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.

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.

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.”

Full story at The LA Times.