Uncontrolling Love
Goes to Prison

By Tyler J. Parry

In an environment where trauma is leveraged for control, the experience of uncontrolling love can prove transformative for incarcerated persons.

Pat was one large human being. Stout and thick-limbed, it was not difficult to imagine that he was what he claimed to once have been: the muscle for the Mob. Pat was born into organized crime; from his youngest days he recalls family by blood and family by oath. He engaged in what outsiders might consider ruthless criminal behavior but seemed to him a natural way of life. “It was in my blood,” Pat would say, “I had no choice in the matter.” Even when serving the family went against his very nature and moral convictions, Pat did what he was told. He understood power and he understood respect and he understood that while love was constantly mentioned, it was loyalty and obedience that truly counted.

I met Pat when I served as a chaplain in a state prison. Pat had served more than two decades of a life sentence for murder. He was a lifer’s lifer; he knew how to jail. Pat understood the power structures of prison, visible and invisible, written and unwritten. Pat knew who the bosses were and where he stood with them. He understood the trauma that had led him to prison, the trauma that was inflicted upon him in prison, and how both were leveraged against him almost every moment of every day.

What I was keenly aware of before meeting Pat was most, if not all, incarcerated individuals were survivors of trauma. Many grew up in family situations that harmed rather than nurtured within communities in which power was wielded to oppress and control. Certainly, the process of arrest, trial, sentencing, and initial incarceration inflicted further dehumanizing trauma. The incarcerated environment is one of fear and violence, exceedingly limited privacy, and the arbitrary and capricious enforcement of petty rules. All of this is designed to create a cowed population, one that could be controlled at any cost.

Pat opened my eyes to the utter cruelty both on the part of corrections staff and fellow incarcerated persons. Personal preferences were routinely and intentionally ignored. Trauma reactions were met with force. Traumatic wounds, often evident to all, were salted for the amusement of others and, above all, to reinforce the control of the panoptically-enabled authorities. “I came in here with wounds,” Pat said, “and every day they are opened up again and again not to help me get better, but to keep me in my place.”

As a chaplain, I strived to help create a safe space within the violent and trauma-inflicting world of prison. I wanted the chapel to be a place where persons could allow themselves to relax, to draw in deep breaths, and to find the comfort of the Holy. Pat helped me to understand that while such an environment was indeed helpful, it was not sufficient, especially if the theologies presented within the chapel implicitly or explicitly reinforced a model of coercive power and love. Pat sought comfort in his faith, but what he found was yet another power structure seeking to control him.

“I came to Mass as often as I could,” Pat recalled, “I came to Bible study and small group classes. I was here in the chapel as often as I could be.” Pat found a message grounded in obedience and faithfulness, a gospel that called for full submission to the demands of holiness. This resonated with Pat; it is what he had heard all of his life! He dedicated himself to beating his body and making it his slave. His dedication to physical and spiritual fitness blended together as he trained himself to be a soldier for Christ. The driving force was loyalty, loyalty to the divine monarch who demanded unwavering and unquestioning obedience.

“I bought into it 100%,” Pat remembered. “Every day it was a matter of training my body and training my soul. I didn’t question what the teachers told me. I didn’t question what my fellow brothers told me.” Little if ever was the topic of Divine Love discussed. The Kingdom of God, from this point of view, closely resembled the informal power structures of the prison. There was one who had power, and all who wished to live under the Powerful One’s protection did so by demonstrating their loyalty and obedience. This worked for Pat for a while, until one day he found himself in the same moral situation he had found himself in on the outside.

“I’m in prison because someone who said they loved me and would protect me told me to do something, and after I did it, they let me hang out to dry. The same thing happened here,” Pat recalled through tears. “I thought that we were brothers in Christ, that we were following the law of God, but it was just a sham. They were running stores, and when a store had to get broken up, they came to me. I didn’t like it, but I did it, and as soon as I was in the hole, I was persona non grata, you know? Anyone in the bucket was a sinner, and sinners weren’t part of the Kingdom.”

Pat’s time in solitary confinement was devastating. Cut off from nurturing relationships, Pat retreated into himself, reliving the trauma that brought him to prison, and the trauma that brought him eventually to solitary. That is where I met Pat, and where our relationship first began. There we would sit, with our backs leaning up against the cold steel of the cell door and our heads resting mere physical inches but also miles apart. The chaplain’s role was to listen, and Pat’s role was to speak. The chaplain’s stance was one of transparency, trusting that the presence of an Other, of the Holy, might emerge from the emotional space that is created when two meet one another sincerely and openly.

Pat was in need of love. His restless heart would not find rest until it found love, but not the “love” of his family or the “love” of the gospel he had heard. The love that brought Pat peace and introduced to him an experience of liberty was one that refused to control and coerce, one of pure invitation and, thus, of pure vulnerability. This was not the agenda-laden love that was his experience in every other context of life.

Ironically, it was not for months that I ever saw Pat physically. Our conversations ranged across similar topics and our posture was always the same. I often wondered whether such conversations were bearing any fruit. I warred against my own natural leaning towards setting goals in order to focus on the relationship we were building, moment by moment, in that awful place of isolated suffering. I recognized that not being able to see Pat was an impediment to me, but a tool for him. He knew what I looked like. I did not know him. In Pat’s mind, that gave him a sense of control, a way of reversing the power dynamic that was always present when staff and incarcerated persons connected.

Eventually, Pat was granted release from administrate segregation and returned to general population. Pat wrote to me, asking to talk, but not in the chapel. We met on the block, sitting at the bolted down, stainless steel tables surrounded by tiers of cells. Pat was not ready to return to the chapel, and he probably never would, but he had turned a corner in his spiritual journey. In the darkness of solitary, with every sense assaulted and by his thoughts battered, Pat had come to see that the love of the Holy was not one of demands, but one that empowered by working-with. Pat had discovered a new sense of love and power one that could saturate his way of being and give him the strength to resist.

Uncontrolling love was the love that stood apart. Uncontrolling power was the power that stood apart, and now Pat would be one who, in his own framing of his life and environment, would stand apart. He could endure and journey forward. He could live.

Tyler Parry is a chaplain and priest in the Episcopal Church. Tyler has a background in military, prison, and hospice chaplaincies, with a focus on aiding trauma survivors. Tyler earned a BA in philosophy, an MA in historical and theological studies, and a ThD in restorative theology. Tyler enjoys competing in Highland Games and cheering at his children’s soccer teams.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love