Pierre Raphael's Inside Rikers Island:
A Chaplain's Search for God
Page 1 of 13 NYCHS excerpts presentation pages.

Author Pierre Raphael writes NYCHS about its excepts presentation:©

Fourteen years ago I would not have dreamed that I would someday be indebted to a New York Correction History Society, particularly to its webmaster . . . . A copy of my book Inside Rikers Island happened to fall into his hands somewhere on Rikers and, after having read it, he offered to give my out-of-print book a new lease on life via modern cyberspace. Thanks to NYCHS, a new and welcome audience is now possible.

Although I wrote this book fourteen years ago, I trust web readers will not be turned off by what may at first seem passé. Since its story of discovery remains very much of a challenge today, it is not an old book. Our human condition is timeless and its mystery can be experienced everyday.

When I began ministering to prisoners 25 years ago, I could not have imagined a lifelong commitment to the prison world. However, it is the very reason why I am still living in America. It is not the name of the country that is important, but rather the persons behind bars that I have met as well as their impact on my thinking, my hoping, and my pain. Most of the prisoners reside in New York City.

By the grace of God, I am a priest of the Catholic Church, and a pilgrim in life. I am not unique in that I am interested in God but I would run away from all this, if God were just a word.

Abraham House, where I now live, is the natural continuity of the story I recounted in my book Inside Rikers Island. It is an alternative program to incarceration. In a new book to be published hopefully in 2004, I will share the story of the Abraham House and the unfolding of current responses to today's prison reality.

Fr. Pierre Raphael


A response (below) to Fr. Pierre Raphael's opening message (above):

Fr. Pierre Raphael

In your gracious note (above) opening our web excerpts presentation of your book Inside Rikers Island, you thank NYCHS for putting your words into cyberspace. Rather, we express our thanks to you: for writing this excellent and deeply moving account of your Rikers chaplaincy, and for allowing us to share extensive portions of it with visitors to our web site.

Additionally, we are indebted to you and Sister Simone, Abraham House co-founder, for making available to us early newsletters and brochures from its development and for allowing myself and my fellow correction history colleague Gerald Schultz to tour your facility and interview you both on camera about it. I plan to add to our Abraham House history web pages some images and audio from that video tape.

Taking off both my hat as the retired but still active director of histroical services for NYC DOC and my hat as NYCHS general secretary/ webmaster, and speaking solely as one student of correction history, I thank you and all associated with Abraham House for raising and maintaining this relatively rare ray of hope in the otherwise dark and gloomy prospect emerging from the annals of penology.

For me personally, Abraham House underscores a point evident from my own readings of correctional history: that "offender rehabilitation" programs in big institutions (while worth undertaking for many reasons, including society's own need to retain its humane values) seem to work there not as well as programs carried out in smaller, home-like residences that create a sense of extended family or community.

The huge institution tends, despite some enlightened efforts to ameliorate the effect, to depersonalize and "numb" the individual inmate whereas the shared residence approach -- whether called a home, a house or a cottage -- provides the interpersonal supports and encouragements, from both real family and residence "family," that an offender seems to need to grow as a person, to see others as persons too, and to change his life around accordingly.

A common characteristic of historic rehabilitation innovations to ameliorate the large institution's numbing effect -- for example, the "squads" in the early days at Elmira Reformatory, the "cottages" in the early days at Bedford Hills, the early Mutual Welfare Leagues of Thomas Mott Osborne, the athletic teams of Sing Sing Warden Lewis E. Lawes, et al -- appears to be some attempt at creating a sense of family or community.

I view Abraham House as fitting in this heroic but all too thin historic line of alternatives to the near-inevitable impersonalization of massive institutions of incarceration.

So I personally thank you because your Abraham House and its continued operation have made my studying correction history less discouraging.

The ultimate prison is despair but Abraham House is all about hope. That is why it is so liberating, not only for its residents but for the rest of us as well.

Thomas McCarthy


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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