Pierre Raphael's Inside Rikers Island:
A Chaplain's Search for God
Page 12 of 13 NYCHS excerpts presentation pages.

Let me see things as they are, and don't let anything throw dust in my eyes. --- Therese of Lisieux


I return from a week's absence from Rikers. I visited family and friends. It was sunshine and moments of happiness. Today is my first morning walking down the corridors of the jail. Suddenly, there is violence. Four inmates are fighting in Block 4. Help comes too late. The four prisoners are wounded, one critically. There is blood on the floor and on the wall. I didn't see what happened exactly; I see only the terrible results. If I had forgotten violence during my week's break, once again I am confronted with the folly of this world of isolation and emptiness.

After this incident I begin my regular visits to the prisoners. There is the ex-policeman who wanted to make a little extra money and who now finds himself in prison. His professional life, his family, have all been devastated. We speak, but I listen for the most part. He begs me to pray for him; he asks me to come and see him again.

The next inmate I visit speaks of the stupidity of his brother who is prison upstate. This stupidity on his brother's part was his taking vengeance on an "enemy," whom he paralyzed for life. I can't remember the reason he gave for the crime; all I remember is that his brother prepared the revenge for two years. All those years with only one idea in his head: to do harm. One result, among others, is that now he has six years in prison to "enjoy" his victory.

One visit like this after another -- this will be my day at Rikers. My vacation is very far away now as I am re-immersed in the maelstrom of the prison. There is nothing especially unique or exceptional in these events, which are part of our world today. There is only the closeness of this daily darkness. On the level of simple psychology, whether one is a prisoner or not, the world of the prison is a world of stress. It is impossible for anyone to maintain a clinical detachment here. To systematically refuse to show any trace of emotion in the name of a supposed professionalism or in the name of preserving one's mental health at any price impoverishes any kind of communication or human presence. There are stress management programs to assist with the work. I'd like to describe one of my experiences.

A DOC bus. (outside)

A DOC bus. (inside)

photo images ©

The Raphael book has no images illustrating the text. For design and informational purposes, relevant images have been added and captioned by the webmaster.

I attend a day's program on stress with the chaplains of the New York Department of Correction. There are 35 of us, including rabbis, imams, male and female Protestant ministers, Catholic sisters, brothers and priests. A sister from Ossining who is trained in psychology will conduct the session. We are in Queens, at Cathedral College in Douglaston, a spacious place with lovely trees, far from all the pressure and noise of the prison

What I remember, beyond the information we were given and the tests to which we all submitted in order to evaluate our degree of stress, is the exercise on centering prayer as described by the sister and suggested to all of us, from whatever denomination. For 20 minutes, comfortably seated, eyes lowered, we created an emptiness in our spirits to be filled solely by a mantra, a word expressing a quality, a relationship to the God we adore. Maranatha was proposed for the Christians. I recognize the psychological fruit of this exercise, regaining control over the crazy thoughts in our heads, and the spiritual point, soaking up God as a sponge soaks up water, as lungs take in air, letting go of what burdens us, "erasing the tape" of frustrations, of what is poisonous. . . .

I can't help thinking at this point of the chaplain, always very active, visible, open and committed, who, after eight years in the prison, said to me: "I can't think any more. I have become a machine." So he was functioning out of instinct, on the spur of the moment. It became impossible for him. He had to leave. And his departure had every appearance of flight. I am not passing judgment on the responsibility for or the circumstances of this particular "burnout," but it is true that the means of survival in prison are anything but obvious, and are not to be acquired by oneself. As with an automobile, periodic servicing is necessary. You have to know how to disengage regularly in order to go on living, whether with a mantra or something else.

But I have often thought about that form of silent and cleansing prayer practiced by the chaplains with regard to my imprisoned friends. For if there is any group faced with fatigue, lack of energy and poor self-esteem, it is this one, these people who are here because someone has put them here. I am talking about the ones, whether criminals or not, who are seeking a way far removed from the confusion and tension and who come to me asking for such a way. So sometimes in our Bible circle we practice this exercise, this working silence. And it is always different from doing it alone. The quality of the group exerts pressure, creates reflections, has an impact on each of us. There are moments we all notice, that we all remember because this "loss of time" refills the world with space; it is simply gift and grace. . . .

That meeting of chaplains was a good one. Everyone agreed in saying that, in the midst of the depressing prison system, vigilance is absolutely necessary to avoid being trapped and destroyed before you know it. We all tell what we do, what means we choose to keep a cool head and catch our breath: music, games, physical exercise, and others. Certainly, all that is obvious and results from the fragility of the common human condition. I would simply point to another experience, the human and spiritual experience of a church, the necessity of a solid group and a fundamental vision. If we forget that, if we let our perspectives, plans, motivations slip and do not continue to nourish ourselves with them, then I think it is time to leave, to seek some other place in which to repair the damage. There are situations in which it would be more than simply "too bad" if we went the wrong way. There are joys too precious for us to persist in fleeing them or in resigning ourselves to not seeing them. Sister Simone tells me: "In prison I am not giving; I am receiving." Jean Vanier said, when he was in New York: "When you become gratuitous, free, all the world around you becomes free" . . .


