithful attending the chapel he refers to as his family or his flock.
The American system of incarceration imprisons too many, for too long, and at considerable public expense. Almost no one thinks otherwise. Because he has been on the inside watching the system work, Lemmert can give specific examples of a mercilessness parole process, incompetent medical care, and inadequate nutritional programs run by outside contractors. He goes on, however, and asserts that the ineffectiveness of the prison system is intentional.
The prison system is a “goose that lays the golden egg,” according to Lemmert. “It is the only business in the world that makes money by turning out a bad product.” A few paragraphs later Lemmert writes: “All levels of management are making too many millions of taxpayers’ dollars to risk a reduction in clientele, which is why…they deliberately go out of their way to make sure that most of the prisoners they release will come back to prison.” (163-164)
In the last chapter of his memoir Lemmert admits the “toll” his work took on him. Contrary to the clear regulations for staff and volunteers, Lemmert created a personal network of mail correspondence with prisoners in other facilities. He used false names and false return addresses so that he could evade the prison system’s checks on mail. He also gave money to prisoners and their families. These may sound insignificant to someone unfamiliar with the prison system, but they are major violations. The Commissioner of Corrections accused Lemmert of having “inappropriate relationships,” and before Lemmert could be fired he retired.
It is not the intent here to judge the value of Father Lemmert’s ministry at Sing Sing or to judge his personal motives for breaking rules. His story is an example of challenges facing staff or volunteers in correctional facilities. There is a constant flow of people going in and out of prisons to participate in religious services, teach in educational programs, provide health and counseling services, and serve many other functions. They face the same challenges Father Lemmert did.
Prisons are frustrating places. Getting approval for programs requires navigating layers of permission. Prisoners’ are limited by endless regulations that make work with them complicated. Those of us who go in and out of prisons know that when we hear the heavy clunk of the iron gate closing behind us, we are agreeing to suspend much of what we consider only common sense.
Common sense and conscience are two different things. Working in a prison is a test of integrity. Compromises are tempting. Can we remain trustworthy in our dealings with both those who are incarcerated and those who are employed there? What do we jeopardize when we compromise trust? Can we serve without taking sides? We bring a disservice if we add to the chaos and amplifying the resentments, rivalries, and danger that already exist in the tensions of prisoner against prisoner, staff with other staff, and prisoners and staff in conflict with each other. What is the measure of our own integrity? This is the question Ronald Lemmert’s story puts in front of us. Or perhaps there is a better way to pose it. Jesus commends those who visit prisoners and reprimands those who neglect them. What would Jesus do?
Mary VanderGoot is a Professor of Psychology and a Therapist who also teaches in a college program in a prison. She is the author of [easyazon_link identifier=”B008H3WIAC” locale=”US” tag=”douloschristo-20″]After Freedom: How Boomers Pursued Freedom, Questioned Virtue, and Still Search for Meaning [/easyazon_link](Cascade Books, 2012).