“what are the red lines and the yellow lines?” // “stay to the right” …the red lines are on the right.
just so you know, it’s a lot. here you go:
my spiritual director serves as a retreat director among other roles, at a jesuit retreat center in upstate new york. as a result, she has come to know many sisters, missionaries, and many other men and women serving in different ministries throughout her years…AND one of those people she connected me with, is sister eileen, with the sisters of charity. 🙂
sister eileen, who i have only been in contact with through email, about 3 times, serves as a chaplain to women on rikers island. yup, rikers island. the sign says, “new york’s boldest” – it is a correctional facility. it is a jail, it is the place where men and women go, if they are convicted for a crime. and so, begins my journey…
after hearing only stories from my students about conditions on rikers island, and hearing “miss, why the HECK would you go there?” from each one of them, i finally trekked on over there, to meet some of the women, talk with them, pray with them, help lead a prayer service with them, and serve alongside sister eileen. wow.
take the A train, to the E train, to the Q100 –> rikers island. it could not have worked more perfect. seamless even…despite the fact that i relied on “google maps” and sr. eileen saying, as soon as you see the large white sign that says “rikers island,” you will get off in about 2 seconds, i made it. i got out of the E train, and stood in the 94 degree heat, and what seemed to be 80% humidity, black slacks, black wedges, purple banana republic shirt, looking for the Q100. where the HECK was i. there was a man sitting on a chair, who just finished whistling at a girl as she walked by, and he was selling books. because there was no one else in sight, i asked him, excuse me, where is the Q100? he said to make a right, and i should see the stop on the corner.
i turned the corner, and saw the Q100…ready to depart. READY…GO!!! i ran…hard. fast. for those of you who know me, i don’t run…however, this time, i had a cheer team. there were about 4 guys that i passed on my half block marathon, and yes, i got a lot of, “get it girl,” “run!” comments…i caught my breath, caught the driver, and said, “excuse me sir, does this bus go to rikers island?” he said yes. and so i went, and proceeded to sit next to a woman in scrubs.
i called my mom, and told her i was going to a jail – i figured she should know what i was doing that afternoon/evening, and i figured she could lift me up in prayer. at first she was like, WHAT? where are you going? what? with who? BY YOURSELF? what? and then i said, yes mom. she then said, are you scared? i was taken aback. after 5 seconds, in my mind and heart, i said, ah, i think so. what i allowed to come out, was, um, kinda – it’ll be ok though. and so i proceeded to stay alert, look for the big white sign that said, rikers island, and i immediately felt butterflies in my stomach. it wasn’t the butterflies of excitement like i get before i go to disneyland, but it was the butterflies, of whoa, crystal, you’re really doing this.
i eventually saw the white sign, and got really anxious, and proceeded to get up, because the bus driver stopped – and then i said, wait, is this the stop before the bridge? and he said, no, just one more. the woman next to me, said, there’s one more stop. just wait a little bit. and so i did, and i got dropped off. under a red shed in a parking lot. there were little whispies in the air everywhere. it looked like there was a city pillow fight no one told me about, and you would win if you succeeded in getting rid of all the feathers in your pillow. i called sr. eileen, told her i was there, and she said she was on her way, and to hang tight. hang tight, i did.
it was hot – so very hot. i was able to find a pocket of shade under the shed, but that did not block the whispies from getting in my contacts, stuck in my iphone, and the heat to overcome me. i watched as the cars passed by – the families, the friends, attorneys of the inmates, the buses which said “CORRECTIONS” on them, the people who would make this trek everyday.
i looked to my left, and saw a friendly woman in a pink floral shirt and khaki colored slacks, bearing a cross. SR.EILEEN!!! i gave her a hug, and we were on our way. we drove to the end of the parking lot to the office where we would be able to check if i got the clearance to enter the jail. sr. eileen double-checked with them earlier this week and they promised her it was there.
well, it was! as soon as i got it, she said, you know, it’s a miracle that you got this. this was too easy. God must have really wanted you here today. and so we went. go through one stop point, go through another, and when you’re rollin with the chaplain, you get to drive directly TO the jail. we didn’t have to park far and walk. she drove me around, showed me the offices, showed me the different jail complexes, and explained to me that every jail has 4 chaplains: jewish, protestant, muslim, and catholic. she serves the women there, and has been there for 3 years.
