by Fr. Paul Morrissey
Appeared in the Commentary section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, February 21, 2007
I began my first day as a chaplain in the Philadelphia Prison System on Ash Wednesday, 2006. My destination, the Detention Center, is one of six large prisons located on State Road near the Cottman Avenue Exit of Interstate 95.
An inmate led me into a cellblock where the protective custody inmates are held. They were dressed in bright orange jumpsuit-type outfits. Two inmates lived in each of these cells, with bunk beds on one side, the room hardly bigger than a walk-in closet. No privacy here, I thought. Constant noise too.
Some of the men glanced out of their cells, while others stood by the little barred openings. I imagined they might reach out and grab me by the neck as I walked by with my airport traveling bag, filled with materials with which to say Mass: missal, chalice, altar cloths, music, hosts, wine, alb and stole, and portable CD player.
I had been told by Laura Ford, my ministry director for the Archdiocese, and Phyllis Taylor, the lay chaplain for the facility, that the Mass is usually celebrated on the floor. “Yes, on the floor,” they repeated, “the inmates sit in a circle.” I tried to picture this arrangement as we drew up to a little open space between two sets of cells that faced each other.
The inmate who led me there placed a small bench near one side of the space, and drew up what looked like a trash can in the center. “Do you want to say the Mass on the floor or on this?” he asked as though it was the most normal thing in the world.
The trash barrel with its cover looked like an attractive alternative. “This’ll do,” I said, trying to fake casualness. I set up for the Mass with a tightness in my stomach, wondering what I had gotten myself into and if I would get out.
It turned out to be a profound experience.
Tough guys in their twenties and thirties with tattoos on their arms, whom I’d be afraid to pass on the street, squatted cross-legged on the floor around the trash can altar singing “Amazing Grace.” Even a man who had to watch from his locked cell joined in the singing.
All of them listened attentively as I tried to offer some words exploring the meaning of the ashes on our foreheads. “It is for solidarity with each other in our humility before God as we enter into the Lenten period,” I said. I didn’t know what they were thinking. What do you say to people in a prison to give them hope?
Each of them came forward then and devoutly received the ashes on their foreheads from Laura and me. During the kiss of peace which is offered as a symbol to reconcile before the Eucharist, I noticed that the inmates made sure to shake one another’s others hand as well as mine, including the two transsexuals (no one, even the toughest guys, seemed to disdain them). This ceremony was especially poignant when the guy who was only able to peek out of his cell reached through the bars to return a handshake of peace.
As I packed up to leave a short time later, I noticed one grizzled looking white guy leaning down to kiss the crucifix I had laid on the trash-can altar. (I mention his race because many of the inmates are Black and Hispanic, and also because some people think all of them are) He came up and asked me if I had a rosary. A rosary! His prayer was perhaps more fervent than many in our churches and synagogues because he knew he had sinned and needed mercy.
I felt sad for these men and women, these sons and daughters of God, even if they have done some bad things. Many of the 8,900 inmates in the Philadelphia Prison on State Road are awaiting trial. Some are serving out short sentences of two years or less, others waiting to be sent upstate. Worst of all, some are back for a second or third time. The hopelessness of their lives gets to my heart, like it gets to God’s suppose, as thousands of people roar by on Interstate 95 unaware.
The Gospel of Matthew (Ch. 25) tells us that we will be rewarded on Judgment Day for “visiting Christ in prison.” I think I know why I was called to this ministry now. To open my eyes to what God is doing in the world. To recognize him in his orange jumpsuit.