O, Man of Islam

by Tom Wolpert on December 19, 2018

Recently, I was visiting my friend and Christian brother, Darryl, in Mahanoy State Correction Institute (SCI) outside Frackville, PA. Darryl is serving a life sentence, and has been at Mahanoy about four years. Although Mahanoy is a medium security institution, it is a newer facility and a preferred place to Huntington SCI, where he spent 26 years. Darryl is African-American, close to 60 years old, of medium height, has snow white hair and has gained a little weight since his younger days, when he was slender. Huntington began receiving inmates in 1889. Mahanoy SCI opened in 1993; has about 1000 inmate beds spread among 11 housing units across 67 acres; there are over 580 full-time employees. Consistent with a medium-security facility, it has a fairly modern look, and a great deal of chain link fencing and a great deal of spiraling concertina-style barbed wire, protecting the chain link fencing.

Frackville is in Schuylkill County, north of Pottsville, definitely Pennsylvania coal country at one time. Frackville is surrounded by many prisons; SCI’s are a major employer and component of the local economy. Frackville’s residents are primarily Polish, Italian, German, Lithuanian and Ukrainian. Because of its proximity to local hill or mountain ranges, Frackville captures some unusual weather patterns, cold, windy and quickly changing. When I drove up for my visit the night before, it was clear weather throughout most of the trip north from West Chester, but light snow was falling as I neared Frackville, putting a thin slick coat of white on the ground and visitors’ parking lot the next morning.

The half-sheet of paper that I was issued as part of the visitor’s process indicated my name and age, 67 years. The visiting room is large, dotted all through the ceiling with dark glass bubbles for camera positions, with seats at tables and rows of plastic seats, capable of housing perhaps 100 people. There was a guard position with a desk surrounded by half-walls where I handed over my paperwork. There was a row of vending machines absolutely empty, because the Department of Corrections had suspended the use of vending machines in Mahanoy’s visiting room (perhaps throughout other Pennsylvania’s SCI’s?), believing them to create too many opportunities for drug transfers and transactions, etc. between visitors and inmates. I found that annoying throughout my two and a half hour visit with Darryl; I have a throat condition which makes swallowing difficult, and I always want to have some liquid available in a bottle to clear my throat regularly. Otherwise, I start to cough. There was a water fountain, but to use it, I had to interrupt my conversation to get up and go to it.

Darryl and I had confirmed my visit in a telephone conversation about a week earlier, so he knew I was coming and was waiting for me when I entered the visiting room, which was lightly occupied when I entered at about 10:30 am. on a Friday morning. We sat down and began talking, Darryl talking more than I. We were not there long when a group of Muslim visitors entered, two men and a woman. They met their orange-dressed inmate resident and sat down near us. Orange-dressed Darryl was to my right, and the Muslim group had passed in front of us to sit at one of the tables to my left. One of the men was dressed in all white; I believe which is called a white ihram, consisting of a izaar, the lower garment, and a rida’ – the upper garment.

I daresay the Islamic group who were visiting were observant of Islamic customs. I also daresay that I could feel their eyes on me, observing. A visiting room in a state correctional prison is a naked sort of place – between people’s ages, races, clothing, grouping, etc., everyone reads everyone else quickly. It is a combination of curiosity – who is visiting whom – and natural self-protective habit – the place is a prison, and you want to know who is around you and whether or not anyone might constitute a threat or a problem. There are always eyes in a prison visiting room.

It was evident that Darryl and I were good friends, that we had known each other a long time. One of the Muslim men was seated directly across from me, so Darryl and I were front and center in his field of vision. I could sense the questions arising in this man of Islam, visiting a prisoner as I was. He probably surmised quickly and correctly that the reason an older white man, visiting an older African-American inmate, a man who did not have tattoos, who had teeth cared for by dentists, with neatly trimmed hair, who was dressed comfortably without the need to demonstrate a street-tough clothing style or footwear, who had a certain composed facial expression, was a Christian religious volunteer. Religious volunteers are not hard to ‘make’ (discern) in a prison visiting room. We have a certain look. He probably guessed I was college-educated. These are all things you read on a face, in a style of dress, in body language anywhere, but especially in an SCI visiting room.

