Phyllis didn’t know what Henry had done to get back into prison, but she was pretty sure it wasn’t bad. She’d only been working at the prisons for one week, but she’d already heard from others that he was a good person, that he didn’t deserve what he got. He’d served all of his time in Philadelphia, in the county jail system for inmates who had brief sentences or were waiting to get processed “upstate” for more serious crimes.
Henry was what people in Phyllis’s line of work considered a model inmate. As soon as he got out, he began putting the pieces of his life back together. He became a preacher. He fell in love with a woman, and they got married. On Sundays, he took his family to church and ministered to a congregation who believed in him, in his love for the word of God. In the time between his release and his violation, Henry became a father to children too young to understand anything more than he was their daddy and he loved them.
Phyllis thought it was probably a drug deal that landed him back in prison. She didn’t know why he got involved again, but she would later learn that people don’t have one clear reason. He went to court for his violation in a suit and laced sneakers, and instead of going back to the Philly system to serve his time, he got a sentence upstate.
He came back to the county system while his case was being processed. His cell block was right across from Phyllis’s office. She was one of the first to know he had hanged himself the morning he got back from court.
The correctional officers had confiscated his suit and swapped it for an orange uniform, but they’d forgotten to take his shoes and replace them with the prison’s laceless “skiffies.” So, at night, he took the laces from his sneakers, wrapped them around his neck, and tied the ends to a peg on the wall. The peg was for hanging clothes, not people, so after his death, the prison took them away.
Phyllis saw his body, limbs jutting out in perpetual struggle from rigor mortis, right as the C.O.s cut him down. She couldn’t take her eyes off of the laces—dirty gray cords cut deep into the soft skin of his neck. As the C.O.s peeled the laces away, raw red ligature marks took their place. Henry was a heavy man, and the laces were thin. Phyllis knew that if he had let his weight hang from the peg for just a few seconds, the strings would have been too tight for him to untie. After a few more years in the prison and countless suicides, Phyllis would look back and wish that he had tried to kill himself with a bedsheet instead, like other inmates had done. At least then, if he had changed his mind, he could have stopped.
Decades had passed since Henry’s death, and Phyllis had done well in keeping his memory tucked quietly in the back of her mind. She’d learned not to think of him too often. But her head was full of bedsheets and ligature marks and other forms of violence, and some days Henry and others would make an appearance.
Phyllis’s eyes fluttered as the distant white sun cleared Henry from her vision, leaving bright red discs flashing under her eyelids. As she blinked, the red discs vanished to reveal enormous silver rings of barbed wire strung endlessly across fence tops, razor blades jutting out from both sides of the steely gray cords.
The grinding of metal against metal from the nearby rail line crawled in her ears as she left her car and walked towards the five main facilities of the Philadelphia Prison System. Each of the prisons stood next to the others on acres of land along State Road, large, factory-like complexes housing thousands of inmates. It was 8:30 a.m., and Phyllis was already tired from another night spent awake with her husband Dick, who was getting older and was chronically ill. She would spend the next nine hours bustling from cell block to cell block, tending to the spiritual and mental needs of accused and convicted criminals.
The Detention Center, an older, piss-yellow structure, grew taller as she neared the two entrances. She brushed past one door, marked VISITOR’S ENTRANCE, where chaotic conversation hummed through the plexiglass. Inside were orange uniforms and walls covered in red warning signs: NO TALKING, NO SWEARING, NO WEAPONS ALLOWED. She instead pulled the handle at the staff entrance, her footsteps resounding loudly against the silence of the administrative lobby. The C.O.s greeted her warmly as she signed into the log at the front desk.
“Busy day?” she asked a C.O. as she slipped off her wedding band and placed it with her bag through the X-ray machine. She lifted up her arms and smiled at him.
“It’s going to be, Chaplain,” he said as he slipped on blue latex gloves and began to search her. “We’re on lockdown.” He patted her arms down to her abdomen, taking time to search both legs.
Lockdown meant that all of the inmates were confined to their cells, with no exercise or visitors or commissary. Most of the time, that meant people lay in their bunks staring at the ceiling or sleeping. It was usually quieter, save for the occasional door-pounding from people who couldn’t handle being contained. For her, it meant fewer visitors, so she could take the time to do her own visits and write some letters.
