Pierre Raphael's Inside Rikers Island:
A Chaplain's Search for God
Page 10 of 13 NYCHS excerpts presentation pages.

He will open a heart of mercy to the deserters from the Order, telling himself that there must be terrible temptations that can provoke such a fall, and that he himself would surely have succumbed to them if divine grace had not preserved him from it. --- Francis of Assisi, on his deathbed, sketching a portrait of the leader of the community.


Except insofar as one has charge of them, daily life at Rikers is not a matter of groups or collectivities. A quick skimming of the island, a tourist visit motivated more or less by curiosity, accompanied by the best explanations, the most precise descriptions, the exact numbers, cannot yield the reality of every day: the personal encounters with those involved, the eruption of the thousand and one stories of human reality that crowd any prison. I would like to give a rough account of these encounters, so far as possible in their raw state. For the sake of discretion, the names of the individuals have been changed.

Alfred is 27 years old. He has been on drugs since he was 16. He tells me the names of all the prisons he has been in. He is worried because he is gradually losing his memory; he cannot remember the names of those closest to him, their addresses, their telephone numbers. "My mother tells me, 'There's nothing left for you now but the hospital or the slammer."' He has tried to put an end to it many times. His arms are slashed and badly marked. "I even swallowed glass, but it didn't work. Father, jail doesn't fix me up. It doesn't cure me. I'm fed up with this life. Can't anyone cure me?"

Louis tells me that when he was six years old his brother Jimmy was killed by a sadist on the roof of their house. One day Louis met his father in the receiving room of C 95, completely by accident. They had lost track of one another 17 years earlier. The COs were completely astonished to have a father and son before them. Louis has AIDS, and he talks easily about death. "I wish I could help the others; I think I could do it. I have seen so much!"

I recognize Frank. He had been on the Bowery. He had been in the men's shelter for deto3dfication quite a few times. He told me his story. "Father, the day after my birthday I turned myself in to the police. I thought it was the normal thing to do. I had been a fugitive for thirteen years, after being in jail in Colorado for robbing a taxi driver. I wanted to put some order in my life."

Two prisoners are talking. One says to the other: "I am a criminal. I can accuse myself of a lot of things. They have already punished me a lot and taken away a lot, but there is still something left that helps me go on living, and that is my wife's love." He speaks warmly, with confidence; he is enjoying himself. A few minutes later he is talking to his wife on the telephone. She tells him suddenly that it is all over between them; she even lets him listen to her lover, who is on the line with her. Her husband's dumbfounded response: "But I'm not a child any more! I'm your husband!" Two hours later they find him in the showers, trying to hang himself. He is rescued at the last minute.

"Father, my brother died in prison. Now it's my turn to be here at Rikers." His story could fill a book. Bob has been here several months while they discuss his case. He comes from Albania. When the country went Communist, his whole family was put in a concentration camp. After the father's death, they let the rest of the family out of the camp. They had no place to go. They took to the road with a wheelbarrow.

They found some construction work. He, his mother and his brother all helped carry cement. After a few months, they were arrested again. Some sabotage had been done in a government building and hostages were being taken. After furtive farewells to his mother and brother, Bob managed to flee the camp, where he said he had been tortured. "For me, Rikers is a paradise. I have been tied up, immobilized for hours in the hot sun. They burned me with magnifying glasses."

He shows me his scars, tells me about all his wanderings in Europe, his many wild adventures in crossing various borders, the American consulate in Austria, the year when he came to America. He had a lot of different jobs up to the day when he was able to work in construction again. He stayed in the same place, at the same job for 13 years. He was happy, got married, had four children. But then came a new snag, a new misfortune. In 1980 the house they had patiently built for themselves burned down. In 1981 his little daughter fell under the wheels of a car. The doctor gave her no chance. She was in intensive care for 11 days and then she recovered. Everyone called it a miracle.

In 1984 Bob was arrested. He had gotten involved in some drug dealing and was sentenced to a minimum of 15 years. His so-called accomplice, also at Rikers, told me before a witness that Bob was innocent and incriminated himself instead. Bob thought he could make use of that to appeal his case. But he couldn't, because he had no money to hire a lawyer. All he had was a court-appointed legal aid person. Bob is upstate now, serving his sentence. He has a magnificent family; they are always at our retreats, all four children and their mother. How many times has he asked me: "Why did all this happen? How can I forget? How can I forgive?"