As he observed Darryl telling me his tales of woe and irony, of effort and plan, of frustration and waiting, and saw me laughing with my friend over what was funny, and sympathizing over what was not, this man of Islam might have been curious, may have had some questions. Islamic men are serious about their religion, and he probably sensed that underneath our friendship, Darryl and I were serious about ours.

And so, without further introduction, I write to respectfully and seriously answer the questions I believe that man of Islam might have asked, if his curiosity could have been satisfied by a type of telepathic communication. In a prison setting, people want to know who is friends with whom; but they also may want to know how and why.

I became a Christian in 1980. I was a teenage runaway to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967 and became involved with the drug culture. By the time I was in my late 20’s, my life was a shambles and I was searching. I went to Villanova University in the evening to get my undergraduate degree, and Villanova compelled me to secure a minimum number of religious credits to graduate. They had a program where I could just do the reading for various classes, and then take the final exams for my necessary religious credits. Through that assigned reading, I read, among other things, the writing of a Catholic scholar, Joseph Lortz, on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

I began to understand some basic elements of Christianity, including Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. I began acquiring a religious vocabulary, an intellectual structure capable of absorbing spiritual ideas. My understanding was greatly assisted through this reading; as a result, I picked up an book not assigned, edited by John Dillenberger, called Martin Luther, Selections from his Writings. Dillenberger’s introduction was itself inspired. I read selections of Martin Luther’s writing; it was as if an adult had finally entered the room. It was about God’s work and God’s gifts, not ours. We were justified before God, if at all, by faith. Self-help was both hopeless, and helpless. By the age of 29, that was exactly my experience, but Martin Luther was the first person to say so plainly. His book Bondage of the Will was something truly new to me. Luther at some point advocated that we should read the Bible, and the New Testament, as if it were a letter written to us recently, sent just last week.

I had an edition of the Jerusalem Bible, a modern translation. I began reading the Gospel of John. When I got to the second repeated statement of Jesus’ – “I am the bread of life” (John 6:48), it was no longer Jesus speaking 2000 years ago. God was speaking to me, then and there, in my apartment in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, presently. It was and remains a revelation to me, a revelation of God Himself, not available by human reasoning or logic, one that I have never gotten over or past. The intervention of God in my life began there – and once God intervenes and communicates, that bell is never unrung. I became a believer and a Christian at that moment. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gradually acting, my life began the long, slow process of turning around.

Although Darryl’s parents were Christians, Darryl became a Christian in Holmesburg Prison, around the end of 1986. By that time he was hopelessly enslaved to drugs, addicted to cocaine and other intoxicants in their various forms, including crack. He was like a ghost, living in a man’s body. He was incarcerated for a sexual assault on a young woman named June, a neighbor. He was released on modest bail a short time after. June returned to the neighborhood (she disregarded the advice of the Philadelphia police to remove herself to another living location, at least in part because she wanted to be with her grandmother). Darryl confronted her one morning (he had been up all night brooding, she had been on her way to work) to argue about the upcoming criminal proceedings. He used his .22 caliber handgun (drug dealers are invariably armed) to shoot her when the discussion became a screaming match, with Darryl doing the screaming. The shooting resulted in head wounds for June.

In a sense, it also resulted in a head wound for Darryl, when he barricaded himself into a nearby building for hours, and ended the standoff with the Philadelphia police by shooting himself in the head. Neither Darryl nor June died from the gunshot wounds Darryl inflicted. As a gunman, he was inept. But as a result of her gunshot wounds, June was given medications in the hospital to control potential seizures, because she had been shot in the head. Darryl was taken to a different hospital.

