Prisoner-turned-priest finds path behind bars

Published November 1, 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,” said Rev. James Tramel, who ministers to the congregation.

The congregation is different in one major way. All of the communicants and Mr. Tramel are prisoners at the California State Prison here.

Mr. Tramel, 37, who has served 19 years of a 15-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, was ordained a priest by Bishop William Swing of California last June at the prison. He is the first person ordained to the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) priesthood while incarcerated.

“I think, for the men, it is a very tangible sign of hope,” Mr. Tramel said in a telephone interview. “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.

The lens through which Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 in Berkeley, Calif. 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 Mr. Tramel on the phone during his studies.

Mr. Tramel joined the 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.

If some wonder that the cliche of the jailhouse conversion applies to Mr. Tramel, he said that his words will not 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, Mr. Tramel said, pointing instead to his journey through ECUSA’s rigorous and lengthy ordination process which includes, among other things, psychological exams.

Mr. Tramel was convicted in 1986. He was present when David Kurtzman stabbed a man to death in a Santa Barbara, Calif., park. Mr. 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.

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. Instead, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the decision on Good Friday.

Mr. Tramel’s proposed parole plan includes spending an additional year studying. 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. He is engaged to be married to Rev. Stephanie Green, a priest of the diocese.

It would be “completely impractical” to be bitter about the governor’s decision, Mr. 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,” Mr. Tramel said, likening it instead to a form of grace. “It’s not something that we can earn but that we can come to.”


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