Inmate priest is tangible sign of hope for those in prison

September 29, 2005

The congregation is small. There are about 42 communicants, and between 15 and 20 show up on any given Sunday night for Eucharist.

"In that respect, it's very much like any other parish in the Episcopal Church," says the Rev. James Tramel, who ministers to the congregation.

The congregation is different in one major way. All of the communicants and Tramel are in prison at the California State Prison, Solano.

Tramel, 37, who has served 19 years of a 15-year-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, was ordained a priest by Bishop William Swing of California on June 18, 2005 at the prison. He is the first person ordained to the Episcopal priesthood while incarcerated.

"I think, for the men, it is a very tangible sign of hope," Tramel said in a telephone interview from the prison this week. "That one of their own could become a priest says to them that God is for them too."

He said he is awed and grateful to have been ordained. He said he experienced what he thinks many new priests do the first time he presided at the altar in the prison's chapel.

"You realize that it was exactly where God was calling you to and it fits," he said.

Tramel is licensed to serve the congregation by Bishop Jerry A. Lamb of Northern California, the diocese in which the prison is located. Lamb has made two episcopal visits to the prison. During his most recent visit in July, Tramel baptized two inmates and Lamb confirmed them along with six others.

The lens through which Tramel sees his priesthood is a sacramental one. "The sacraments in so many ways are all about reconciliation," he said.

His work as a priest is about "being a person who proclaims God's love and as being a person who proclaims the availability of God's reconciliation."

Jesus' message and the church's mission of reconciling people with God and each other are "desperately needed" in prison, Tramel said.

"It's a message that the larger world is hungry for as well," he said.

Tramel's ministry started while he was working with dying inmates at a hospice in the California Correctional Medical Facility in Vacaville, California. He now works for the correctional counselors who operate out of his 200-person dormitory at the prison. Six thousand inmates are held in four different facilities at the prison.

He also serves on the prison's religious advisory committee, and thus has the ability to move about the prison to visit inmates, hear confessions, make hospital visits and take communion to men who can not come to the Sunday Eucharist.

Tramel began an Episcopal congregation at the prison, which started with a group of inmates saying prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. Eventually, the congregation grew, and chaplains began visiting to conduct full communion services.

In 1998, he became the first inmate ever admitted to an Episcopal seminary when he entered the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in Berkeley, California. He earned a Master of Theological Studies degree in May 2003 through a distance-learning program. Students, faculty and staff from the Episcopal seminary regularly traveled to the prison and talked to Tramel on the phone during his studies.

Tramel joined the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Berkeley. When the congregation decided to sponsor him for ordination, he met with members of the congregation and the California Commission on Ministry through letters, over the phone, and in the visiting room at Solano Prison. Swing ordained him to the diaconate at the prison on July 4, 2004.

If some wonder that the cliché of the jailhouse conversion applies to Tramel, he said that his words won't change that opinion. "Those kinds of opinions are only changed by actions and God's grace," he said.

Any inmate with $25 or so can become an ordained minister, Tramel said, pointing instead to his journey through the Episcopal Church's rigorous and lengthy ordination process which includes, among other things, psychological exams.

Tramel was convicted in 1986. He was present when David Kurtzman stabbed a man to death in a Santa Barbara, California, park. Tramel was 17 at the time of the murder and was attending Northwestern Preparatory School in Santa Barbara. He had an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The murder happened when Tramel, Kurtzman and other students set out one night to confront some gang members whom they said had attacked a fellow student, according to Tramel's written account of the murder. Tramel wrote the account for a parole hearing before the California Board of Prison Terms.

The students did not find any gang members but Kurtzman and Tramel encountered a man in the park's large gazebo to whom they spoke briefly. Tramel writes that he turned his back on Kurtzman and the man, Michael Stephenson, while he was standing on the far side of the gazebo. He heard a sound that made him turn around, only to see Kurtzman stabbing Stephenson.

Tramel writes he is ashamed that he didn't help Stephenson or try to get help for him. He admits not contacting the police.

"Having reflected on this crime for more than half my life, I am intimately aware of my guilt," Tramel writes. "Every day I suffer remorse for my crime. To my perpetual regret, nothing will reverse that horrible day in 1985."

He was granted parole in late October, 2004, and was due to be released in March, 2005, in time to serve as deacon at the Easter Vigil service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California. Instead, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the State Board of Prison Terms' decision on Good Friday.

Tramel's proposed parole plan includes spending an additional year studying at CDSP. He has numerous job offers from churches and organizations in the Diocese of California, including that of assisting priest at the Church of the Good Shepherd. Tramel is engaged to be married to the Rev. Stephanie Green, a priest of the diocese.

It would be "completely impractical" to be bitter about the governor's decision, Tramel said. "Being bitter would drive me to a place of being completely self-destructive," he said. "I wouldn't be able to help myself or others."

"I don't see parole as something I have a right to," Tramel said, likening it instead to a form of grace. "It's not something that we can earn but that we can come to."

Tramel now contemplates his next hearing before the board on October 25. He said he has no expectations and feels connected to the "mystical, unexplainable component" of God's grace. He feels upheld by the prayers of many.

"It makes the most significant, real difference," he said.

He looks forward to seeing Michael Stephenson's father, Edward, who did not come to Tramel's first three parole hearings but has attended the last three. "It seems the more progress I've made, the more vehement [Stephenson's] objections [to the parole request] have been," he said.

"But I am grateful that he comes because it gives me the opportunity to renew my apologies directly," Tramel said.

Seeing Michael's father makes him "never lose sight of the pain my actions of 20 years ago caused."

"I want to keep my mind on that," he said. "I want all of my choices and all of my actions to be honorable to Michael's memory."

Bishop Lamb and Tramel are working to designate the congregation at the prison as a preaching station of the diocese.

"I want to leave them with clergy," Tramel said.

Tramel's desire to preach Jesus' message of reconciliation is rooted in his experience of call, something he'd like to tell anyone he meets.

"No matter where you are in your life, no matter where you are in the world, God loves you and is calling you," he explained. "No matter where you are in your life, no matter where you are in the world, you can serve God if you'll answer the call and respond to it."