Crime & Justice

Archbishop and jail staff try to bring Christmas to inmates

About 200 inmates at Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles attend Christmas Day morning mass lead by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles.
About 200 inmates at Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles attend Christmas Day morning mass lead by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

The dim and narrow halls of Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles echoed with Christmas cheer as jail staff and volunteers sang carols.

“Merry Christmas. This book is for you. I hope you enjoy it,” Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez told one man in a tiny cell who bowed his head to see the holy man between the green steel bars.

The Archbishop and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca made the rounds shaking the sleepy hands of a few dozen jailed men who weren’t allowed to attend the annual Christmas Day Morning Mass.

Dressed the their Sunday usual, about 200 hundred inmates sat in pews in the jail’s chapel, far less ornate than the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels where Archbishop Gomez had celebrated Midnight Mass only a few hours earlier.

A choir made up of a dozen or so volunteers dressed in Santa hats sang Christmas songs as the men sort-of, kind-of hummed along.

The Archbishop, speaking in English and Spanish, left the men with a message of everlasting love and need for continued faith. 

“Independent of the way you think or act or do things, God loves each one of you,” he told them during Mass.

The holiday seems especially poignant for the men missing family and children or loved ones. Some for the first time or for the seventh time, as it is for Robert Estrada of Pacoima.

Estrada, who said he is behind bars on a murder charge, said he felt like it was his personal task to help the younger ones get through the holiday.

“Depression is a big thing so I think the church service is a big thing, let them know that they’re not alone,” he said.

During Mass, the men recited the Lord's Prayer, then took several minutes to share a sign of peace with each other. Some held up two fingers in the modern fashion of ‘peace’ and signaled the gesture to nearby inmate friends and deputies watching over them.

“Christmas is the perfect time to celebrate the aspirations of redemption and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” said Sheriff Lee Baca.

The sting of punishment wasn’t lost on a few inmates. One man sat with his back against the bars, his eyes avoiding the holiday visitors. Another politely rejected a handshake from Baca, saying, “I can’t do that, sir.” The Sheriff nodded and offered his hand to the inmate's cell neighbor.

But the warm hands of the jail’s senior Catholic chaplain Patty Bartlett couldn’t go unnoticed by the inmates. They smiled, laughed and wished her Merry Christmas as she offered religious cards to those who accepted.  

“Good morning! Merry Christmas to you,” said Bartlett announced as she woke up one man whose cell was still dark. She joked with him, saying it’s a habit of jail staff to barge into their space.

“But you have a great smile,” she added, making the man blush as she rolled past handing out more cards and books.