Within weeks, these medications caused June’s liver to fail, a rare but not unknown side effect, particularly with African-Americans. (Darryl had the same medications administered, with no ill effect). After June was discharged from the hospital, and had returned to work, her liver experienced fulminant hepatic failure. She returned to the hospital in within a short time, but died. When she passed, new charges were lodged against Darryl – not only for first degree homicide, but because June was going to be a witness against Darryl in the sexual assault prosecution – capital homicide, since homicide against a witness in a criminal proceeding is itself an aggravating factor justifying the death penalty under Pennsylvania law.

In order to avoid the imposition of the death penalty, ultimately Darryl entered a guilty plea (the actual plea was entered about two years after the events) and received a sentence of life without parole. After June had passed, when Darryl was made aware of it, while in Holmesburg prison, he heard the words which pertained to John the Baptist – “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Darryl found himself to be such a voice, crying in the wilderness (he understood the verse as ‘crying’ as in crying tears, not crying as in crying out), and became a believing Christian in prison.

I began volunteering for prison ministry in 1986, which began with correspondence with a Texas inmate arranged through Prison Fellowship, started by Chuck Colson of Watergate infamy. I was not a lawyer at that time; my mid-life entry into law school would not come for another four years, for different reasons altogether. I met Darryl in Holmesburg prison in 1987, through a smaller, local inner-city ministry under the direction of Bishop William Kinning, called Overcoming Church of Deliverance, which had contacts with Prison Fellowship. When I first entered Holmesburg Prison and was standing by myself in the gymnasium where inmate services were held (I came with a fairly large group of volunteers), Darryl came over to talk to me. That was where our friendship began. For the next two and 1/2  years or so, as I visited Holmesburg on Thursday evenings to participate in the religious services in the prison gymnasium sponsored by Overcoming Church of Deliverance and its various volunteers and visitors, Darryl was there.

About once a month, on Friday evenings, I also went into the mobile home-style manufactured housing units of Philadelphia’s House of Correction, sometimes with one or two other Prison Fellowship volunteers. The modules of the House of Correction were spread across the acreage behind the main administration building, and we took vans to visit women prisoners in their maximum security modules.  We would meet with small groups around a conference table, often in the ‘library’ area of the module.  Like Darryl, some of them were there because they were ‘on the pipe, 24/7’ on the outside.  Several mentioned they were given tranquilizers or other meds to calm them every morning – I got the impression that more or less tranquilizing the entire female inmate population was fairly standard procedure within the House of Correction.  One evening, one of the women mentioned she liked seeing me come in because of the way I dressed.  Puzzled, I asked what she meant, and she explained that I wore business casual clothes (at the time, I was working as a Technical Editor for Unisys Corporation in Trevose, PA); she had held a job at an office workplace, where the men wore business casual clothes, and it represented to her a stable place, a stable income, a stable world.  Occasionally the women were flirtatious.  Some talked about their romantic involvements in prison.  Several times we had discussions about the differences between what we were presenting, and what visiting Jehovah’s Witness religious volunteers were presenting.  Some talked about abuse they experienced from their domestic partners.  One of them sang, acapella, several stanzas of the spiritual ‘God’s Gonna Trouble the Waters’ in a memorable, slow, haunting fashion, her voice bouncing off the low drop ceiling and books in the shelves surrounding us.  Some were being housed in a kind of conceptual isolation/restricted housing (RHU assignment for disciplinary reasons, or because of their mental stability) within the module; and were not allowed to join us, although we could see them through a glass partition wall.  The women did not seem to have stays as long in the House of Correction as the men did at Holmesburg; they were moved through the court system and up to Muncy, Pennsylvania’s SCI for women, expeditiously.

At Holmsesburg, Darryl became the assistant inmate pastor, and I think finally the senior inmate pastor. Ultimately Darryl entered his guilty plea with respect to the charges pending against him, and around 1990 or so was transferred from Holmesburg Prison, under the jurisdiction of the City of Philadelphia, to SCI Graterford, under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where he spent a year or two.  Since I later handled an appeal for him under Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act, I read, years after the fact, his gulty plea colloquy, which was handled in a businesslike fashion by the judge presiding over the court’s acceptance of his guilty plea.  When Darryl’s father came to visit him in Holmesburg, his father saw him and cried.

