‘The good I can do outweighs the bad that can happen’
The jail ministry of chaplain Bonnie Polley poses a hard question: Why should we care about these people?
Thu, Sep 10, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Jacob Kepler
This tiny old lady walks through a badge-access door and into one of four elevators operated by jail officers upstairs, who watch through cameras. Then it’s down a sterile white hallway, through more secured doors, and into a dim unit. She checks in with the officer, who sits behind glass looking inward at multiple cells. He buzzes her through yet another door—layers and layers of security—and lets the inmate out into the common area. It’s a dismal place, institutionally lonely no matter how crowded it gets. A giant of a man, twice her size, wearing blue jail scrubs and orange jail sandals, his hair long and stringy, lumbers over to sit at a small table where they will talk alone.
A child in his family has died in a gruesome accident, a child he helped raise when he was on the outside.
His body smells of clammy sweat, his breath is weak and warm. He begins to cry, tears falling off his stubbled face, lip quivering. “Why did it have to be him? Him and not me? Why? Why did God do this?” he asks, almost in a whisper. Bonnie Polley listens, lets the silence settle in, lets the pain have its place. He raises his full eyebrows plaintively at her. She calls him by name and says, “Know that the baby is fine now, and in a good place.”
“I know,” says the man. “But I can’t go through this alone.” He cries like the child he has lost. His chest quakes and then settles into a tremble again and again. Once in a while, his soft voice changes back into that of a man—a fierce man—but his grief stifles it repeatedly. They sit quietly together a few more minutes. When Bonnie first stands to leave, his body shivers, and he says, “No—can’t you stay longer?” And she sits back down, and tells him that he has to believe that God is with him. It’s going to be hard, she agrees, “but God will be there to help you get through it.”
“Why doesn’t He make it any easier?” he says, holding his forehead in his hand. Bonnie touches his forearm, and tells him to take it day by day and second by second.
“I’ll come back to visit you tomorrah,” she assures him.
Bonnie never tells me what this man is in for, because it doesn’t matter to her. I look it up later. It involves crimes against the elderly.
On this bright Wednesday morning, Clark County Detention Center’s chaplain is not at the jail yet. She’s standing in the parking lot of Christ Episcopal church at 8:11 a.m., wearing a cream pantsuit with a Metro police star embroidered on it. The parking lot is humming with people, some preparing to distribute groceries to the needy, others waiting to get food. A bulky guy in a sweaty T-shirt—it’s already scorching hot—says hello, and tells me that he and the Rev. Deacon Bonnie Polley go way back—“I’ve written her many a kite”—he says. A kite, I’ll find out later, is a request from a jail inmate.
“I used to live in Circle Park. I saw a murder there. I broke it up,” he goes on. Bonnie, 70, smiles and greets some other passersby while he talks, her little brown eyes bouncing behind little glasses, her little frame full of nervous energy, her hair short and brown and her face comfortable, with some deep wrinkles. What seems most precious and yet shrewd, in the way only old women can be, is her voice—a Southern chirp from her Louisiana upbringing. “Good mornin’,” she bubbles as she makes the rounds to ensure the pantry is prepared to open its doors. Untold thousands of low-income or no-income people have been fed here—over the complaints of neighbors and sometimes churchgoers, who tire of having a line of the unwashed wrapped around the building. Bonnie’s work here and at the jail are united by refuting this social tendency: People have a powerful desire to ignore the problems of the worst-off among us; to hide them. Bonnie consistently recognizes them.
So she started this operation in 1986 on the now-45-year-old church campus on Maryland Parkway near Charleston, an area that has decayed over the years. From the start, administrators gave the pantry “30 days to fail,” but it has yet to do so. There’s a spry rhythm to her steps as she moves through the shed stacked halfway with food, and says hello to the employee who keeps things stocked. “He just kind of happened,” she says of her good fortune in finding him. “He had a place to live but he didn’t have a job, and I needed someone. So!” She calls another volunteer by name—a homeless man who shows up every day to stock shelves and tidy up. “He just likes to be here, and we like having him.”
There have been times when the food supply fell short, money dried up, staffers disappeared—and miraculously, she says, a donor would drop off a sizable check or a new volunteer would materialize. This kind of thing happens all the time for Bonnie, little miracles, she says. She says it’s God at work, and if you’re among the jaded rather than faithful, it seems ... fanciful.