I meet Ralph, who has been on drugs for 13 years. He is 28 years old. He feels as if his head is bursting; he wants to see a psychiatrist. He has no friends. He has been married three times, has five children. No one wants to have any more to do with him. He doesn't know what to do, whom to turn to. He wants to pray. He asks me how.

A woman employee is walking down the long corridor at the Anna M. Kross Center. She is an electrician in overalls. She is carrying long, heavy pipes on her shoulder, and is escorted, according to regulation, by a guard. The rules oblige him to accompany her, but not to help her. Thus, he walks alongside, empty-handed. The prisoners look on and laugh.

John says: "I don't understand why they talk about the Father in the Bible. My father is here at Rikers. I have a brother here, too. My other two brothers are in the army. My mother's gone. And my father accused me of murder to protect my brother from being convicted. I'm the one who has everything to forgive."

His head is almost invisible under the bandages. They have just removed one of his eyes. It was a prison brawl. "I wanted to start over from scratch," Greg says to me, "to make a complete new beginning." And I have been thinking this evening: "My brother, we are all born old. Youth is ahead of us. Life is just the time given us to prepare for it."

Tony has tattoos all over his body. He wants to see me, wants to pray. "I was born in Dannemora prison, up near the Canadian border," he says, "because my mother was already in prison herself. She was scrubbing the floor when I was born. I was raised by my grandmother for ten years. Later, I ran away from home when my father was trying to rape my sister. I sold perfume on the street. I would like to be a priest. What do I have to do?"

Hal is afraid. They have already broken into his cell, twice, torn it up, stolen his things. He was imprudent enough to voice his approval of a CO's decision regarding the telephone. There are one or two phones at each corner of the cell block for the inmates' use. In principle they are free to communicate with the outside since they are still awaiting trial and so are "presumed innocent." So all day long, at least during the designated hours, you can see a group waiting in every block. They are more or less nervous, more or less patient. It is a place that is very susceptible to conflicts, sometimes serious wounds and even death. On this particular morning a hysterical, enraged inmate had pulled the phone out of the wall. And Hal made it worse by saying in front of the CO. "Now we're all in a fix because of that idiot." A mortal sin. Hal has not been here very long; he is a lamb among wolves and doesn't know that the "idiot" is a leader in the block. It is literally a life or death matter for Hal. Now he is a threatened man, a man in terror. Because there are witnesses, because a captain was passing by, he is transferred to another block.

Here is a man sitting down, exhausted and dejected. "What good is praying? What good is God? I don't hear him. I've lost six years. They say I'm a 'victim of circumstances.' I'm in here for homicide, but all the same. The guy who could have told exactly what happened didn't talk. Now I'm 55 years old and there's nothing left for me. What good is praying?"

Eight years ago Ted had a flourishing business. He was happily married and the father of a family. He owned two buildings. But the part of town where he lived was not exactly the most peaceful. One day a "messenger" came to see him demanding regular payments and threatening difficulties if he should refuse. Ted listened but did not flinch. And that was the beginning of a long story.

One day his children were beaten on the street. Another time his wife was attacked. Somebody threw bricks at him from the roof next door. Ted found himself caught in a vice, with no chance to escape. Too much was at stake: his family, his property. Ted was irritated, angry, at his wits' end. One day he confronted the "messenger" who had come to renew the extortion demand. He took justice into his own hands and killed him. Ted was arrested and freed on $15,000 bond. He was in too much danger in New York, so he lost no time in taking his pregnant wife and three children, finding a hiding place for them in the Western states, liquidating his business affairs as best he could and returning to his native country in Europe.

When his case was called for trial, Ted was in Europe, a fugitive from the law. After seven years, far from his family and unhappy about the whole thing, he returned to New York, ready to face anything so long as he could be reunited with his children some day. Now Ted is at Rikers. His wife is still in the West. She lives on the sixth floor of a walk-up, in a one-room flat with the four children. She has no more resources and is living on welfare. Everything they had has gone for living expenses and lawyers' fees. Ted lives in agony. The parish in New York where he used to live has done everything to try to find witnesses who can bring about his release. But after eight years, the trail is cold.