I lost touch with Darryl for some time. I continued my in-prison ministry up until the summer of 1990. By that time, my third child, my daughter Elise, had been born (in September, 1989), so my wife Erma and I had three children, all small. Our fourth child was born as I was graduating from law school in 1993. In 1990, being out of the house for one or two nights a week for prison ministry activities was burdensome. That summer, there were a series of prison riots throughout Pennsylvania (although I do not think there were any at Holmesburg). But Holmesburg and the SCI’s suspendedvisitor activities at that time. The combination of the acts of prison authorities, and my personal and family life, ended my in-prison ministry for many years.

Darryl was sent to Huntingdon Prison, and wrote me a letter, and we began a correspondence that has continued from that time (probably around 1992 or so) to the present. We shared a great deal in our letters. About four years ago, Darryl managed to obtain a transfer from Huntingdon, a place he hated (noisy, cold, dirty, drafty, miserable), to SCI Mahanoy. By this time, my children were grown, and my practice was established. I resumed the practice of visiting Darryl in person, once or twice a year, along with continuing our correspondence, which became quite extensive at times. So our friendship dates back to 1987, over 30 years.

Darryl is not a complainer, but prison life is difficult at best, and depressing and overwhelming at worst. Over the course of 30 years, Darryl has had issues with or complained about any number of people and circumstances. These include his housing conditions, his cellmates (until he got a private cell), prison healthcare (many concerns and complaints), the food, disciplinary proceedings, other prisoners, other Christians, the conduct of correctional officers, and the general atmosphere and circumstances of negativity, paranoia, despair, frustration, anger, deception, unfairness, bureaucratic obstructionism, hopelessness, hatred, loneliness, regret, remorse and personal pain which characterize prison life, under conditions of long term incarceration.

But one group he has almost never criticized or found fault with is Muslims within the prison system, where they are numerous. The only criticism I ever recall from Darryl, about Muslims, was really a kind of ironic criticism. He called attention those inmates who were doing all manner of mischief and evil on the outside, committing all sorts of crimes and felonies on the streets – and then, when finally caught, convicted and brought into prison, these same people would promptly wrap their heads in an Islamic prayer cap or turban, and proceed to despise and look down on, and issue condescending religious instruction to everyone around them. A valid observation, I think, and under the circumstances of what happens in state prisons, rather mild.

So, my Islamic observer, having narrated this brief outline of the facts of my religious conversion, and Darryl’s and our friendship and history, I offer the following: a truce, an offer of mutual respect and friendship as far as circumstances allow. Prison life is difficult and contentious. Generally, it would appear that Islamic men in prison have greater self-control, have more interior self-discipline, than most other prisoners. Christians and Muslims may walk the same prison halls, sit in the same visiting areas, and do no harm to each other. I will not suggest that we ‘worship the same God’ – I do not think you would agree with that formulation, or find it useful in any practical sense, any more than I do. I worship the God who incarnated himself in Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, the Son of God, who said to all, including to me “I am the bread of life.” You see things differently and worship differently.

But you have my respect, not merely for the superficial reasons of what a man may say about his religious beliefs in the space of an hour – but rather, because after 30 years, it would appear that one of the few groups that a Christian prisoner like Darryl does not have a problem with is the Islamic community within the prison population. I am of Jewish descent – my father and all his family were or are Jewish – and I do not minimize the various problems and conflicts which exist throughout the world.

Be that as it may, you and I, sitting in the visiting room of SCI Mahanoy, shared something of a common purpose – we were both visiting a prisoner. The prison system of the United States is its own world, and we (Christian prisoners and their visitors, Muslim prisoners and their visitors) have inhabited it jointly for a long time, without threats or conflict. I am glad for that. I will not presume to teach you about your faith. I will say of mine, that the Holy Spirit sheds into the human heart the love of Christ, and the sincere desire for peace. Shalom, my Islamic, prisoner-visiting friend – be well.  O man of Islam, Warrior from the Desert, I bring you news of peace.

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