On Christmas Day, the front pew of the jail chapel was empty — reserved for Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his entourage.
But when Villanueva arrived, he chose a spot near the back. The VIP pew eventually was filled by some of the nearly 200 inmates who had gathered to celebrate Mass with the archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose H. Gomez, at Men’s Central Jail.
The novel seating arrangement was another sign that Villanueva intends to do things differently.
Since shocking the local political establishment by winning the November election over incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Villanueva has fired the department’s top brass and required hundreds of others to reapply for their jobs.
But for those serving time or awaiting trial, life behind bars — the monotony, the dangers, the small humiliations — remains largely unchanged. Spending Christmas in a jail jumpsuit can provide a jolt of motivation to avoid past mistakes.
“I’m just going to work, do regular living. It’s not worth it to be here,” said Josue Sopon, 31, a construction worker from Downey.
Sopon has served five months for grand theft, with another five months to go. He said he dealt with his problems by drinking and doing drugs.
This is his second stint in jail. On Christmas Eve, he spoke with his three children, ages 4, 5 and 9, who said they just wanted their father to come home.
In Gomez’s homily to the inmates, he spoke of new beginnings.
“We are again very important to God,” he said. “For God, we are also like a newborn baby.”
For some inmates, there may not be a second chance.
In gold robes, with a gold miter perched his head, Gomez visited some of the most hardened residents of the 4,000-man jail.
Some were awaiting trial for murder, while others were in the K-10 unit because they posed a threat to other inmates or jail staff.
As a small choir sang carols and inmates called out to each other, Gomez paused at each cell, speaking through the bars and handing each man a book: “Friendship With Jesus” by Michael Kennedy.
Gomez cupped the cross that hung around one inmate’s neck and said a prayer. Another inmate who was doing push-ups paused to exchange a few words with the archbishop.
Speaking to reporters, Villanueva explained why he had sat in the back of the chapel.
“In the house of the Lord, everyone is equal,” he said. “I wanted the people who live here to sit in the front row.”
The sheriff said he is developing reentry programs that will improve on the existing ones, which match people leaving the county jails with jobs and other necessities.
For Alejandro Vega, the problem is not finding a job. He will work at his father’s auto repair shop after he finishes his sentence for grand theft auto next month.
In the past, that job was not enough for him. He supplemented his regular income with “easy money” from stealing cars.
Earlier Christmas morning, he had spoken with his four children. His 9-year-old daughter cried, upset that he would not be home for the holiday. He has not told her where he is.
“I didn’t want her to see me as somebody else,” said Vega, 28, of South Los Angeles, who has been incarcerated once before. “Supposedly, I’m working.”
Adam Pena has not called his family during the month he has been at the jail. Talking to his wife and two young boys is too painful, he said.
Pena, 25, a construction worker from Pomona, said he “wasn’t thinking right” when he committed the robbery that landed him behind bars for the second time.
When he is released in a month, he plans to relocate to Riverside to get away from friends who were bad influences.
“Being out there, everyone around you makes it difficult,” he said. “They’re trying to make up on you to do bad things.”
Senior Deputy George West has heard many vows from inmates planning to change.
Then, the jail doors revolve, and he sees some of the same faces again. His advice often goes unheeded.