When Lelia Mrotzek went to her 20-year high school reunion last year, classmates joked that they weren't surprised to find she was spending her time in jail. It was the part about doing it as a chaplain that surprised them.
Mrotzek, 38, whose round baby face and upbeat demeanor bely her 10 years of service as the Protestant chaplain at Sybil Brand Institute, was prepared for her classmates' reactions.
"I was a rowdy teen-ager," she said, acknowledging that she was heading down the wrong path. "My mother's death is what turned my life around. It forced me to take a long look at me, and I didn't like me." Using her own life as her example, she speaks with authority when she says that "there is hope for those teen-agers who have gone awry."
Judging from the response she gets from inmates who seek her counsel, she has managed to instill some of that hope in them as well. There is the woman, about to be released from the high security cellblock, who received help from Mrotzek to obtain her high school diploma, and the inmate who remarked that the chaplain has given her the strength not to be afraid of the real test--what's waiting on the outside.
Sybil Brand, the largest jail of its kind in the country, was originally built to house 900 women. It currently holds 2,200. There are full-time Catholic chaplains, a rabbi who comes for occasional services and weekly Christian Science and Islamic services also are available. Few have worked there as long as Mrotzek.
Mrotzek, who began her career at Sybil Brand as a volunteer visitor and went on to teach Bible study once a week, works with the dedication of a newcomer and has made an impact on both sides of the jail bars.
"She's one of the best things that's ever happened to Sybil Brand," said Lt. Linda Healy, watch commander of the night shift. "Lea brings a message that's on a gut level about living in this world that says: 'Damn it, get off your butt and take responsibility for your life.' We're dealing with people who have serious drug problems, serious self-esteem problems, whose lives are one series of tragic events after another. And it all gets down to the issue of taking responsibility."
Recently, the deputies had a chance to show their appreciation. Mrotzek was told that her ministry was in jeopardy. She is paid by Christian Jailworkers, a nonprofit, nondenominational organization that provides Protestant chaplains to all the sheriff's and probational facilities in the county. The county does not pay anything for these services, but provides an office, a telephone and one hot meal a day.
Sources of Funds
The organization gets its funds from individuals, churches, groups and foundations. Donations had dropped off and Mrotzek was told that she needed to seek out financial assistance independently. The chaplain mentioned this to Deputy Linda Wills, who alerted the other deputies. The response, Mrotzek said, was "unbelievable."
Wills says the deputies contribute about $250 a month to keep Mrotzek working.
The chaplain starts her day at Sybil Brand, just east of downtown Los Angeles, at 6 a.m., six days a week. She does some paper work and then, about 7 a.m., begins sending for inmates who have requested time with her, and makes rounds to those confined to their cells.
The chaplain's day is a combination of paper work sandwiched between frequent walks through the jail's corridors. Every move is punctuated by the jarring thud that signals the locking and unlocking of iron cellblock gates.
Mrotzek knows that not every inmate is ready to hear what she has to say, but she takes comfort from the number of women she has reached.
Keep Coming Back
"The response of the inmates and the ex-inmates who are really making it out there encourages me. I'm not saying there's not going to be depressing times when you look around and say 'Wow, am I getting through to anybody here?' The recidivism rate is so high, you see them come back and come back and sure it can be frustrating. Some people have to beat their head against the wall a whole lot of times before they say 'OK, I've got to have some help.' "
For many, that help comes from counseling sessions--Mrotzek does 40 to 50 a day--that usually take place in her tiny office.
Mrotzek, who is single, describes herself as "married to a ministry with 2,200 children." And like children, the inmates need a firm hand.
"These ladies can manipulate real good--they're pros at it," she said. "I've been taken around the river a few times I'm sure. So I've learned in every situation. It's like parenting."
In a recent afternoon Bible class in the high security area, she called on her knowledge and experience to draw the inmates into the story of Joseph and his brothers, asking "How many of you were your parents' favorites? How many weren't?"
Looking for a Plan
The questions brought sighs of recognition from the 13 women seated around the long table in the dull yellow day room.
"God has a plan for your life," she continued. "It may look real dismal, you may have to be thrown in a pit for a while, but he has a plan for you."
"I was feeling real sorry for myself and the chaplain came and talked to me and helped me get my priorities straight," said Cindy, a 29-year-old mother of four serving an eight-month sentence on prostitution charges. "She makes you feel special. That's what's unusual, especially in here."
"A lot of us are facing some heavy things, and she helps us know we can go on," added Rosemary, 35, another participant in the Bible class. "You have to have faith, and in here, that's hard to do."