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Mar reflects on time as prison chaplain

Photo by Cory Wyman ’16 – Mr. Mar prepares for his first period class before school, Thursday, Jan. 7.

By Hayden Prescott Corwin ’15

During the late ’90s, Mr. Tom Mar was a prison chaplain at San Quinten State Prison in California.

He was about 25 years old and had just graduated from Stanford University.

Inspiration to become a prison chaplain came to Mr. Mar after hearing Sister Hellen Prejean speak in person and after reading her book.

Sister Prejean worked with prisoners who were on death row.

“I was so impressed with what prison chaplains did that I wanted to become a prison chaplain too,” Mr. Mar said.

He was already in his formation to become a Dominican priest when he decided to be a prison chaplain.

Mr. Mar said that walking into the prison on his first day was intimidating.

“What’s intimidating about it is that they make sure you dress differently from everyone else in case there’s a riot so they can tell the prisoners from the non-prisoners, and everyone has a rifle, except you of course,” Mr. Mar said.

San Quinten held 160,687 inmates in 1999, according to a historical trends report linked on California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website.

San Quinten State Prison has multiple security levels that require higher security clearance in order to be accessed. The levels of the prison hold different types of prisoners.

A prisoner like Charles Manson, who is incarcerated in San Quinten State Prison, would be deeper in the prison than a petty criminal.

Mr. Mar said he had a more superficial security clearance.

His job as a prison chaplain was to have conversations with the prisoners.

Most of the prisoners were not angry or upset, according to Mr. Mar.

“They did tend to be kind of silent,” Mr. Mar said. “They didn’t say a whole lot. They certainly weren’t happy to be there of course.”

He said that meeting these prisoners as a chaplain was difficult because he had to show he could be trusted.

“Your act of showing up in order to be kind and to bring them the word of God was on the one hand welcome, but on the other hand, you’re a stranger and trying to break into the system and show that you can be trusted,” Mr. Mar said. “It was very difficult.”

The men inside San Quinten appeared to be normal guys though.

“What was surprising about my time as a prison chaplain was that the types of people I met were very ordinary types of people,” Mr. Mar said. “You wouldn’t be surprised if you bumped into them elsewhere. The one guy that came and spoke to me the most was a child molester … He was a merchant marine of some sort, and he would prey on kids when he docked in Oakland, Calif. Generally speaking, he was a normal guy. You couldn’t tell him from anyone else. There were no odd markings or anything like that, nothing that made him stand out as a child molester.  He and I had a fair number of conversations about the prison system.”

Mr. Mar also recalled a murderer that he talked with during his time at San Quinten as a nice person.

“He murdered his girlfriend in a drug rage,” Mr. Mar said. “He was an absolute nice guy. He was down to earth and easy to talk to. I could foresee myself holding conversations with this guy in any other situation, but he was in a jumpsuit and I was in my religious garb. It was remarkably disconcerting because otherwise, he was just an absolute normal guy. I remember thinking at the time that this is so not what I was expecting.”

He said his time with the prisoners allowed him to see the humanity that these people have.

“When these men commit their crimes, they don’t lose their humanity,” Mr. Mar said. “I think we tend to think that when you do something bad, you become a monster, or that all of the good redeeming qualities you ever had, the fact that you liked cookies and your grandma’s table when you were a little boy, like somehow that all goes poof in a cloud of smoke. That’s not the case, and that’s what I found with these guys. There was kindness in them, and there was politeness and they had manners. They wanted to talk to you, and they wanted to know something about you.”

The man who murdered his girlfriend repented for his crime, Mr. Mar said.

“He was the one who called the cops,” Mr. Mar said. “He was satisfied to serve the time that was proportionate to his crime.”

Mr. Mar is a new teacher at Brophy, although he taught a few religion classes here during summer school in previous years.

Students were surprised when asked if they knew Mr. Mar was a former prison chaplain.

“I can’t imagine him as a prison chaplain,” Jordan Griffin ’15 said.

Griffin took Mr. Mar’s senior synthesis class and said that the idea of Mr. Mar being a prison chaplain did not seem like something he would do.

Ian Hart ’15, who also took Mr. Mar’s class did not know that he was a prison chaplain.

“I think it’s very honorable that he did that,” Hart said.

Luke Friedman ’15 was aware of Mr. Mar’s experience being a prison chaplain.

Friedman said he thought that the experience was helpful as one of Mr. Mar’s teaching assets.

“I think that it’s awesome,” Friedman said. “It’s really good insight and experience to have for teaching ethics and senior synthesis.”

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