Healing Hands and Tunnel Vision:

An Old Easter Story from a Michigan Correctional Facility

It seems to have started with the Jews…

“Bring the one who has cursed outside the camp, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head; then let all the congregation stone him.”

-Leviticus 24:14

And is continued with a twist by many Christian denominations and sects…

“And it happened that the father of Publius was lying in bed afflicted with recurrent fever and dysentery; and Paul went in to see him and after he had prayed, he laid his hands on him and healed him.”

-Acts 28:8

“Excuse me Deputy, but you need to see this,” said Captain John Alderson, facility shift commander. Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins was bundled in his winter coat crossing the facilty yard when Capt. Alderson stopped him. It was cold and Captain Alderson came out of the Control Center to get him; the cold didn’t bother the coatless captain, noted for his winter walks in short-sleeved shirts. They faced the small forest of scrub-oak trees hung with snow that filled the yard. The double chain-link security fences laden with electronic intrusion detectors also hosted a small flock of red cardinals that gave the barrier a malevolent gaiety.

Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins was recently appointed Deputy Warden; He was the facility school principal and the deputy’s job was a new world. He asked shift commanders to include him in as much as possible, since he had little custody experience, and knew custody brass and rank-and-file were skeptical of his leadership; they only knew him as the freaky looking school principal with long hair, dashiki, and love beads. When Warden Weld offered him the job on condition that “You clean up,” as he put it, Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins asked if he could keep the beard and the warden agreed, “As long as you trim the damned thing.” When Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins was still school principal, he passed the facility Control Center one day and overheard a sergeant say to a colleague, “How would you like to be supervised by that?” When Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins saw the sergeant after his appointment was announced, he took him aside and said, “Well, your worst nightmare just came true.” It took the Sergeant a minute to get it, then he laughed.

Early on Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins realized the custody operation is long stretches of paperwork filled tedium broken by a flurry of emergency activity, and the occasional bizarre event. This story is about the latter.

“What is it?” Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins asked Captain Alderson.

“We have a situation in the visiting room that needs your attention.”

Another thing Deputy Warden Biggie Biggins learned is with custody the term ‘situation’ is always an understatement of what you are about to confront.

Captain Alderson led Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins through the Control Center into a small room equipped with a one-way mirror that allowed security officers to remain unseen as they surveilled visiting room activity. It was the Sunday before Easter and as usual the visiting room was full of prisoners, their friends and families. Corrections officers were busy processing visitors in and out, only occasionally having time to make a cursory inspection round through the visiting room. Kids played with toys supplied by the prison, and some parents read from children’s books the prison also provided.

Back then Deputy Warden Biggie Biggins smoked a pipe and was settling in, pipe in mouth, about to strike his lighter, when Captain Alderson said, “Don’t do that, deputy. The flame from you lighter or a match can be seen through the one-way glass by the visitors and is a dead give-away they’re being watched.

“In the corner over there by the vending machines,” Captain Alderson pointed.

“You mean the prisoner with the woman in the fur-collared coat?”

“No, no, on the other side of that vending machine. The tall skinny guy with prisoner Burdock. That’s Duane Gelton, a local minister.”

The prisoner slouched in his chair while holding a book open on his lap, eyes closed and mouth agape. Pastor Gelton sat on Duane’s right holding his chair arm with his right hand and apparently helping Burdock hold the book open with his left hand.

“Watch the book,” said the captain.

Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins didn’t see anything, then noticed the book rhythmically but discreetly rising and falling. The pastor didn’t look at Burdock, instead focusing on the book.

The captain said, “Do you see the pastor’s left hand?”

“No, it’s under the book.”

“Yah, that’s because he’s jerking-off the convict.”

The pastor then closed his eyes and the book continued its rhythmic movement.

“Good grief,” Deputy Warden biggie Biggins said. “Have an officer break that up.”

Captain Alderson exited the viewing room and shortly an officer made his way toward the pastor and Burdock. Deep in reverie, they didn’t notice the officer reach for the book and lift it, exposing Burdock’s tumescent penis in the palm of the pastor’s hand.