The terrible hour when God is not real and when I go loving him just the same. --- Marie Noel


The prison, our parish. . . beyond eucharistic celebrations and catechesis in the framework of Scripture courses, we have baptisms, visits to the sick, to families, and so on. I will speak about these last in more detail a little later on. But we have no Catholic marriages here, because of the difficulty of making the canonical inquiries (on account of the separation of the inmates from their families) and the fragility of unions contracted when the walls of a prison separate the two partners.

James A.Thomas
Memorial Plaza

photo images ©

The Raphael book has no images illustrating the text. For design and informational purposes, relevant images have been added and captioned by the webmaster.

It is often difficult to explain this decision to the men and women concerned, but I cannot help approving of it. For really, how can we sacramentally affirm a union in which one spouse lives inside the bars and the other outside? Before coming here some of these inmates already lived in quasi-marital partnerships. Why did they wait until they were in Rikers before asking and obtaining a religious blessing on their marriage? It is an action that involves the church too deeply for us to banalize it or weaken its fundamental vision. There remains the possibility of a legal, civil marriage, or even a religious ceremony if such is permitted by other denominations or confessions.

I cannot get involved at this point in all the implications of the question of marriage in prison. That would take us far beyond these pages. My purpose here is simply to allude to something that is often perceived as a source of scandal, and that is very difficult to accept, even here in prison -- religious division.

The inmates experience this division from the beginning of their incarceration; some of them for the first time in their lives. They do not understand why the Catholics, Baptists, Evangelicals, Protestants, Muslims, Jews each have their own celebrations. The plurality of churches, the separation of religions puzzles and disturbs them. They ask: "Why are there so many religions, so many denominations, so many individual ways to approach God?" It is a very good question, quite naturally posed one day or another when one is growing up, but here it is notoriously in peril of producing confusion. The environment here is such that it is easy to try out all sorts of things and to give oneself all sorts of reasons for making comparisons while remaining a spectator. Separation from liberty can very easily become a separation from responsibility. What remains is only the indifference of certainty without substance. . . .

Here at Rikers, as a chaplain and a Catholic, I do not experience a single day in which I am not confronted by the harshness, the wounds, the incontrovertible evidence of religious division. In this situation there is no way of avoiding the question, or ducking a response to it. . . .

If there is a place where it is necessary to mobilize good will, spiritualities, and consciences, it is certainly in this place! To get beyond simple conviviality, where people acknowledge one another just because they are supposed to, because they are in business together, and to try to approach the state of dialogue where real encounter takes place, a meeting that happens not for the sake of gain but for the sake of moving together, not for defense or attack but for growth, is an enormous challenge for all of us. No one here can avoid this challenge. Thus the test of the chaplain is his or her credibility and effectiveness, like that of any other man or woman who is the bearer of a belief. How do we function in our lives? What really counts for us? . . . .

Other Memorials

(Above) Francis R. Buono
Memorial Bridge marker

Vernon C. Bain Memorial
marker on Rikers (above).
Bain Center jail barge,
(below) seen from Rikers.

photo images ©

The Raphael book has no images illustrating the text. For design and informational purposes, relevant images have been added and captioned by the webmaster.

As chaplains of different denominations we are a kind of United Nations on Rikers Island. Each one of us as a representative of a different religion has a potential for division or unity. We cross one another's path in the hallways, we share offices, we sometimes meet the same people, who want to talk to each of us, we have meetings together. We all claim to be men or women of God. If we end up men or women of the system, focusing only on rights, rules, regulations, ID cards and numbers, something important is lost, and this is very sad. Our words and our deeds can bury our message.

Sometimes this happens and everything peters out in platitudes. The religious people involved go astray and transform themselves into a secular administration, an organization devoid of passion and of vision. This is a judgment on our false peace and our drawing back from conflict. Ecumenism has been forgotten. It is true that the title of chaplain does not automatically guarantee deep faith. I say this all the more freely since I am a member of the tribe and cannot exempt myself from the collective contributions and deficiencies of all of us.

Sometimes, on the other hand, there are moments of real grace -- encounters and the providence of brothers and sisters coming from other religious traditions. We take time to acknowledge one another and how we relate to God. The terse American way of saying things doesn't prevent genuine friendship, brotherhood and love. I recall a commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a week of prayer for Christian unity, celebrated each year, in which each denomination's door was open to all. I recall memorial services for CO's or inmates who had passed away. In these, a divided group became, at least for a moment, one spirit, one mind. Beautiful people can be found in all traditions. . . .

The crying evidence of the prison, in the midst of so many frustrations, is that people who are dispossessed, in exile, thirsting for forgiveness, find themselves in the optimum place for embracing Life, for encountering others." I don't want prison to be the end of the world for me," says Tony. "I want to be able to start over."

"On Ash Wednesday I went to court and pleaded guilty. I thought that was a very good day to do it," says John.

To know how to lose everything is to know how to gain everything. . . .