Phyllis put her ring back on, left her bag in a locker, and walked through the first of several thick metal gates separating the lobby from the main prison. She wished the officer a good day before straightening her clothes. She’d gotten used to it over the course of several years, but she still felt a certain level of discomfort with being searched and stripped of all her belongings, especially her ring.
What was equally jarring was the constant sound of metal doors opening and slamming shut, of radio speakers and remotes determining whether she could move as she pleased, which wasn’t something that most people took lightly. As she waited for officers to unlock gate after gate, she gazed at her pale reflection wavering like a spirit on the metal doors. In every respect, Phyllis was grandmotherly. Small and short with steely gray hair curled around the ears. Frameless circular glasses. Seventy-one years of smile and laugh lines around her eyes and mouth, which deepened when her children visited or when an inmate passed his G.E.D.
As the slam of the final gate echoed behind her, Phyllis took out her key and turned the lock to her office. Immediately after stepping into the room, her feet crunched on a thin pile of papers that had been shoved under her door. She bent down. They were a handful of notes from different inmates. Chaplain Phyllis, please call me in, I need to talk to you about something. – Jaden H. I’m worried, can I see you? – Juaquin L. Chaplain Phyllis, Mom says that I should call my grandparents. – Will P.
She sat down at her desk, logged into her computer, and began looking for the writers’ cell blocks. If inmates had something private to talk about, she would often write them a pass to come to her office, though sometimes she visited them right outside of their cell. She made a mental note to check in on another inmate, Tomas, in his cell block. She’d been working with the inmate for the past 10 months, ever since he’d requested kosher meals, which required verification that an inmate had gone to a synagogue before incarceration or had officially converted in prison. She had visited him in his cell with the Torah and other religious materials, and for the next year she was his chaplain. Today he was past his minimum, which meant he could be released at any time. Phyllis didn’t know if he’d still be there in a week, so she wanted to visit to say goodbye.
While she wrote up the passes, she began to wonder what it would be like to have a regular office for a regular job. She’d only started working in the prison system in her late forties, but even before then she’d never had a desk job. She imagined that most people had pictures of their husbands and children and friends populating the walls, perhaps a high school diploma, a college degree. But anyone who stepped into this office wouldn’t know anything about the person who used it. There was a filing cabinet, a desk, and a few mice ruffling through the drawers, but nothing about her. It was prison policy. As Phyllis wrote out her passes, she looked around the blank room and imagined how she would spread her life across the walls.
The faces of her nine grandchildren would hang on the back of the door. A picture of her and Dick would probably sit at her desk. There was a black-and-white photo she had at home of them holding hands at an anti-torture protest that she especially loved. When they were young and Dick was her college sweetheart, they’d spent all their time together working in social justice. It had been their courtship. She’d first met him while she was doing field research on housing discrimination in Philadelphia in her senior year of college. Dick was older and already doing the work that she’d spent the past four years preparing for. He had the best files for the project, so she knew she wanted to meet him. Getting those files turned out to be a side effect of falling in love. The rest of senior year passed by in a haze: she met him in October, he proposed in December, and they went on their honeymoon over Spring Break in March.
A photo of her parents might be somewhere next to Dick. Her brother Bob would be in a separate picture, although she didn’t know if she had any photos of him that weren’t from childhood. After Bob had become an addict, Phyllis had cut ties. She still remembered the relief she’d felt when her mother had told her he’d died, only now the decades-old memory was tinged with remorse. Phyllis caught herself staring at the imaginary portrait of her brother and struggled to shake the image from her head. She hadn’t thought about Henry or Bob in a while; it seemed like the lockdown was making things too quiet.
She returned to her notes, carefully writing each inmate’s number ID on the sheets. Walking out of her office and down the hall, she handed each one to the officer behind the sally port through a small hole in the glass. Although the door to the cell block was firmly closed, the sound of hundreds of voices blended together and bled through the walls. Both Phyllis and Dick had been briefly incarcerated after protests, and even now, standing on the other side, she felt herself back inside the constant noise, the containment, the boredom, the shame. Inmates lived a life where their identification numbers mattered more to the system than their names. They spent most of their time confined to a six-by-eight-foot space with another person, sharing a sink and a toilet without a lid (it could be used as a weapon). They sat or lay confined by walls on all four sides. There was one door with metal bars, which was both a relief and a humiliating design. Phyllis had made eye contact with many inmates who were shitting on the toilet as she walked by, their pants wrinkled around their ankles.