Ted is pale, a figure of suffering. He says: "When I think that I am in here with the kind of people who smashed everything in my life!"

He is 19 years old. "Maybe it's a sin to be born. What good is living?" he says to me.

Ronnie's aunt is a religious sister. He tells me that she is the superior of a convent not far from New York. Since he is not sure of the exact address, Ronnie asks me to phone her, to tell her where he is. When I get home that evening, I find the number in the archdiocesan telephone directory and make contact with the sister. She reacts with surprise, astonishment, panic. She begs me under no circumstances to give her address and telephone number to her nephew. "Just tell him I'll write to him. . ."

John escaped from a prison outside of New York. His wife, Linda, died while he was at Rikers. We -- the Sisters of the Gospel and I -- knew her very well, admired her, celebrated the Eucharist with her in her sickroom. In her poverty and suffering, she retained a dignity and simplicity that deeply touched all of us. Even though she was dying, she still found kind words for other people. Sister Simone's mother was sick, and Linda kept asking about her. Her passing really marked all of us. The woman who is now taking care of the two children, while John remains a fugitive, and who looked after them while Linda was sick, is turning them against their father. She doesn't want him to see them. "If you come here, I'll call the police," she says. John is broken; he phones us again and again. He has nobody left in the world. Finally he gives himself up to the police.

Some friends of mine in France send me a packet of letters from children. It is Christmas. They are for the prisoners. Their catechism class wanted to write to the inmates at Rikers. At our Bible circle on Thursday, I translate the letters, which are written in French, for the 30 or so men present. Their eyes shine; they are extremely attentive. When I finish there is a long silence, then applause.

A CO comes back from court. He tells us about it. The accused was an old man of 79. The judge sentenced him to 12 years. The old man's reaction: "But I'll never make it. It's too much!" The judge's response: "No sweat. Do what you can."

"I'm not a believer," says Chris, "and here I am talking to you. If my mother heard about it, she'd call the police to see if it's true. I think I know that I have a heart, but I don't know where it is. I'm tired."

He comes from Peru. He is an immigrant, without papers. There is a grill between us. We talk between the bars.

"I am an American Catholic. My family is in Peru - my father, my mother. They are very poor. When I earn a $100 a week here, I send them $80 dollars. Eighty dollars is a fortune down there. The other $20 is for me, for food and everything. I think of them a lot. I write a lot. One day I stole something. That's why I am here. I had nothing left. I think God understands. When the Challenger exploded, the others will tell you that I took it badly. I cried. It's the truth, I did. I could see that teacher, her family, all the children who were watching, the other astronauts. . . . They talk about the end of the world. . . . There's too much going on, too much injustice, poverty, impossible situations."

The shuttle catastrophe had occurred on Tuesday of that week, January 28, 1986. Everybody had a reaction to it, even at Rikers. One vivid impression remains: That same evening there was a television interview with the mayor of New York. When asked about his reaction to what has just happened, he speaks of the tragedy, mentions the victims, expresses nicely, with delicacy, the sympathy felt by everyone at that moment. The shock is very fresh, still burning. His words are the voice of everyone. Immediately following, without even a commercial break, there is another question for the mayor on a completely different subject, a financial scandal in Queens involving the Democratic borough president. At a stroke the whole tone changes. A completely different mayor enters the arena, defending his ideas with fire and conviction, a fighter in grand form who knows where to land his punches. In four short minutes we have two different subjects and two different men. The contrast is astonishing. No doubt a public person, at the mercy of every kind of question, cannot help giving such an impression. But I cannot help noticing how short our attention span is, the natural weakness of our amazement. It seems to me that the speed of reality and its impact on our lives resemble the white crests of the waves at sea, passing over and wiping out one another. My simple Peruvian prisoner, without big words, gestures or power, reminds me of this truth. I have learned something, especially from his silence, and the mystery of this place in which we find ourselves and which we are trying to understand.

Jerry has just been arrested. He is 23 years old. He has not seen his father since he was 10. That fact haunts him. He wanted to see him; he looked for him. Finally he found his address and presented himself, "Hi, Dad, I'm your son!" "What? Get out of here and never come back! I don't want to see you." Jerry says, "So I walked out and said to myself: 'The hell with it! I don't care. I don't need a father!"'