But there’s no denying she’s a sweet little old lady, and her existence among the darkest lives in Vegas—daily with the homeless, criminal, mentally ill, lost, screwed-up, prostituting, pimping, addicted, hurting, violent people—is an alarming and exciting thing. Immediately you think that Bonnie Polley is either as unreal as a movie character, or that her demons are large and not too far under the surface, because it can’t be this simple: Nice Episcopalian housewife and mother of three spends her life holding the hands of the criminal and destitute—nearly 30 years now, most of it unpaid—because Jesus showed up and told her to.
“I believe that’s what the church is for. Jesus came to take care of the poor. No matter how many times I read it, it still says it ... It’s simple stuff.”
Only, it’s not. Not even among the faithful—the Christian church in all its denominations is divided on such matters. Should it bend toward fundamentalism or liberalism? Should it focus on internal growth or outreach to the downtrodden? Law or love?
And beyond the church, a similar issue creates a widening divide in the secular world, post-economic collapse, as the community sorts out its ethical blunders and determines its character for the coming era. In many ways, this diminutive jail chaplain’s everyday work addresses a fundamental question in a chaotic time: Why should we care?
By 9 a.m., the Clark County Detention Center chaplain is in her PT Cruiser, headed north on Las Vegas Boulevard to the bank, where tellers greet her by name. Here, she’ll cash small checks for inmates of the jail, which the bank holds her personally accountable for. Inmates need the cash for a variety of reasons—to buy items from the jail commissary (ranging from food to reading glasses), or to send to someone outside. The jail won’t cash anything other than a money order or a check from another correctional facility.
Cashing inmates’ checks seems a smidge imprudent to me—a touch risky. I ask if she’s ever been stiffed. Yes, a few times she has had to cover a bad check—once it was a fat $900. So why risk it? “Life is risky,” she chirps.
“In 28 years I’ve had very few I’ve had to eat. [The others] so outweigh the ones I’ve had to eat ... And you have people in jail, and their family is on the street or wanting to keep the lights on. So that’s what I do.” She says this with no drama. She’s matter-of-fact; cheery, even. There’s a need, she fills it. She stands at the bank counter and sorts out a handful of inmate debit cards and checks, writing down who gets what, then she hops back into the Cruiser and goes to jail. I stash that line in my head, complete with Louisiana accent: “Life is risky!”
The 12-story Clark County Detention Center on South Casino Center Boulevard was built in 1984 and expanded in 2002. It was designed to look like an office building from the outside, not a jail, and pulls off that trick rather well, with glazed brick, glass accents and a smattering of palm trees. The two towers, north and south, are each about 330,000 square feet, and are meant to house 2,984 inmates together. But the population hovers well above that now—the detention center has been overcrowded since it opened; in 2008, it held 3,416 inmates on average per day. The average stay here is 72 hours, but some have stayed up to five years with consecutive sentences.
The jail has been temporary home to many of the infamous: O.J. Simpson, most recently. Bonnie’s interacted in one way or another with innumerable of Vegas’ criminal headliners: Margaret Rudin, Sandy Murphy, Rick Tabish, Jessica Williams, Craig Titus, Kelly Ryan. She moves freely through the jail, meeting in units with whomever needs to talk. Once, she says, a particularly violent inmate, who was accused in a multiple homicide, asked to see her, and armed officers were so concerned for her safety that they had him shackled and surrounded when she went to sit with him. She wasn’t afraid; in fact, she thought it was unnecessary, worried that he wouldn’t be able to talk openly. He told her quietly, between the two of them, that he wanted to know about God. Skeptics among us will say that every criminal facing punishment suddenly proclaims an interest in God strictly so that they appear to the judicial system to have changed their ways; the spiritual will tell you that it is in their most dire times that people earnestly turn to God. To Bonnie, the answer to that question is less important than the relationship that she develops with each person in whatever state of faith, a phenomenon I will come to understand later.