Besides the physical restrictions, inmates had no choice in how they wanted to manage their bodies. Thousands rose at once at six in the morning, rushing in and out of the chow hall in fifteen minutes. The time given to meals was so scarce that inmates developed the habit of hunching over the table and scarfing down the food like animals, holding their left arms around their trays for protection.
As Phyllis went back to her own bare office, the sounds of prison life growing more and more distant behind walls as thick as her head, her mind wandered deeper behind the bolted doors. For the entire day that became a week that became months and years, no one could truly say they were ever alone. All around were the constant drone of fans, overhead announcements, yelling, gates slamming open and shut. At night, it was shuffling, crying, more yelling, masturbating. Other sounds of fear and desperation that Phyllis would eventually understand were men raping men. The smell of people who couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of themselves hung in the air.
The whole experience made Phyllis think about a story that her mother told about her time in college. After being denied from her college of choice because it had already met its Jewish quota, her mother had gone to a girls’ finishing school, a one-year program instructing young women on social graces. She was bathing herself one day when a crowd of girls opened the door and gaped at her naked body, hoping to see the horns and tail their Christian parents had promised them from a Jew. Phyllis had felt the imprint of shame and embarrassment on her own body as her mother had told her this, and she felt the same way thinking about the bodies of inmates, exposed in whatever way was deemed necessary.
Phyllis tried to make her office, plain as it was, an escape from all those stresses, a space away from the sight, smell, and noise of a thousand others. People came to talk to the chaplain about everything and nothing. They had done everything imaginable sitting across from her: they cried, they screamed, they ranted, they flirted. They tried to pick at her brain to see if they could befriend her, though in this case friendship was just as lethal as a weapon.
People needed someone to listen to them about their case. More than half of the inmates were still wrapped up in their trial, with no clear verdict on the horizon. Still others were worried about their parents and children and spouses. Many of them hated themselves. The questions they asked her on a daily basis stirred in her mind in an unending cycle, begging for answers that didn’t always exist.
Chaplain, I didn’t hurt anyone. I wasn’t the one that did it. But if I don’t get out of here in a couple days, my boss is going to fire me. I’ve got two daughters who need food on the table. Should I take the plea so I can go home?
Chaplain, my grandma is the only one who’s ever cared about me. What’s going to happen to her now that I’m supposed to be here for the next three months? She’s so old, and she can’t work. I don’t know how I fucked up so badly.
Chaplain, I’m so scared about going upstate. Everyone will fuck with me once they know what I’ve done. I keep thinking about it because I know they’ll hurt me. I know they’ll rape me.
And of course there were questions of faith. People wanted to know where God was, and why this was happening to them if God was supposed to be loving. People needed to know that God was still with them even if they missed their mother or wife’s last moments because they were behind bars. People needed to know God still loved them, even if they touched a child or killed a man.
Will God hate me? People asked that question of Phyllis in response to the most surprising things. Many Christians, especially those who were part of Protestant congregations, came into prison thinking that of all the things they did, whether it was fraud or robbery or harassment, God hated them most for being gay. It made Phyllis fume to think that a crowd of old white men were pointing fingers at gay people for being possessed by the Devil, and it wasn’t just one person who’d come to her with that experience. So she told the inmates plainly that she disagreed with their pastors.
“I feel like a piece of shit for being gay,” someone once said to her.
“God doesn’t make shit,” she responded.
Phyllis also found herself fuming in the pews every week at Mass. She was Jewish, more culturally than religiously, but her husband was a devout Catholic. Decades of time spent in the Catholic tradition made Dick feel nourished by the faith’s ritual and presence. He loved it, and she loved him, so she went.
