Archbishop Jose Gomez celebrates Mass for inmates at Men's Central… (Arkasha Stevenson / Los…)
Santa, as usual, was a no-show at the Men's Central Jail.
In his place Sunday came three presumably wise men — Archbishop Jose Gomez, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Sheriff's Capt. Ralph Ornelas, making their way down long, dimly lit rows of cellblocks to dispense Christmas cheer. At least, as much as was possible in a place where one day is pretty much like the last.
"Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad!" Gomez proclaimed over and over as he walked down the line of narrow, cramped cells, trailed by volunteer carolers. At each cell, he slipped through the bars a copy of "Tattoos on the Heart," a book of modern parables by Father Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit founder of Homeboy Industries in East L.A.
PHOTOS: Christmas behind bars
"This book is for you," he told one inmate, who appeared both surprised and skeptical.
"Is it in English?" the man demanded of the Catholic cleric, whose native language is Spanish.
"Yeah, it's in English," Gomez said. "That's what we got."
There is something almost allegorical about the idea of Christmas in jail. A day dedicated to the birth of a savior seems especially poignant to people who may desperately feel the need for redemption. A holiday closely associated with hearth and home is especially lonely in the concrete and steel of a penal institution.
Movies and TV shows have long featured characters who wind up in jail, or are miraculously released, on Christmas. Pop music includes such tunes as "Christmas in Jail" by the doo-wop group The Youngsters ("While everybody's having Christmas turkey / They give me bread and water to eat.") and "Christmas in Prison" by John Prine ("It was Christmas in prison and the food was real good / We had turkey and pistols carved out of wood.")
At Men's Central, in downtown Los Angeles, which has been beset by a rash of allegations of abuse in recent months, the inmates were served a holiday turkey dinner Friday and Christmas cookies Sunday. Neither compensated for the depressing circumstance of being in jail in the first place.
"It's just like any other day to me," said an inmate who gave his name only as Mike and who said he was in jail for murder. "The days are pretty mundane right now."
For the luckier prisoners, there were visits from family or friends, some of whom began lining up outside the jail around 6 a.m., bundled against the chill. More than 1,100 visitors were allowed into the jail over the course of the day, about one-third more than on a typical day, said Sheriff's Lt. Jason Skeen.
Sandra Ruvalcaba, looking elfish in bright red pants, red lipstick and black boots, waited three hours for 20 minutes with her husband, who has been in jail 13 months for evading arrest in a high-speed chase. "It was very emotional," she said of the visit.
Ruvalcaba, 35, of San Pedro, said her husband "has his ups and downs," and Christmas was especially hard. Like other visitors, she was not allowed to bring any gifts, and the couple could speak to each other only through a glass shield.
Inmates may receive only letters and approved magazines through the mail. They also are allowed packages ordered through the jail commissary, which offers such homespun treats as instant ramen and foil packets of tuna.
About 200 inmates were allowed to attend a Christmas Mass on Sunday morning in the jail chapel, with Gomez leading the worship service. "I confess to almighty God," he led the assemblage in prayer, "that I have greatly sinned."
It was a line that may have resonated a bit more deeply there than in the average church.
The chapel was drab, the mood somber and reflective. When inmates went forward for Communion, only a scant few walked with any strut in their step. Some made the sign of the cross at the foot of the altar.
In his homily, the archbishop urged the inmates to maintain hope and faith.
"Yes, we are weak, we make mistakes, we commit sins," he said. "But God is always there to forgive us and to give us the possibility of our redemption."
Frank Gomez, a 45-year-old inmate (and no apparent relation to the archbishop), said he was counting on that. He said he had found religion while doing time for domestic violence, and vowed to emerge a new man. "This is the first Christmas I've spent away from my family, but I'm OK with that," he said. "There's a new Frank that's coming out of these doors when I'm released."
PHOTOS: Christmas behind bars