On the first floor of CCDC, past some 50 visitation booths set up in rows behind the waiting area, is her small office, complete with two desks and a wall stacked full of religious texts. Her official job, which she essentially created 28 years ago as a volunteer, is to facilitate the spiritual needs of any inmate regardless of his or her faith. For many years, she didn’t have an office, just a desk in the hallway of the old tower. It wasn’t until 2005 that she became an official staffer and began drawing a paycheck.
Today in that little office, there’s a big, boisterous dark-haired ex-con sitting at one desk.
“I was incarcerated here 10 to 15 times,” Mark Reinert says, nursing his gums—he’s just gotten new teeth, which complete his physical change from a long-haired, long-bearded, toothless street person into a cleaned-up volunteer.
“I was tore up from the floor up. My life was complete chaos.”
Reinert was a homeless crack addict in Naked City, near Industrial and the railroad tracks. He hustled, stole, fought and begged for crack for 18 years after ditching a well-to-do upbringing on the East Coast. “I did some baaaad things,” he roars. “I’ve seen some things you wouldn’t belieeeve.”
He bounced in and out of jail, and when he was incarcerated, he’d talk to Bonnie. “I don’t know what it was about this little church lady ...” he says.
Over time, through their visits, they developed a friendship—a trying one at times.
“It was a challenge,” she says of the back-and-forth of trying to help him clean up. He would return to the streets, try to quit crack, and somehow end up back in jail on a misdemeanor charge. “He’d just be as low as a snake’s belly,” she says. “And he’d go back to the railroad track, and I’d say, ‘Well, it’s all about choice.’ Then you just have to pray that the choice they make is best for them. Now, I remember there was a night that he went to a bar, and he thought he could handle it ...
“And he ends up in Naked City, and he’s going to buy crack from someone, and its the cops. It’s undercover cops. I said, ‘That was God, Mark,’” her voice goes up at that part, That was God, and she smiles, and her feet shuffle under her chair in a little dance she seems unaware of. “And of course he ends up in jail again. And he just thought I was the last person he ever wanted to see.”
Mark says, “But after a while, I started to see Bonnie, and jail, as a safe place. She would bring sense to my life—my life was complete chaos. And this woman, for whatever reason, she loved me. And it wasn’t phony.”
Bonnie says, “I think sometimes he really didn’t think he deserves that, so his actions begin to say, ‘So maybe what I really need to do is go back to the railroad tracks.’”
But she just kept on working with him, each time he fell and came back.
“She brings you love,” he says. “Love wears you down.”
Although her title is chaplain, a lot of what she does is remarkably not so preachy. She spends most days helping inmates and their families with the smaller dignities of jail life—expediting visits, making phone calls, connecting people with resources.
“I work real close with families who have called from Timbuktu because their child is in Las Vegas, and they’re here chasing their rainbow and they’ve ended up in jail, and what I have to do is fix it,” she says. “I tell them I’ll go see them, and they need to know they’re gong to be okay, and hopefully this will change their life. I try to give them hope.”
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Stacks of written kites fill her office: “Miss Polley, I am wondering if you have any yarmulkes lying around?” “Can you get a number off of my cell phone in Property?” “Can you get my C-Pap from my home?” “Can you get us bus passes for when we get out?”
“I try to answer every one of these kites each day,” she says. Now that the jail has so outgrown itself, she has the help of other part-time chaplains and a few volunteers whom she coordinates; the tiny room is often a hubbub of families who need help to help their inmate, or rabbis and imams here to pray with someone, as is each inmate’s constitutional right.
“Not a lot of people are called to do this work because you have to be so open to everybody,” says Bonnie. “If you can’t meet them where they are, you’re not going to get anywhere at all. It’s not about telling them where they should be. That’s the problem with religion. That’s not what God says. God says, ‘I want to be in relationship with you.’
“I really just want to be in relationship, that’s what I’m called to do, in however that works out,” she says.
People in the jail know Bonnie. Most every guard she passes has a smile and a wave for her. She knows many of the guards’ names, asks about some of their families. Some inmates, when she walks through overcrowded units with cots set up end-to-end, say, “Hello Ms. Bonnie!” or “Come see me, Ms. Bonnie!”
A head officer, Capt. Michael Holt, tells me Bonnie is “up for sainthood” around here; another officer comes to Bonnie in tears later for help with her troubled teenager. It all starts to seem surreally Mother-Teresa-of-CCDC after a while, and I start trying to dissect what it is she’s really doing here. It’s not simply that she gives biblical verses, or consoles the weary with watercolor strokes about God and heaven.
