One of the Little Sisters of the Gospel who is a chaplain at a prison on Rikers Island in New York City asked me to say the Sunday Mass there on what turned out to be a bitterly cold afternoon. Part of me was glad to go; it would reconnect me with my own past years of chaplaincy work there. That experience had convinced me of the truth of a statement by Eugene V. Debs, the one-time Socialist contender for the presidency in the early part of the 20th century, who had done time on trumped-up charges at Chicago’s infamous Cook County jail. He wrote in his autobiography, “From the hour of my first imprisonment in a filthy county jail, I recognized that prison was essentially an institution for the punishment of the poor.” Returning to Rikers that afternoon sharply reminded me of Debs’s insight.
Getting to Rikers by public transportation from my parish in Lower Manhattan involves a four-hour round trip—first a subway ride into Queens, and then the Q101 bus. You have to flag it down, and so coming up from the subway station, I took my place at the curb across the street by a bus stop where others were waiting for their own buses that would take them to various destinations. Finally the bus marked Rikers Island appeared, pulling over in response to my vigorous waving. The driver expressed surprise when I boarded. I was the only passenger. Visiting hours were over at Rikers, so why would I be going there? He relaxed when I explained about the Mass.
On arrival, I made my way through the I.D. checkpoints at the Control Building and then took an island van to the prison hospital’s annex, where the Mass was to be held. There the sister chaplain led me to a barren gym, whose electric light fixtures, dangling from the sheet metal ceiling, cast a glare over the cinder block walls and plastic chairs. Big metal heaters above us roared away to little effect; the gym was ice cold. Knowing that the prisoners have little in the way of warm clothing, the sister had arranged with the officer in charge to have the Mass celebrated instead in the day room of a nearby infirmary ward. With a few of the more able-bodied prisoners, we moved the chairs, altar and other equipment to one of the ward’s warmer and brighter day rooms.
An African American prisoner had his throat covered with a black cloth. “I have throat cancer,” he said. “They brought me down from Attica to get treatment at a city hospital.” “Are you in pain?” I asked. “Not too much,” he said, without elaborating. Another standing with us had almost no teeth—sometimes a sign of prolonged drug use. Initially I assumed that these and a few others—like two men in wheelchairs—would be the only people attending the Mass. But in time three dozen more came from the hospital across the road, a long line of prisoners who were not only handcuffed, but attached by their handcuffs to a chain, creating what was literally a small chain gang. It was a strange sight, and I watched as a guard unlocked them one by one, all of them suffering from sicknesses that were sometimes visible and sometimes not. One man who asked for a blessing had his arm in a cast.
After counting them, a guard ordered them to be seated, and the liturgy finally got under way. The second reading for that Sunday served as a mirror image of our small congregation. It was from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the passage in which he speaks of what might be called the value-reversal implicit in Jesus’ message for the poor and outcast: “God chose what is low and despised in the world.” Who more low and despised than a group of sick prisoners, some dying of AIDS? The fact that the passage was read by one of the Hispanic prisoners added to its power. The day’s Gospel fit too: the Beatitudes. The prisoners’ incarcerated status and their compromised physical condition made them blessed in the eyes of a God whose compassion embraces the accused and the afflicted. Even without asking, I could tell that this was the sister’s view as well. What else could give her the strength to persevere in such emotionally demanding work?
Throughout the Mass, we were closely observed by two guards, who stood outside in the corridor, looking through wraparound plexiglass windows. A third guard sat inside with us, presumably in case of trouble. But the prisoners were quiet and attentive. When the Mass ended, several came forward to ask what church I was from. When I gave my address on the Lower East Side as Second Avenue and Second Street, several said they knew the locality, and one excitedly cried out, “That’s my grandmother’s parish!” Another told me he had once lived a few blocks away, at one of the projects on the East River that I visit on Saturdays bringing a meal from a soup kitchen to an elderly shut-in. “I’m almost 50,” he said. “I spent 20 years in an upstate prison when I got out of the Marines on drug charges. Cocaine and heroin,” he added, “these have always been my main problem.” He went on to say that while he was upstate, a sister he had been out of touch with for decades discovered him through the Internet and wrote saying, “You don’t have to be in contact with me if you don’t want to be.” But when he found her letter on the bars of his cell, he immediately replied, and now they are in touch—one of the brighter moments of his long incarceration experience.
It was dark by the time the sister and I left the hospital annex to return to the Control Building. On arriving hours before, I had passed several guards leaving the island after their tour of duty. In street clothes, they were laughing and chatting—a reminder that entering the desolate world of the incarcerated is for some just a way to earn their daily bread. We had to run to catch the Queens bus in front of the building. The driver was a woman this time, and a few other passengers joined me on this return trip. More Masses at Rikers may lie ahead. But whatever the season of the year, they will all serve as reminders of the Corinthians passage we heard that cold Sunday afternoon.