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Finding faith behind bars

First slide

Ken Fails remembers being handcuffed to a chair, stripped of his belt, his shirt untucked from the pat down, his emptied pockets hanging out of his pants, in total shock. He was fingerprinted, had his mugshot taken and was stowed in the holding tank. And then he sat some more.

“There’s a TV in the corner that’s all scratchy and you can’t hear. You’re not really in the mood to watch anyway so you just sit there staring at the wall. Depending on the time of day you get arrested, you may not go up to the housing unit until the next morning,” he said. “If it’s (mealtime), they’ll feed you and it’s always the same no matter what time of day: two bologna sandwiches, a carton of milk and two sandwich cookies.

“When they’re ready to deal with you, they take you to a room where they give you your blanket, towel, washcloth, sheets, a jumpsuit and ugly tennis shoes without laces,” said Fails. “You’re a in room with 12 guys, and the guard tells you, ‘Strip and change.’ If your underwear, T-shirt or socks are not white, you have to turn them in. If you don’t have white underclothes, you have no underclothes.”

Fail’s first night in jail set the tone for an experience full of monotony and humiliation. “I used to joke with my dad that jail life and military life are very similar to each other,” said Fails. “The logic is kind of the same: to break down the personality and, in the military, to build you back up. In the jail scenario, they want to break you down as an individual, so it’s very dehumanizing. They want you to be compliant and pliable. They don’t build you up at all.”

Fails was processed at the Fairfax County Detention Center when he was arrested in 2011 and later when he served time for probation violations. After initially spending a few months in Fairfax, he was extradited to a jail in Louisiana. He was released from jail in 2013 and was on probation for five years. The deeply unpleasant experience had an upside —  it’s when he became a Catholic.

“The two years that I spent in jail are nothing in comparison with the eternity that is the rest of life,” said Fails, a parishioner of St. Lawrence Church in Alexandria. “I am very grateful for having been in jail because it did give me the opportunity to find the faith, or for the faith to find me. Satan is definitely alive in the jails, but the Holy Spirit is huge in jails as well. You can almost see the spiritual battles happening. I think it’s a place of incredible humanity —  the dark parts as well as the brightest parts.”

Fails grew up in rural Pennsylvania and attended college at George Washington University in Washington. He graduated in 1993 and earned his law degree from George Mason University in Arlington in 1996. He and his now ex-wife have three children together.

Fails was baptized Lutheran but when he was still young, his dad began to take the family to an Assembly of God church. “I didn't buy into any of it,” said Fails. “God seemed like an easy answer to everything. I respected people with faith but I didn’t quite understand them.”

Once he was in jail, he had nothing but time to explore the faith he had rejected.  Without regular programs or any duties, the daily schedule revolved around meals. If they volunteered and qualified, inmates could be assigned janitorial responsibilities. “That would’ve been helpful at least to kill time,” said Fails, but his charge was considered violent, so he didn’t have that opportunity. He played cards, watched television, did crossword puzzles and started to read as much as he could.

“Being (from) a fundamentalist (background), I had it in my head that there was something wacky about the Catholic Church. I got a copy of the Catholic Bible and I immediately went to the five books that aren’t in the (Protestant Bible) to see what the secret stuff was,” he joked.

He then started taking correspondence courses on Catholicism. “I started to find it fascinating. One of the things I liked most about the church was that it was rational, it was logical. The early church fathers thought about how to answer the hard questions.”

A Catholic deacon visited the jail every Sunday and holy day, and Fails began to meet with him. “It was a ray of sunshine in a dark place,” he said. “One of the most beautiful things about ministry in the jail is that the volunteers don’t look at us as prisoners but as fellow children of God. They’re just a godsend. I lived for Sundays just to see (the deacon) for a minute and to receive the Eucharist and to get a blessing from him.”

In jail, Fails established a prayer life. He was able to read the Bible cover to cover three times. But faith in jail also had its challenges. For example, the holy cards he tacked up on the wall near his bed with a dab of toothpaste were torn down every month during inspection.  Rosaries had to be easily breakable so they couldn’t be used as a weapon. The Fairfax jail didn’t allow them at all.

To add variety to their days, some inmates would attend Bible studies just to challenge everything. “Those guys are actually kind of fun, because it’s essentially apologetics at that point,” said Fails. “But if you are going to commune with God and 12 of the guys are there to pass notes, it’s hard to keep that focus on holiness.” It was also hard to tell who was sincere. “In jail, there is an element of having to fake who you are. There’s a lot of falseness in your community,” he said.

Jail officials have to allow religious practice, but they don’t go out of their way to accommodate it, said Fails. While in jail, he was unable to attend his own confirmation Mass. On the day the local priest came, they decided to hold the Mass in the jail’s larger unit, not the one where Fails lived. So after Mass, the priest confirmed him in the hallway. “The efficacy of the ceremony was no less, but the jail wasn’t trying to embrace this moment for me because of an imagined security risk,” he said.

When he finally attended Mass on the outside, he felt silly mimicking the unfamiliar gestures throughout the liturgy. He kept coming back, but he knows some former inmates would find that too intimidating. Finding a place of worship after life in jail is just one of the many hurdles ex-convicts face on the outside. Fails hopes to work with diocesan Catholic Charities to find more ways to help former inmates adjust and thrive. 

“The day they let me out of jail, I had no idea where I was sleeping that night,” said Fails. “I just want somebody to catch them when they come out, because expecting someone to do that on their own is almost unreasonable.”

If he had the time, money and volunteers, he would greet each man or woman coming out of jail with clothes, transportation, a way to make a phone call, a place to stay and a McDonald’s cheeseburger. For now, he’s working as a waiter and planning for the future.

 “I went to jail for my own redemption and possibly for the redemption of others, to answer the call. Felons are the new lepers,” said Fails. “Do you really want to sit next to the guy in church who might have ax murdered somebody, or even the guy that’s just a drunk? I’d rather sit next to the grandma and grandkids,” he said. But Fails know the faith teaches that parishes must be field hospitals for all the wounded.

“It's so easy to judge people, to say, ‘Thank God I’m not like that guy. I might be a sinner but I’m not that bad.’ That’s also a road to sin,” said Fails. Referencing the Gospel passage, he added, “Most of the felons, they’re the tax collectors that say, ‘Have mercy.’ ”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018