“It really is about trust,” Bonnie says. “Trust is so important in all of this.
“One of the problems people in jail have is with trust. I’m really honored that they trust me. That’s something you have to decide to do.” She’s talking about inmates when she says this, about people whose distrust and trust-breaking has landed them behind bars, but there’s an inadvertent universality to it, something earnest and far-reaching. Trust was among the biggest casualties of the crash and collapse of 2008, and the most difficult commodity to come by in its wake. It may be the most challenging quality to secure in any era, in any setting. And yet here sits this woman in a small desk wedged between the church and the criminals of Las Vegas, doling out trust freely. “Life is risky.”
Once, she was working with a young man accused of murder who wanted nothing to do with anyone. In jail, he discovered he needed glasses. “I just made it happen, and we began a relationship,” she says. Oftentimes her relationships with inmates don’t involve talk of God, but instead, she says, involve what she considers the work of God in building a small, reliable connection. Such a relationship can have a powerful, positive effect, whether it’s considered spiritual or not.
“I don’t believe you need to push God down people’s throats. God never called me to save a soul. I was called to love and serve. I believe I was truly called to be a deacon to work with the disenfranchised.
“I don’t think that I do these things for people to say, ‘You’re such a wonderful person,’ or whatever, that really doesn’t enter into it,” she says. “I do it because I want them to have it. I want to see them grow. I think what happens a lot of times to these folks is that they don’t believe they deserve what they’re getting [a decent relationship] ...
“All God asks of us is to just say ‘yes,’” she says. It’s sounds simple enough—but we’ve all been burned a lot lately, and it seems preferable to say hell no in a number of circumstances right now; to watch one’s own back and take care of one’s own pocketbook and let the careless get their comeuppance and the unfortunate figure out their own lot. Particularly in the case of those who’ve broken the law and hurt someone else, we’re loathe to show patience, much less sympathy. We much prefer to hide this whole genre of living in the back alley of the church, or in a jail that looks like an office building.
“You have to offer people hope. Without hope, they’re not going to get better.” It’s a refrain that hoisted the president into office last year; maybe it means more now than ever.
In any case, hope is something she is filled to the jittery brim with; she wiggles and fiddles a lot, rarely stops for a break, never takes a lunch. She believes—knows, she says—that by placing her faith in God, God moves along right in front of her and spreads blessings everywhere she goes. It seems a little crazy. Maybe it is. Maybe that’s how a woman who has heard, every day for 30 years, the most heinous stories of wife-beating and child-murdering, seen the most hopeless people, can pop up every day to dive into jail. She’s got some kind of energy that moves around outside the bounds of reason.
“Life is really made up of miracles,” she says. Maybe it is that simple.
Or maybe it’s not. two women from Utah have found their way into Bonnie’s office; one has a son is in jail. She looks too young to have a son in jail; he must be barely 18. She has blond hair and raccoon eyes from crying. They drove down this morning to make it to his 8 a.m. court appearance, but when they arrived, the attorneys said the matter had been postponed, and that they should go have something to eat or drink, and come back in an hour. But when they came back a short time later, the boy had come and gone, made a quick appearance in court, and looked for his mother in the gallery, where she was not.
“He’s mentally ill,” she says to Bonnie, her voice breaking up with tears. “He was walking bare-naked, following a bird to help him go south. His imaginary friend helped him get to Vegas.”
He’s a schizophrenic who went off of his meds and got picked up for disorderly conduct. But during the arrest, he spat on the officer, which complicated his situation, and they’re having trouble getting in touch with him, and they’re worried.
Having found the jail chaplain, who turns out to be the first person to listen to their whole story since they got up this morning 400 miles away, they unload it all: his mental-health history, their fears, their bouts with helplessness. Bonnie says, “Bless his heart,” and consoles them, and looks up his file on her computer. She makes a call or two to see if he’s been seen by a psych nurse, and where he is, and whether they can work out a visit while they’re in town. While they wait, she tells them about her own son.
“I have a son who is paranoid schizophrenic,” Bonnie tells them soberly.
“Oh, so you know, then.”