There were many things that Phyllis and Dick had in common. The most important thing, the one that made her fall in love with him, was that they shared a life philosophy of living minimally. Growing up, Phyllis had always felt strange when her girlfriends would talk about getting another cashmere sweater when it seemed like they already had so many. In high school, she’d even gotten into a ridiculous fight with her parents about them spending money to send her on a senior trip to the West Coast. She’d just read an article about how people were buying Chinese slaves from overseas, and she thought the money for the trip would have been put to much better use buying ten Chinese slaves and then freeing them. Her parents thought it was ridiculous that their daughter refused to go to the beach because she wanted to buy slaves. Phyllis thought it was ridiculous that her parents would spend hundreds of dollars when they could free ten people from slavery.
But Dick didn’t think what Phyllis thought was ridiculous. When they first met, they spent hours talking until night turned to day. Dick told her how he worried about eating beef. One pound of beef, he said, took twenty-two pounds of grain to cultivate. Instead of feeding the cow all that grain, we could just eat it ourselves and eliminate waste. Dick thought all the time about how a single dollar could be put to so many better uses going out into the world instead of into his mouth.
This was what mattered to them both. This was how Phyllis knew that she would marry Dick after five months. She had always known that he was devoutly Catholic, but it hadn’t seemed like a problem until Dick had discovered that Phyllis didn’t love Jesus like he did. Phyllis believed Jesus was just another man. A good man, but not the only example she thought people should follow. She also found it offensive that the Virgin Mary was prized for being a virgin, because who cared? There was so much to Catholicism that felt marked by exclusivity, by anti-Semitism, and she wasn’t afraid to say it to Dick. What Dick wanted was what Phyllis couldn’t give: conversion.
She used to believe that God wasn’t real, and even if he was, it didn’t matter because he was a schmuck. Why should anyone care about God when he, if he did exist, did nothing to stop the Holocaust?
Phyllis was eight years old when she first learned about the Holocaust. When her parents told her that millions of people who looked like her had been sent to their deaths by a madman, she couldn’t shake the image out of her head. As a child, she stood in front of her mirror and examined her eyes, hair, and body to see if she could find anything about herself that was truly different. In her reflection, she saw a young Jewish girl with a pale, gaunt face and stick-thin legs staring back at her. She placed a hand to her lips and felt the words form in her mouth as the girl looked into her eyes and said, “You are a Jew, and you’d be dead.” She was standing in a body that, at one point in history, would have belonged to someone else.
In the Holocaust, Phyllis found a question she would spend her life trying to answer. Who was God to let this happen?
Phyllis’s memories faded into the air as three knocks fell against the door. Will, who had left her a note earlier, greeted her on the other side.
“Morning, Chaplain,” he said. He pointed to the landline phone sitting on Phyllis’s desk. “Is it all right if I use the phone?”
Will was a statutory rapist and someone who had, in Phyllis’s opinion, been failed by the justice system. He’d been twenty-three and looking for casual sex when he went on a not-so-respectable dating website and clicked on the profile of a woman with the username HotPinkPants. She’d said she was over eighteen, which was a lie, and her parents had accused Will of knowing she was underage. Everyone in Will’s life now knew he was incarcerated, and his name was on the sex offender registry for everyone to see. There were only two people he couldn’t tell: his aging grandparents. All they knew was that Will was away from home. He needed to be able to call them weekly to maintain the lie, but inmates were only allowed to use the prison phones for ten minutes a day. Phyllis didn’t usually let people use her office for calls, but in cases like his, she made exceptions.
Will held up the phone to his ear. “Hey Bubbe!” he said. “How are you? I’m doing well, doing well. Is Zayde there?”
Phyllis smiled as she heard Will use the Yiddish terms for grandmother and grandfather. It was unmistakable that she saw a little bit of herself in Will and Tomas and others like them in the Philly system. One reason it was easy to be kind to Will was because he came from a straight-laced, middle-class, Jewish family much like her own—not to mention he was young enough to be her grandson. He had stumbled into crime rather than run right into it. But it was a fact most of the people Phyllis worked with were poorer and darker than he was, many with broken families, drug and alcohol addictions, and years of unresolved grief from a lifetime of violence.
When Phyllis had first asked herself, Where were the good people?, it was in response to the Holocaust. But the question shifted to the present tense in college when she saw the systemic injustices black people faced for living in their own skin. She didn’t want people in the future to wonder why no one had spoken up again.