Luis is very sweet, very sick, very scarred. His body is swollen, his face gray. He has spent 21 years in prison and 11 on the streets, sleeping under porches or in abandoned houses. "I would have liked to get married," he says, "but for a man like me, it's impossible. The family wouldn't have held together. My wife wouldn't have been happy. I have always lived in two opposite worlds: either I was being helped with everything, people saw to it that I had something to eat and a place to sleep, the way it is here in the prison, or else I was entirely left to myself. I am afraid of myself; I don't know how to live in society. I have never been loved. I can't remember ever having been happy in my life. I don't know what it is."

The Bible circle meets in the large chapel. Everyone is seated in groups. The atmosphere is peaceful, simple and attentive. There are about 30 of us. The door slams open. A captain enters with about 15 visitors, all impeccably dressed, on a tour. Looks are exchanged. Not a word is said; nobody changes expression. I have a physical impression of being in a zoo. We are the animals on exhibit.

He has come back from upstate and is staying at the HDM during a supplementary court proceeding. He says, "I'm from Attica. I got 25 years. My wife and three kids are going to see the psychiatrist. They can't handle any more."

He is sweeping the corridor. He stops me. We talk. "Prayer gives me more rest than sleep does," he tells me.

At the time of the earthquake in Mexico, a CO says: "Here in New York we have practically no natural disasters. We only have human disasters. They're called Rikers Island!" And a prisoner remarks to me: "What if that happened to us, that the walls would fall on us?"

Bill is 28. "If my brother came here this minute, you wouldn't be able to tell which of us is which. We are identical twins. Only my brother would never come here. He would be too embarrassed. He is a police officer and I am in prison. I am the black sheep of the family."

Ash Wednesday, 1989. It had been arranged with the Deputy [Warden] for Programs that we would have a celebration in the chapel today, with distribution of ashes. Everyone is invited to the HDM, even those in the hospital, if they can come. Some people from the outside have volunteered to participate. We have spent a lot of time getting ready. The prisoners know, and they are looking forward to coming. But on that very day, early in the morning, there is a red alarm on the island. That means there has been an escape attempt; this time it is in the adolescents' building, C 74. So everything stops. No movement allowed. As a result, the celebration is reduced to a minimum, two hours late, with no outside participants.

Two death notices come in one day. It is normally the chaplain's job to carry the news -never by telephone, always in person-either to the prisoner, if it is one of his or her relatives, or to the family if it is a prisoner who has died. In the latter case, which may happen at any hour of the day or night, the chaplain is always accompanied by two correctional officers in civilian clothes. Several times it has taken a whole night. It is never easy, never a simple matter, especially in cases of suicide. In ten years I have seen more than eighty suicides at Rikers.

So, on this particular day, I had two death notices. The first was that of a father murdered on the street, but the family asked that the son, who was at Rikers, not come to the funeral. Legally, every prisoner who has not yet been tried has the right to be present at the funeral or the wake of a close relative. The family's reason in this case was that they did not want him to be seen coming from the prison in handcuffs.

The second case was that of the brother of a prisoner, who also had been killed near his home in the early morning hours. There were three sons in the family, the one who had just died and two others in prison, one at Rikers and the other at Fishkill, upstate. "It's hard to swallow," is all the man at Rikers says..

I receive all of that, I listen, I am numb. Everything stops, becomes unreal, senseless. Where am I? What kind of world am I dealing with? There is always this nausea.

"Quick, tell me about God, tell me anything, but talk to me about God!" This worker in the prison hospital wants God as one wants air, light, sun, because he can't go on any more.

In six months Roberto has been taken to court 16 times. That means getting up at 5 in the morning, returning late in the evening, and going through all sorts of procedures, not the least of which is being kept in the overcrowded bull pen. Each time, it is for nothing. He has never seen or been able to talk with his lawyer. Every time it is a day lost, fall of tension, fear and frustration. He collapses and bursts into tears.

"I wrote a letter to my son," says Eddie. "He's 14. The letter was returned to me, unopened, and he had written on it with his own hand: 'Moved. No longer at this address.' I'll tell you, prison can never punish me anywhere near as much as what has happened between me and my son!"