The captain came back and asked what Deputy Warden Biggie Biggins wanted done and was told, “Issue the prisoner a sexual misconduct report, and ask Pastor Gelton to meet me in the conference room.”

“By the way,” Captain Alderson said, “here’s the book.”

The Bible had the pastor’s name and address inscribed on the inside cover and Deputy Warden Biggie Biggins was reluctant to touch the damned thing, but took it to the conference room. Deputy Warden Biggie Biggins asked the captain to bring the prisoner’s visiting record and stay while the Deputy Warden interviewed Mr. Preacher man. Flipping through the prisoner’s visiting record, Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins noticed the pastor paid regular visits to this prisoner.

Warden Weld was the kind of guy who got pissed when blindsided, so Deputy Warden Biggie Biggins briefed him on the situation and asked if he wanted to handle it. Weld was also the kind of guy who thought the best way to train his deputy warden was to throw him in as much shit as possible. “Nope,” he said. “It’s all yours.” The deputy warden explained what he intended to do and Weld was okay with it.

The pastor was escorted in and asked how they were doing “on this fine Sunday,” as if they were regular coffeeshop guys kicking around the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin.

Deputy Warden Biggy Biggins nodded and asked how long he knew prisoner Burdock. He said Burdock was the son of one of his congregation members, and that it was at her request he was providing “pastoral counseling.”

“How long have you been visiting him?”

“Only for about a month.”

The record indicated visits between them for about six months. The deputy warden didn’t know why the pastor lied, and didn’t see how it helped him, but the deputy warden didn’t contradict the pastor; Let miscreants dig themselves a big hole. Leverage.

“Is this your Bible?”

“Yes sir, I’ve had it for years. It’s an ordination gift from my wife.”

The deputy warden wondered if the pastor’s wife presented her gift while saying, “Here dear, so you can use it to engage in onanism with convicted felons.” Probably not.

“To which congregation did you receive your call?”

“I’m proud to say the Lord led me to ____, are you familiar with my church? We’re Pentecostal”

“Only that I’ve passed by on several occasions.”

“Well then, I invite you to give us a visit.”

“I appreciate that, I’ll give it some thought.”

“Pastor Gelton, you’ve been observed masturbating prisoner Burdock’s penis in our visiting room,” Captain Alderson said, impatient with the small talk.

“In the presence of families and children,” the Deputy Warden added, because it sounded worse than doing it for an audience of adult strangers, kinky as that is.

He sat relaxed with a sanguine smile, then said, “I’m afraid you’re mistaken, I did no such thing.”

“We know what we saw,” Deputy Warden Biggie Biggins said.

“I disagree. What I did was pastoral in nature. My denomination believes in the laying on of hands. Do you know what that is?”

“I do,” said the deputy warden. “It’s a religious healing rite.”

“Then you can understand that the young man I was visiting complained of a wound…a lesion of some sort…on his…shall we say… member. I was performing a laying on of hands to help him heal.”

“I see. Have you provided this “pastoral” counseling, as you call it, often?”

“On occasion. As an anointed emissary from God, I perform such services for my congregants to supplement traditional medical treatments and…”

Captain Alderson interrupted with, “Simple prayer isn’t good enough. I mean prayer without holding his joint.”

Holding a joint in the joint the deputy warden chuckled to himself, but stayed quiet. The pastor’s quick response to our accusation told them he had been “pastoral counseling” for some time and needed to be prepared in the event of exposer (pardon the pun).

The pastor looked dismissively at the captain then turned to the deputy warden and said, “I’ve found Burdock’s faith to be developing, not yet strong enough to allow God’s healing only through prayer. My hope is my hands will cure him and allow Jesus, the great healer, to reinforce his faith.”

“So, you’re sort of a pass-through and it’s Jesus holding Burdock’s penis?”

“I’m not sure I would put it that way….”

“Well pastor, neither you nor Jesus will be doing any more healing in my visiting room.”

“Ha! I’m afraid Sir, that is up to Jesus.”

