· Vatican City ·

A holy button-pusher

Detainees walk in a hallway at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., on June 21, 2017.
23 December 2022

I met Marcus Hepburn on a Christ Renews His Parish (crhp) weekend at Good Shepherd Parish in Tallahassee, Florida more than 30 years ago — way back in the late 1980s when the crhp weekend team numbers at Good Shepherd were still in single digits. He and his spiritually gifted wife, Toni, had recently lost their beautiful daughter to illness. Their instinctive response was to channel the ferocious energy of their grief into outreach to others who were suffering.

In 1991, I begin ministering as a prayer partner to men in prison at Apalachee Correctional Institution ( aci ) in Sneads, just 50 miles west of Tallahassee. Within a short time, it seems quite natural to invite Marcus to join me in the aci prison chapel on Saturday mornings. Marcus is willing to give it a shot.

And, in his gentle but always gregarious manner, he suggests we invite another man to join us. The target of our persuasion is Michael Savage, an alumnus of the crhp program at neighboring Blessed Sacrament Parish. The seeding team for Blessed Sacrament’s crhp program was fielded by Good Shepherd. That is how we met Mike.

Within a very short time, Marcus and Mike both join me for Saturdays of ministry at aci . Every week we show up together with cases of day-old doughnuts from the Good News soup kitchen. While I handle 30-minute appointments one-on-one as a prayer partner in a separate room, Marcus and Mike are running Bible studies and discipleship classes in the chapel kitchen area.

Fifteen years later, in the summer of 2008, Mike and now-ordained Deacon Marcus join me for cell-to-cell rounds on death row and in solitary confinement one day per month. They make the early-morning two-hour drive from Good Shepherd of Tallahassee in time to meet me at St. Mary’s of Macclenny at 7 am. For Deacon Marcus, it is a shock to find out they must leave Tallahassee before Starbucks opens — gas station coffee en route will have to do.

But there is an even bigger surprise waiting for Deacon Marcus in the confinement wings at Florida State Prison. As he dutifully covers the 33 cells on the mezzanine level of a solitary confinement wing, Mike and I become aware of the rising din of angry inmate voices reaching up through the open atrium to our third-floor level. By the time we return downstairs to the officers’ quarterdeck, the noise is impressive.

“Marcus, what did you do?” I ask plaintively. “Why is everyone so upset?”

“I have no idea.” Deacon Marcus is the picture of innocence. “I just offered them reading material and offered to pray with them. But they all kept yelling some word at me. I think it begins with an f.”

By the time I can finally stop laughing long enough to speak, the officers are laughing as hard as Mike and me.

“Marcus, they’re saying, ‘Flush.’ In solitary confinement, they are not able to flush the toilets in their cells. The flush button is on the outside of the cell in the wall next to their door. They are screaming, ‘Flush.’”

A lesser man might make excuses or just leave the wing. Not Deacon Marcus. He stretches upright to full stature, right hand pointed in the air, saying, “And flush we will.” He returns to every cell, apologizing through the solid steel door to every single man, one at a time. And, with Fred Astaire-quality panache, he smilingly flushes all 33 toilets, one at a time. The inmates in the cells erupt with applause.

It is no wonder that the men he encountered in those cells over all his visits embraced his infectious enthusiasm and heartfelt love. It was devastating for me to inform so many hundreds of men that Deacon Marcus went home to the Lord on June 8, 2010. One inmate’s sentiments spoke for us all. “Man, why does God take the good ones!”

Deacon Marcus, you leave us a legacy of joyful service that will always inspire and challenge those who step inside a prison fence. What a powerful note to recall at this Christmas Season.

Prison can be a very hard place to celebrate Christmas. I learn that the first time I spend Christmas Eve ministering in a Florida prison.

It is Christmas Eve morning 2006. I have accepted from the prison chaplain a list of inmate appointments for pastoral counseling. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

I process through the guard station at aci West and collect my chapel keys.

Spirals of razor wire are heaped two-stories high on the three rows of electrified fence. The silver-gray teeth glisten like tinsel in the crisp morning air. A dozen inmates peer at me from the other side. They are huddling at the gate that separates the chapel from the prison compound.

“Merry Christmas,” smiles the officer. My stomach tenses into a knot.

She hits the button that releases huge electric locks on the steel access doors. A loud bang echoes through the sally port. I step inside the prison. The knot in my belly tightens even more.

The inmates at the gate beat their arms, warming themselves against the December chill. Small clouds of breath hang in front of their blue fatigues.

Why does this picture jar me? The specifics are no different than usual. It should be just another day for me as a volunteer spiritual counselor at Florida’s Apalachee Correctional Institution.

But this is not just another day. It is Christmas Eve. My first Christmas Eve behind the bars.

In that moment, I am amazed that I have never wondered what Christmas is like in our U.S. prisons and jails.

Chapel appointments with volunteers are by “call-out,” written requests processed through administration. We open the chapel. A clerk hands me the day’s roster — 19 call-outs. A normal morning is five.

I phone my wife, “I’ll be here until 6:00.”

I am wrong. We won’t close the chapel until 9:30 Christmas Eve night.

But there’s no way I could know that. It’s my first time in prison on the morning before Christmas.

I dig in with coffee and my first inmate appointment at 8:30 a.m. We pray and I ask, “What’s on your heart this morning?”

“Give me a reason to not go for the wall,” he whispers.

We both know the term is prison slang for feigning an escape attempt in front of the guards, in the hope they will have to kill you.

Men are said to have done such things when they received a “dear john” letter from their wife or learned of the death of a child. Is Christmas here that painful?

We talk, we cry, we pray. Man after man, blue shirt after blue shirt. Murderers. Rapists. Molesters. No one to call at Christmas. No one to write. No one to see. Their families too far away to visit. Their children severed and adopted by other men.

About 5 o’clock I tell the clerks we need more “prison Kleenex.” The rolls of toilet paper we unwrapped that morning are all down to the cardboard.

My last call-out, an intelligent and verbal man, has met regularly with me all year.

“I’m not saying I shouldn’t be here,” tears tug at his eyes, “I did terrible things and don’t even know why. I can understand why society wants me behind this fence. I’ll be here the rest of my life. But I’m a human being. I still need friends and relationships with normal people. I’m a baptized, practicing Christian. Christmas is our day. Where are the Christians?”

My lame response about people confusing compassion toward wrongdoers with approval of their bad behavior only angers him.

“Jesus said that when His followers visit an inmate, they visit Him!” he grips the tissue roll with both hands. “Jesus didn’t say the inmate had to be innocent. Why isn’t anybody visiting Jesus at Christmas?”

Looking away, I stammer, “I don’t know.”

Soon, it’s time for us to end.

“What do you want to pray for?” I ask.

He leans back in his chair, as if he is talking through the ceiling to the heaven above, “What do I want God to give me for Christmas?”

“Sure,” I reply.

“That every Christmas all the prisons in Florida will be busting at the seams from all the Christians trying to get in to visit Jesus.”

“Brother,” I caution, “that prayer could take a long time to answer.”

He shrugs, “I’ll be here.”

By Dale S. Recinella