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Inmate ordained to priesthood in Solano State Prison

By Sean McConnell
[Episcopal News Service]  James Tramel, an inmate at the California State Prison-Solano, was ordained as a priest of the Episcopal Church on June 18th. The service, the first of its kind in a California prison, took place in a small courtyard off the prison's visiting room and was presided over by the Right Rev. William E. Swing, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California. Those in attendance included Tramel's parents, friends, other clergy, and inmates from the Episcopal congregation at the prison.

Tramel, 37, was convicted of second-degree murder in 1986, after co-defendant David Kurtzman stabbed a man to death in a Santa Barbara park. Tramel has served 19 years of a 15-to-life sentence, and was granted a March 2005 parole date by the California Board of Prison Terms that was later reversed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the ordination service, Tramel took the vows of the priesthood and had hands laid on him by Swing and all the clergy present. Following the ordination, Swing presented him with a Bible and stole.

Tramel's ordination meant, Swing said, that "a dark cloud floated away from the parents.  It meant the historic connection between faith and prison is alive.  It meant a stole goes to a new generation of priests.  It meant a witness of staggering hope to prisoners who were onlookers.  It meant that Resurrection is not just for the afterlife but here and now."

Richard Dahl, an inmate and member of the Episcopal congregation in the prison, said that Tramel's ordination showed him "that even though I'm down in this place, that there is hope. I've known James for three years, and have watched him grow, and James has helped me know that there is hope for me."

After Tramel's ordination, Swing relinquished his role as presider and Tramel celebrated the Eucharist. Inmates from the prison congregation presented grape juice and a croissant from the visiting room's vending machines to be used for communion. Referring to his role as celebrant, Tramel said, "In that moment it felt like my whole life was coming into focus. It felt like I was right where I was supposed to be."

Tramel began ministry as an Episcopalian while working with dying inmates at a hospice in the California Correctional Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif. In 1998, Tramel became the first inmate accepted at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, where he earned a Masters of Theological Studies degree through a distance-learning program.

In the Episcopal Church, those who have discerned that they are called to be a priest undergo a lengthy process, testing their calling first with a congregation, then by a commission appointed by a bishop. The process includes education and completion of an advanced degree, academic and psychological testing, and proven service in ministry. Those who are approved to become priests must first serve as deacons for a period ranging from six months to several years.

Tramel, a member of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Berkeley, met with members of his congregation and the Commission on Ministry through letters, over the phone, and in the visiting room at Solano Prison. While conducting his studies, Tramel began an Episcopal congregation at the prison, which started with a group of inmates saying prayers from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Eventually, the congregation grew, and chaplains began visiting to conduct full communion services.

Swing ordained Tramel to the deaconate on July 4th, 2004. As a deacon, Tramel has been more involved in the planning and leadership of services for the prison's Episcopal congregation, but he had very little sacramental responsibility. In the past when there was no priest available to conduct services, the congregation would have Communion (also called Eucharist) with bread that had been consecrated at a church outside the prison. Now that Tramel is a priest, he will be consecrating the Eucharist for the Episcopal worshipping community in Solano Prison.