and so i went…i entered the jail and with my plastic container of food for dinner, in a plastic see through bag, i was able to enter the jail after giving my california drivers license as my form of ID. i walked through the metal detector, and i was in. no pat down, no questioning, no interrogation, no hands on me. so i went and met some of the correction officers. we were then in a cell, or holding area, rather, waiting to get the keys to her office – we would then receive these keys through a metal slot. once you are in this holding area, you are IN it. with automatic sliding prison bars, i felt like this was an intro to the jail. here, we had to wait for a corrections officer to serve as an escort. sister was able to walk around freely, but not me. i was not THAT legit yet.
haha, so we waited for a little bit – normally this could take who knows how long, because these officers are up and down, cruisin the halls, pulled in different directions, always…so to get an escort is a situation. well, by the grace of God, we stumbled upon one, and she was gracious enough to delay her dinner, and take us to where we would be holding our prayer service. GRATEFULNESS. timing so perfect that she was there, as soon as we needed someone? YES. absolutely. was that a “God-thing?” YES.
as soon as she came to our side, walking by, we went. i asked questions, like, what is the red line? what is the yellow line?, looked at the metal detectors in every corridor that the women had to walk through always, saw the first glimpses of women in two straight, orderly filed lines walking to dinner, monitored by officers, looked out the window to the recreational area (a huge area of blacktop, wooden benches along the perimeter, creating a box, and four basketball courts. it is what it is. as we walked, i would hear the women say, “hi sister,” to sister eileen – she gave them a smile, said hello, and i did the same. visitors, regardless of who they were there, or WHY they were there – it didn’t matter. you were someone different. someone from the outside.
before stopping to the chaplain area, i had the chance to step inside the bin. what is that? it’s solitary confinement. it is the place where women live, by themselves, locked up, no windows, except for a small vertical rectangular glass window as a means of visual contact. underneath the window are approximately 10 small holes (the diameter of an eraser on a pencil top), and that is the voice box. this is how sister eileen would speak with them. if it would be difficult to hear, which, most times it is, she would talk to them through the small crease of air that separates the door from the door frame. physical contact? they would place their hands on the glass, and pray that the glass would transmit that physical contact. they would receive their meals through the metal slots that i only see at sketchy gasoline stations that are always coupled with bulletproof glass. yup, same thing. 23 hours in solitary confinement. silver toilet, silver sink, mirror, and wire bed with thin 3 inch mattress. no windows. 23 hours in solitary confinement, one hour for recreation. visits from the chaplain. go to court. that is their life. need to go to the shower? have a visitor? you are shackled, you are handcuffed.
sister eileen carried flowers with her for the prayer service. one of the women was going to see a visitor, and she said with a huge smile on her face, hi sister! wow! what beautiful flowers! sister eileen said, i’d give you one, but i don’t know where to put — hold on. she cut off the flower, and placed it in the woman’s jumpsuit. the woman said thank you, and went on her way, handcuffed with the officer. it was in that moment where she did not have freedom to use her hands to hold the flower, since she was handcuffed, that something clicked in me. this is how she lives. what? i don’t understand this.
sr. eileen then told me that the women really like flowers. they notice them – it’s something fresh that they don’t always see. i’m not someone who is terribly in love with flowers, but really, after seeing that woman’s face light up at the sight of the daisies, i think that changed everything for me. two floors of locked up cells, stale smell, some yells to communicate with one another, between the units…that was the bin. i wasn’t scared…just in disbelief that this exists.
we made it to the sister’s office, and she told me some of her experiences in the jail. yes, some women deserve to be consequenced for their wrongdoings…others, they were innocent. others, they were awaiting court dates, others, they were framed…by boyfriends, husbands, family members, traffickers. the women would write notes and the notes would get delivered to the officers to slip to sister’s door.
* can i please have a stamp?
* can i please have a pair of underwear?
* can i please have a bra?
