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Suffolk jail inmates celebrate Christmas Mass

The Rev. Msgr. James McNamara conducts a service

The Rev. Msgr. James McNamara conducts a service for the inmates at Suffolk County jail during an observance of a Catholic Christmas Mass in Riverhead. (Dec. 18, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Head bowed, Daniel Zapata put his hands together and prayed.

Christmas songs were sung and poinsettias were perched near the altar.

The service could have been held in any Catholic church, but the pew in front of Zapata was a plastic bench, and the men on their knees wore jail uniforms.

A prison ministry chaplain led the Mass last week in a chapel inside the Suffolk County jail in Riverhead.

While services are held each week in lockup, the Mass celebrating Christmas is special. For some of those held behind bars, the holidays are an emotional time, full of reflection and remorse, said James McLaughlin, a former jail lieutenant who now heads the prison ministry for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

"This time of year, they become very mindful of their families. A lot of them have dependent children at home," he said. "You can see the expressions on their faces."

Zapata, 48, has been in and out of jail -- "for poor decision-making" -- since he was a teenager. Most of his arrests, he said, were for drug offenses, most recently for cocaine possession.

He's done time in prison upstate and has five sons, ages 11 to 20, with different women, he said.

"This is the time to think about and reflect on what you've done wrong," Zapata said.

The jail chapel is a brightly colored oasis.

Concrete walls are painted white and green, adorned with flowers and vines that climb halfway to the ceiling. In the back are inspirational posters and photos of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Up front, there's an alcove with a Nativity scene, candles, a cross and red poinsettias. And, in huge block letters, a message: "KNOW BEFORE WHOM YOU STAND."

Forty-seven women shuffled into the chapel for their early Christmas Mass on Tuesday, lining up as they signed in. One woman had struck an officer and arrived in shackles. Another was eight months pregnant.

The Rev. Emil Wcela, a retired auxiliary bishop for the diocese, preached about peace and forgiveness, his cream-and-gold vestments a beacon in a sea of forest-green jail uniforms.

"God loves us so much that he wants to come into all of our lives, so we can make a change and be the kind of people he wants us to be," Wcela said.

The service was briefly interrupted once due to a catty outburst among a few women. But after the final prayers and an acoustic guitar rendition of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," the prisoners sat still, smiling.

"It gives them some peace while they're in here," said Lt. Barry Cunningham, who is in charge of support services for offenders. "They're calmer when they leave."

McLaughlin said the chapel is the only place where the 2,000 offenders confined in the jail have "true solace."

"It's like a safe haven — a place of refuge from the dinginess of the housing units," he said.

The men's service on Wednesday was more lively, with Msgr. James McNamara complimenting the 48 congregants' attentiveness. Bolder than the women, they bellowed the lyrics to "Silent Night" and laughed appreciatively at McNamara's jokes.

"You know where you've messed up," he told them. "Don't ever lose hope."

The Mass was by turns lighthearted and emotional. Some knelt with eyes shut, some stood with arms held out, palms up, reciting hymns and prayers by heart.

Afterward, Zapata said the hardest part about spending the holidays behind bars is not being with his sons, one of whom wants to become a correction officer.

"He wants to help people," he said. "He's seen what's gone on in my life."

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