Serving God -- and time

Behind BarsJames Tramel, an Episcopal priest, delivers sermons to his Berkeley congregation four times a year. To do so, he places a collect call from the Solano State Prison. Tramel is a convicted murderer and is believed by church officials to be the only American inmate ordained as an Episcopal priest. The Los Angeles Times' Steve Chawkins wrote a lengthy profile of Tramel, using his story to explore issues of repentance, redemption and forgiveness. I stole the Times' headline for this post. The California Board of Prison Terms previously recommended Tramel be paroled but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the decision on the grounds that Tramel still posed a risk, according to the story. Parole has been recommended again and Schwarzenegger will rule on it March 24:

For Schwarzenegger, who has stressed the aim of rehabilitation in the prison system, the case poses difficult questions: How can redemption be measured? If becoming a priest in prison isn't a sign of rehabilitation, then what is?

The piece tells the whole horrible story around the murder, which was physically committed by another man. Tramel was in prep school, getting ready to attend the Air Force Academy, when he went looking for trouble with a friend, who stabbed a homeless man 17 times. Tramel agrees that he was responsible for the death of the man.

It may be easier to believe Schwarzenegger is just a harsh leader who doesn't understand forgiveness, but I do wish the reporter would have explained his opposition to parole. It really leaves the story imbalanced. Having said that, however, I thought this passage was very well written:

By Tramel's account, it was another death that changed his life.

In August 1993, he was working in the Solano prison hospital, sitting up with an inmate suffering from stomach cancer. The man talked about how much he wanted to see his kids.

"At around 1 a.m., the nurse told me his lungs were filling with fluid and he was going to die," Tramel recalled.

The two talked through the night of life and death.

"With really still eyes, he looked at me and said, 'James, what do you believe?'"

"I took a deep breath," Tramel said, "and told him what I'd been afraid for some time to claim -- that Jesus is the son of God and had died for our sins, and loved us immensely and was ready to forgive us."

Tramel held the inmate's hand. He wasn't a priest then, or even a deacon, but he improvised a baptism. Then the man died.

Tramel decided to enter seminary and spent five years on his coursework. His thesis is on the redemption of convicts, and how far prisons have veered from their religious roots. The priest told his parole officials that he sent letters to relatives of his victim but that he knows he's not entitled to forgiveness from them. While the prosecutors who put him away believe he should go free, the victim's family feels otherwise. This nicely captures the family's sentiment:

Whether Tramel has found God is irrelevant, [Aunt Bernice] Bosheff said: "It's not for me to know. But I wouldn't go to his church. This man is going to offer me Communion and tell me that my sins are forgiven? I don't think so."

While Tramel is not officially a clergy member in the prison, Chawkins paints a picture of the religious services he provides fellow inmates. When Schwarzenegger rejected parole, he pointed to the crime's random brutality, among other things, according to the story. Again, it would have been nicer for the reporter to dig a bit harder to paint a more balanced picture of the disagreement. But it is still a story with great quotes and huge religious themes, including this one that he closed with:

"I know that we Christians can sometimes be dreamy idealists, but as a Calvinist I think I am quite realistic about human sinfulness," wrote Don Compier, a former professor at Tramel's seminary. "I'm not easily fooled. James has passed my test."

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