* would you please allow me to make a phone call to (name the country)?
this was sister eileen’s everyday. things i take for granted, and things i would not normally think twice about.
after sister told me that some women were going to be released because truth was told that the women were actually innocent, my next question was, how do you prove innocence? and it takes SUCH A LONG PROCESS to prove this? it made me sick to my stomach. i just don’t understand…a lot of what i heard, was just inhumane. just, not right. that was the worst part.
sister eileen invited two of the women to come down and talk with me. wow. she told them that i would be going to the philippines to serve as a missionary, and i wanted to visit a prison here, to see what it was like, and to spend time with them. no, no officer was needed, no supervision was needed – it was just perfect.
i could not believe the number of connections i had with one of the women. from upbringing, to hearing her life story, to feel her heart as she spoke to me, and told me about her life, and life in prison – it was amazing. she’s writing a book – one, meant for women in jail, to help them reflect and draw awareness to themselves. they were tools that women can do to better themselves. she told me i was practically a sister because of the work i do, regardless of the fact that i haven’t made vows like sr. eileen – she told me i was inspiring. she was in her 40s.
she said, “i’m so thankful for sr. eileen. because she gave me a sweater, i got to wear that for six months. i don’t know how i would have made it otherwise.” all you have when you enter the prison, is what you are wearing when you are convicted…otherwise, you must rely on others to bring you clothes. otherwise, you are in the clothes you entered with, and you are constantly reminded of that dreadful day. being given the gift of a sweatshirt, one that you can wear everyday for the first six months you are there, that is a gift.
there were prostitutes, there were women who were traffickers, women who murdered, women who committed theft, money laundering. something that one of the women told me was, “you know, something i loved about sr. eileen is that she saw me, for me. she did not see me, or define me by my crime.” one woman told sr. eileen, ” i don’t know why you work here. if you spent one night here, you would not want to come here, OR work here. ” sr. eileen, without skipping a beat, said, “well, maybe i need to spend a night here, and see what it’s like. ” wow. yes.
the prayer service consisted of the women thinking about how they felt at that moment. immediately, tears started falling – left and right. an adolescent started to comfort the older woman to her left. i heard them start saying, loneliness, confusion, blessed, hopeful, too much happy, concerned. it was an outpouring of emotion, and there was liberation there too. they knew it was a sacred space, and they treated it as such. we listened to a song, listed to the Word, then split into a spanish group and an english group. as soon as i sat down, they said, ok, whatever is said in this group, stays in the group between our sisters. the woman started reflecting on what gifts they felt God gave to them…followed by what gifts they wanted from God – what did they need from God?
when a girl said she did not know what gifts she had, cause she didn’t think she had any, immediately, another woman was like, your smile! whenever you smile, it provides comfort, and it makes me smile! the affirmation among one another, the gifts they were able to notice in themselves (nurture, love, understanding, wisdom, counsel), the gifts they wanted from God (peace, safety, understanding, love)…they were able to express it, freely express it. and support one another through it.
they then wrote these prayers of thanksgiving, and desires on a small piece of pink paper, folded it, and held onto it. sr. eileen held a basket out, and as each woman dropped her prayer in the basket, they came to me, and i got to give them a blessing with holy water.
each one of them, made the cross on their forehead, a peace prayer song playing in the background. as i gave them the blessing, i would just see tears streaming down their faces. there was a desire there, i could see it – for healing, for peace, for something…it wasn’t all sad, but there was a lot of sadness in the room. but there was hope too, and there was thanksgiving – one of the women heard news that her two daughters were together once again and were no longer separated. one of them just found out she would be released within the week.
sr. eileen gave the holy water to one of the girls, and she blessed me. the woman said, say what she said to you when she blessed you! the girl, nervous, said, i forget! the woman said, “may god’s peace and love be with you always.” and so she blessed me, and i said thank you.
intentions followed – for the incarcerated, for those dying on the streets, for those who were suffering, for their families, for their families’ safety, for hope…for sister crystal who will be going to the philippines. AMEN.
after it ended, a few of the women gave me a hug, and one of them said, good luck with everything. for some reason, i think i will see you again – i don’t know why, but i just have this feeling. i was really moved by that, especially since she sat next to me in the circle and we both laughed and joked about the fact that we both need more patience in our lives. 🙂
God is SO with the poor. sister eileen told me that, as we debriefed in the car. it is not that God is any more with them than with you or me, but moreso, in this state of vulnerability, openness, and DESIRE, it is so much easier to detect God’s presence. sister eileen told me stories of transformation, of healing she witnessed, of forgiveness she saw…and it is in all of this, that she would see God. with the gift of being able to bless each of the women, i saw God. it was so apparent to me – and it was beautiful.
thanks for listening and reading about my experience. i think that’s it for now.