A social worker has come with Nelson's two children. This was made possible only with quite a bit of effort and under strict control, because Nelson is in prison and his children are in a foster home. The social worker, after waiting two hours in vain in the main building at Rikers, leaves without Nelson's having seen his children. He had been moved from one building to another, and they didn't find him. Nelson weeps. "Wednesday I'm going to be sentenced, and then I'll go upstate. That'll be the end of ever seeing them." The tears of that big, strong man are as grotesque as a death grimace. He is a mortally wounded lion.

José's family lives in the Bronx. There are three children. They came from Ecuador and have very little money. They live in a basement. It is too small, but it is close to the boiler room. The noise is unbearable. José is at Rikers.

This was an "express" marriage. I had just scratched my friend Fred from the list for the Thursday Bible circle. He had been very faithful during the year he was here and had been one of the lectors at Mass. He was prayerful and asked a lot of questions; he loved the Word and read and reflected on it intelligently and with interest.

He is just leaving for Downstate [prison] to continue his sentence, which is 15 years to life. I am not sure why he is here. In principle, I don't ask unless, of course, someone talks to me about it. But his departure is a mistake. This very day he was supposed to get married, to give a regular civil form to his situation and that of his companion of many years. She is badly handicapped due to multiple sclerosis. They have a son who is hearing and speech impaired.

Well, I see him just as he is about to board the bus with barred windows to go to his new destination. "Father, could you tell the social workers? My wife should be in the visitors' room with the two witnesses, waiting for me. Tell them to hurry up." I run to Social Services, telephone right and left. They call Fred back. His wife, Ann, and the two witnesses are brought. The clerk is there. The ritual questions are posed, the papers signed, everything is in order. Done. The bus driver comes to see if we have finished. In less than five minutes, Fred is married and put back on the bus, his wrists in handcuffs. Everything is done according to rule, everybody is kept in line. It is eleven o'clock. Ann has been at the prison since eight o'clock this morning. The two witnesses weep. I stand there in the background, wordless, empty even of thoughts. A marriage, a parting -- a day in. the life of the poor.

"When I was 12 years old my buddies and I stole some thing in a hardware store -- oh, nothing big. It was petty larceny. At home my big brother took me aside and said to me: 'I promise not to do anything to you if you tell me the truth.' So I told him all the details of what had happened. After my confession, I got the greatest beating of my life. I was so beat up that I swore I'd never tell the truth again."

Dave has just been arrested. It is the first time. The shock is more than he can bear. He weeps, cries, trembles, is totally agitated. Dave can't get over the fact that he is here. I see him often. He knows what is hurting him. With time, with the passing months, Dave changes. He soaks up the colors, the monotony of the prison. I see him become indifferent, cynical, avoiding contact, laughing at silly things, playing games. In five months, Dave has become a different person. Dave is institutionalized.

I could go on this way forever, and so could a great many COs and prisoners who know Rikers. Every day has its share of incidents. These stories of individuals represent my greatest frustrations here: the banality, the excess, the gross emptiness of certain situations, of certain places, the evidence of the deprivation of choices in this "castle of the poor," as they call the prison. Sometimes I long to be far away, to run out into the world of nature, to see big trees, to get away. I want to cling to faithful friendship, to everything that is solid, that lasts. I want to gorge myself on silence, on simple communion with what is complete, entire, whole. I want to walk the ways that are open to me, to leave the darkness behind.

The necessary conclusion is that Rikers Island is the quite natural result of situations that, humanly speaking, have no solution. I cannot embark here on the cold facts of the sociology of misery, passively dissecting the elements that lead to the abyss, plunging into the pitiless dryness of statistics. As a human being and a priest, I can't help but be disturbed, enduring in my turn these thorns that attack and pierce the heart of a society that is existentially sick. What is certain, and what I did not know at the beginning is that to begin to see and to say that there are people who are suffering is to step into fetters that will last a lifetime.


NYCHS presents these text excerpts from Pierre Raphael's Inside Rikers Island: A Chaplain's Search for God by permission of its author who retains the copyright © and reserves all rights thereunder. For more about the book and how to obtain it, contact Fr. Raphael at Abraham House where he is spiritual director, visit Orbis Books, Amazon.Com, or Barnes and Noble.
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