The saying that we are members one of another is not a mere pious formula to be repeated in church without any meaning; it is a literal truth, for though the rich end of town can avoid living with the poor, it cannot avoid dying with the poor. --- George Bernard Shaw


At regular intervals near the major holidays, especially at Christmas, the word suicide is spoken. The DOC circulates pamphlets on suicide prevention. In addition, throughout the year, in every block and every dormitory, there are prisoners who are employed solely for the purpose of surveillance, to be there and to prevent suicides. Every fifteen minutes they are supposed to see everyone and walk through the whole area. Suicide watch is a job here, because the prison touches the heart of existence; it unlocks the fundamental questions of meaning, life and death, and so finds within its walls the massive failure called suicide.

Cell locks & keys,
old & not so old.

photo images ©

The Raphael book has no images illustrating the text. For design and informational purposes, relevant images have been added and captioned by the webmaster.

I do not have current statistics. I only remember a report of a few years ago which mentioned more than 80 suicides at Rikers within ten years. I do not have the exact figures, but I have faces, conversations, facts that go on haunting me, witnesses to the fissures that run through all the "why" of the world. I can understand why the DOC continues to be very sensitive and concerned about these issues, and I understand that as chaplains we are in a very good place to see the implications. We see not merely scars on wrists or throat, pains in the stomach or wherever you please; there are also conversations and often the giddy darkness of nothingness when action has finally achieved its purpose, has succeeded. What has gone before, that it should turn out this way? That is the question that obsesses those who are left behind.

"When you're dead, you're free." That sentence on a poor little piece of paper, as a final testament, is the sign of a radical failure. I remember a prisoner who wanted to paint himself on canvas the way he saw himself. He portrayed himself on his knees on the ground, with an enormous box on his shoulders, supported by his hands. On top of the box there was a dead bird with broken wings. "Those are my dreams," he said. And around him, the earth was cracking and gaping. The painting, in its naivety, told everything: abandonment, solitude, fatigue, a sentence of death. . . .

I have always considered it a normal responsibility of a priest . . . to be present with family or friends at the moments of parting or bereavement, when everything is reduced to the ultimate and the essential, when a whole group is besieged by pain. . . . There are no words, no possible attitude, to tell a family that a prisoner has put an end to his life. To do this, as prescribed, in the company of two correctional officers, is to enter into a world of excess and abjectness, for we are nothing but one of the implacable moments in a frozen chain. My memories are full of cries and endless pain, shattering the crystal of the word humanity. . . ,

More Rikers scenes,
inside & outside..

photo images ©

The Raphael book has no images illustrating the text. For design and informational purposes, relevant images have been added and captioned by the webmaster.

Let me give just two examples. The first is not about a prisoner, but it remains with me as a symbol of today's world, without any distinction of conditions. This was a C0 who was cut down during the night with his own gun, far from home. In such a case a captain from DOC is supposed to be present when the family is told. After a lot of effort to locate the family . . . we finally made contact with them. When we told them the news, which they received without flinching, they had only one question: "In case it was suicide, does the family receive compensation from the DOC?" At that moment, in that place, without even time to think, there surfaced another "fault" on top of all the others of that night: the lack of respect.

The second incident happened around Christmas. His name was José. He was from Guatemala. I knew him. We had talked together several times. They found him, early in the morning, hanging in his cell. This time, again, we had a lot of trouble getting in contact with the family. The building was very large, and there was no name on the mailbox. There was no way of finding the super. Quite by accident, as I was getting ready to leave with the two C0s, I noticed someone walking down the street who looked a lot like our inmate. I stopped him and asked: yes, he was José's brother. He was coming home from work. I told him who I was and that I had come especially to speak to him about José. He asked us to come upstairs to his flat. His wife was there; their two children were playing. There was a lighted Christmas tree. We came into that quiet world of simple joy and turned it upside down. I remember the father's action when he realized what had happened. He got up, walked straight to the Christmas tree and turned it off. The children watched, understanding without another word. The darkness in their house was the darkness in their hearts.

In the face of that pasture for the steeds of evil and of failure, which is the latent tragedy of the prison, it is certain that not everything can be charged to the account of a system that is powerless to penetrate actions and motives. In decisions such as those that lead to suicide, there is more going on than questions of environment or external conditions, even if these play their part. Any power, especially one with a variety of means at its disposal, must always place controls on its force and impact. Inside the prison, it will always be at pains not to be seen as the enemy or at least the adversary.

I will not try to comment on the tyrannies that are always possible where people are fallible and all of them imperfect. Nor am I trying to shove off all the crimes on a society that is already too badly wounded. But I believe that the challenge here, as in many other places, is whether humanity is in regression or progression. Everything that happens at Rikers, every witness who cares to think about what he or she has seen, produces a plethora of urgent invitations to make structural progress while changing the atmosphere; to act where one is, in concert with others; to meditate on the mystery of the choice before all of us, that is, to live in hope or to sink down in darkness. . . .


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.
 <-- previous next --->

To: NYCHS home page.
Rev. Jared Curtis
First Prison
in the U.S.
The Prison and
the Theological
1869 NYS Prison
Chaplain Reports:
Auburn, Sing
Sing, Clinton
Finding the
'Lost Chapel'
Rikers Island