Her youngest son seemed the easiest to raise, but he got involved with drugs as a teenager at Valley High, and then seemed to have increasing mental-health problems. He ended up homeless on the streets of San Francisco. When I first met Bonnie a decade ago, she hadn’t talked to him in months and didn’t know his whereabouts exactly. It’s enough to make a person consistently a little frantic.
A couple of years ago, however, she and her husband brought him home to live with them. At first it seemed that it would work, but he grew increasingly unhappy and unmanageable. One time Bonnie came home to find him in the back yard pretending to shoot at imaginary airplanes, which he feared were attacking.
The Utah women talk to her about how their boy didn’t like the side effects of his medication, a common condition with paranoid schizophrenics, and how he found that marijuana made him the most calm. Bonnie tells them that her son has chosen to go back to San Francisco, where he can take medicinal marijuana, although Bonnie has tried to get him to stay on his prescribed meds. Now he lives in his car, and on Fridays he gets a bath at a shelter. Bonnie keeps up with him through a cell phone she sent with him. She says it all soberly, giving straight-up merit to the afflictions that surround her—more than 20 percent of the people in this jail are diagnosed as mentally ill.
“It’s so nice to finally talk to someone who understands,” the mom tells Bonnie. “Even if we don’t get to see him, I just want you to know that it helped us just to meet you.” They hug her, and go back to the waiting area. Later, she sets up a visit for them.
So is her son the reason she does this work?
“There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s a lot of the reason why I’m here today,” she says. She has had to work to turn over her worries about him to God: “That’s how I survive. I truly had to let it go, I had to give up control. ” she says. “I’ve been at this a long time now, and I still feel the need to control, but I let it go faster than I used to.”
But actually a collision of forces brought her into this line of work, some of which started long before her son’s mental health became a concern.
Bonnie and her husband, David, moved to Vegas after he attended law school in Albuquerque in the 1960s. Soon she found herself raising three little boys, working as a dental assistant, and coping with an alcoholic husband who was not yet in recovery. (“It makes me very codependent and dysfunctional,” she says of that.)
“I was at wits’ end.” She was terrified in everything that she did—insecure and worried, trying to control everything around her and failing. She asked God for help, and, she says, he took over. Soon she was a Jesus-freak, attending every church class and Christian event she could. One of her classes assigned her to reach out to a stranger, and when she heard that a dental assistant she’d only met once had been arrested for shooting and killing her abusive husband, who happened to be the nephew of then-Sheriff Ralph Lamb, she got it in her head that that’s who she needed to talk to.
“I knew I was supposed to go see her. Well, I thought, that’s ridiculous,” she says. “I started having my argument with God: That’s just ridiculous. How am I ever going to see her? ... Who’s ever going to let me see her? But He just wouldn’t leave me alone.
“So I called the jail and asked if it was possible to see someone. And if so, how does that happen? And they said, well, just come on down.” Bonnie timidly went to the jail and was surprised to find that no one was on the sign-in sheet to visit Carol Lamb. Bonnie says that when Carol was brought out to the visitors’ booth, “she said, ‘Bonnie Polley, why in the world are you here?’ And I thought, I have no clue. And I said to her, ‘Well, I’m here because I care.’”
Shortly thereafter, Bonnie saw an article about a prison chaplain at Jean, and called him up and asked if she could help.
In 2007, midway into his relationship with Bonnie, 18 years into his use of crack, in and out of jail still, Mark Reinert had a come-to-Jesus moment of sorts. He was walking across a street in Naked City one dark morning, about 4 a.m., when—bam!—he was hit by a bus. He was flat in the street, out cold. An ambulance rushed him to UMC, where he slipped into a coma. He’d been to UMC before, a number of times—“the streets are violent.” Once, after punching a guy in the mouth, he got an infection that creeped up his arm and nearly required that his arm be amputated. This time, it was a head injury, and when he awoke five days later, with no one, he had a ticket for jaywalking pinned to his shirt, which was unwearable from the accident, and so when he was released from the hospital, he left in a surgical gown.
“I was walking down Charleston with my butt out,” he says. “Three nurses felt bad for me and ran out after me.” The nurses took him to First Presbyterian Church down the street, where congregants prayed for him and gave him $50.