“No, it’s up to me. Jesus will have to find a new emissary elsewhere. I’m going to place your name on a state-wide restricted visiting list. No more visiting prisoners anywhere in Michigan. Then I’m going to transfer the prisoner far from here.”

Abandoning his advocacy for Jesus, the pastor tried, “But deputy, that will crush his mother!”

“And who’s to blame for that?”

The deputy warden was about to say the matter would be referred to the county prosecutor for possible criminal action, when the pastor said, “You can’t do that! I’ll go over your head.”

“You’re free to do it,” the Deputy Warden said. “In return I’ll call the police and have you arrested. Then I’ll call Mike Wald at the Michigan Press. You know Mike? He’s got the police beat. I’ll tell him to make sure he checks today’s police blotter. After all, as a clergy you violated my first commandment, which is, “Sinneth in your own vestry, not in my visiting room.’”

“No need to do that. Will you say anything to my congregants?” he sheepishly asked.

“No, I’ll leave that to the prosecutor and the media. Of course, I can’t say what my staff will do on their own time.”

Frankly, the deputy warden was bluffing…to a point. Michigan law, Criminal Sexual Conduct, 2nd degree. MCL 750.520c states: “That other person is under the jurisdiction of the department of corrections and the actor is an employee or a contractual employee of, or a volunteer with, the department of corrections who knows that the other person is under the jurisdiction of the department of corrections,” and the MDOC has administrative rules governing volunteer-prisoner contact as well as sanctions for inmates who seek sexual favors from visitors.[1]

But Pastor Gelton was neither an employee nor a registered volunteer, and the deputy warden wasn’t interested in seeking prosecuting of the prisoner (see: Sex and Punishment and Politics), because he wasn’t sure what the county prosecutor would do. This was a prosecutor whose entire career revolved around his “War on Drugs”, which largely consisted of the prosecutor staging drug raids at which said prosecutor’s picture was always taken leading the raid.

At least the deputy warden wanted to put the fear of God in the pastor, since ordination seemed to have fallen short.

Incredulous, the pastor asked, “You’re telling your staff?”

“Pastor, there’s not enough authority in this world to prevent them from finding out. Given the prison grapevine, it’s likely spread through half the facility already. In addition, we have an underground employee rag called ‘Tunnel Vision’ that will love to get its journalistic claws on this story. You may even make page one. Anyway, you should get some small comfort from knowing it’s well-written and very funny.”

What the deputy warden didn’t tell him is the newsletter takes its name from the tunnels under the prison that carry hot water for heating and electrical cables. In emergencies the tunnels can be used as passage ways for armed squads to move unseen into almost any building on the compound.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it, Pastor, that your sexual tunnel vision may get reported in a journal of the same name. I’ll try to remember to send you a copy.”

Deputy Warden Biggie Biggins wondered if the preacher man’s religiosity was a variation of tunnel vision, but thought better of going there.

“You’re threatening me!” the pastor blustered.

“Yes, I am. Incidentally, you mentioned your wife. How long have you been married?”

I don’t see where that’s anybody’s business,” said the pastor.

“I understand. I was just wondering why you seek sexual solace with convicts.”

As Deputy Warden Biggie Biggins would learn in the future, when he became warden of a prison operating a large sex offender treatment program, though there are numerous reasons why someone sexually offends, important among them is the effect of cognitive distortions, which are excuses, justifications, and rationalizations that offenders use to absolve themselves of responsibility, shame, and guilt for their actions. One such cognitive distortion is the feeling of entitlement, the notion that the offender is entitled to act a certain sexual way. Deputy Warden Biggie Biggs suspected the good pastor used his perceived role as an emissary from God to justify his aberrant sexual behavior, something the deputy warden learned was common among Pentecostals, Evangelical, Catholics and other conservative religious clergy.

The mute pastor was escorted out and the deputy warden remarked to Captain Alderson, “That was a new one. Never a dull moment in corrections.”

“I guess,” Captain Alderson retorted. “But look at it this way, it gives new meaning to Palm Sunday.”

[1] Thanks to Mike Walsh, Attorney, for advising me on current laws covering sexual contact with prisoners. Apparently, nothing changed over the years since this incident.

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