“So I went and used,” he said. But this time, the crack didn’t bring him the “ecstasy” he’d become addicted to. “I got the worst headache. I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m not doing this any more.’”
He went to a bar, and met up with a guy who offered to take him to his church, which turned out to be Christ Episcopal. Where the church lady from jail just happened to be a deacon.
“Is it a coincidence that he attended Bonnie’s church?” Mark says, “No. It was God.”
Deep in the towers is a room where Bonnie is talking to a young woman with long, blond hair who went off of her psych meds and held up a store and wants Bonnie to see if her family is okay; she hasn’t heard from them. A few cell blocks away there is a man who wants to find out how his wife, who is incarcerated on another floor, is doing. The chaplain’s cell phone rings constantly—someone outside, or upstairs in the executive offices, is always in need of something, too.
We pass a line of female inmates wearing orange uniforms, which indicate they are on work duty in the jail. A young woman with an enormous bruise on the side of her face says hello to Ms. Bonnie. As we head into another unit, a guard is wheeling in an old man, an inmate, in a wheelchair. He’s holding a hospital-issued, heart-shaped red pillow in his lap because he’s just had heart surgery and he’s being returned to jail. A fat pink scar pokes out of the top of his jail shirt.
“You visited me in the hospital,” he says in a weak voice, his eyes straining to look up at Bonnie.
“Yes I did. Looks like you did all right!” she says, her voice a cheerful chime. “How are you feeling?”
The guards buzz everyone into the unit and we move past the door. “I’m so scared,” he says, barely audible. She touches the moist, white strands of hair on his head and says quietly, “The good Lord is watching you.” They wheel him on in another direction.
Here we meet with a man who tells her, “I’ve had this problem with alcohol,” which keeps landing him back in jail, and he needs his breathing device from home, but his wife is afraid to visit, so he asks Bonnie to get it. From there it’s into another unit, where a young man tells her a long story about how his uncle’s trailer burned and he was barely able to get the man out alive, and how that has something to do with why he was driving a car that wasn’t his, and can Bonnie call a friend for him? Then there’s a young man who has a refund check from college, can Bonnie cash this?
I ask her if she thinks she’s being taken advantage of sometimes. Oh yes, she says. Sometimes, of course. And she does have limits; she says no to going to the man’s house to get the breathing device, but agrees to meet the wife with it around the block from the jail. “But what good I can do outweighs what bad can happen to me as an individual,” she says. It’s the act of going back and treating someone decently, regardless of what they’ve done, that can help them—and everybody else around them. It’s not the errand she’s running, but the investment in the person, she says.
It might be tempting to cast off this work as enabling bad people, but after spending a lot of time with her, I started getting a different sense of it. What’s significant is not really just the difference that running an errand for one person might make, for good or bad. Nor is it even the rare possibility of drastically changing that one person’s life. What if no one is really changed? Nor is it, though she would disagree, whether you call it God. Rather, what’s remarkable is the constant yes that she represents, her existence in sum becoming a resounding example of faith. Of hope. I asked the question, Why should we care? I see the answer in the sum total of her work, of how one person’s affirmative decisions can have such a ripple effect. How one person’s hope multiplies.
When we return to her office, I ask if she ever plans to retire. “What would I do?” she laughs. “No. They’ll have to carry me out on a slab.”
After she leaves work, she goes to the gym to work out. Then she’ll take her giant dog Rufus for a walk.
Why should we care? After all, everybody’s got something to preach, a belief, a God, no God, ironic detachment, a set of rules, despair, advice, judgment, snake oil to sell and a million outlets to shout through. After some time behind bars, it came to this: What speaks most clearly, if you can tune out today’s cacophony of voices getting louder and louder, is the smallest act between two people that conveys some modicum of caring. Maybe that’s the stuff recovery is made of, in all senses of the word recovery. Maybe it’s the only thing recovery is made of.
When I last talked to Bonnie, she and Mark and another pastor friend were packing for a trip. They were headed to San Francisco, where they had two things to accomplish.
The first was to get Mark situated at the theological seminary in Berkeley, where he’s been accepted to study for the priesthood. “He’s scared to death,” she says. “But Mark is so smart and so wonderful. It’ll be good for him.”
The second thing will be to find her son, check in on him, see if he needs anything.