So in the heat of summer, she underwent resistance training with an interracial group of activists to desegregate rest stops and highway restaurants in Maryland. Phyllis thought back to aching days of sitting squashed inside of a car with busted AC, constantly getting pulled over by cops who thought blacks had no business riding with whites. Officers often questioned them for crossing into whites-only areas of rest stops. At mealtimes, exhausted, they stopped at diner after diner and walked through the main entrance only to be told that, for black folks, they only served take-out. When the group asked to be seated anyway, the servers would unscrew the tops of the swivel seats so only the metal poles were left.
But along the Atlantic Coast, the activists had friends and friends of friends supporting them. Black churches in the area opened their stained-glass doors and windows. The night the group was turned away from the diner, they found refuge in fried chicken, potatoes, and collard greens served in steaming pans and scooped onto warm paper plates. While Phyllis and her friends filled their tired bodies with food, members of the congregation stepped up to the front and began to sing. Phyllis had never heard people praise God like that, but after the first gospel she knew it was true worship.
A lot of things had changed since the summer of the Freedom Rides. Phyllis saw progress everywhere she looked, and even decades later, thinking back to when her friends were arrested for entering whites-only rest areas, she was amazed. But Phyllis worked over eight hours a day in a place where it was clearer than ever that the progress left to make was immense. The Philly prisons were filled with people whose lives were put on hold for drug crimes. Crack cocaine and powdered cocaine had the same addictive strength and the same tendency for violence. But distributing five grams of crack carried the same minimum five-year sentence as distributing 500 grams of powder. The only difference? Those five grams of crack were more likely to be in the hands of a black person. Powdered cocaine was expensive, refined, the type of drug kids at Penn and Drexel snorted on the weekends without a worry about getting caught. Phyllis thought the sentencing distinction was ridiculous. What was the question, crack or powder, except one more way to put down brown people?
It was hard to preach fair values as a chaplain when Phyllis knew that not everyone she worked for deserved the same sentence, but it was her job to help all of them. She talked them through their cases while they stayed in the Philly system, and even when many of them moved upstate, she kept in contact with them through letters. Phyllis opened her top drawer and pulled out a frayed brown notebook stuffed with extra papers and sticky notes. Inside was a log of the twenty or so inmates across Pennsylvania she wrote letters to as often as possible, complete with pictures, quick notes about their case, their mental illnesses, and their unanswered letters.
She sighed as she realized how many people were waiting on a response. There were times when Phyllis would get their cursive scrambles in the mail and wish she hadn’t, but many of the people who wrote to her didn’t have letters to send to anyone else. Sex offenders didn’t have any support because of the nature of their crimes, and most lifers had witnessed any remaining loved ones move on with their lives as they stayed put in the same cell, fully aware of what was coming when the phone calls started to come every month instead of every week, then every few months, then hardly at all.
Phyllis wrote letters because she felt badly for them, but that wasn’t always enough. As Will placed the phone back onto the receiver and left her office, Phyllis nodded to him and thought again that he was easy to feel sorry for. Many others weren’t. In a place where C.O.s, other inmates, the justice system, and, seemingly, the world was pitted against them, the incarcerated lived in the mindset of taking advantage of every resource they could. They tried to strike up friendships with staff who were a little too open in order to get cell phones or cigarettes. They had friends from the outside send letters dipped and dried in synthetic drugs. They faked illnesses to get a couple hours away from their cell blocks in the infirmary. They came into Phyllis’s office in distress, begging to be put on the phone with their sick grandmothers. At first, she let them. The phone would ring, and someone would say a tentative, “Hello?”
“Hey baby, how you doing?” they would say, voice suave, face suddenly free from grief or worry. “What’s happening?”
Phyllis learned to slam the phone down into the receiver as soon as things seemed wrong. She began to understand why many other chaplains didn’t let anyone ask for special favors. After the first few times people lied about a loved one’s death, Phyllis got into the habit of calling the morgue to check that a body had arrived first.
Phyllis always felt the same sense of betrayal whenever she realized that someone was taking advantage of her. It made her think of the years and thousands of dollars her parents spent caring for Bob, only for him to turn that money into smoke and empty vodka bottles. Their parents fought over bailing him out, over paying his hospitals bills and his DUIs, over picking up the phone calls they knew would only be him begging for money. She remembered how she would toss and turn in her sheets as a teen as the same tired argument began on the other side of her bedroom door, wishing more than anything that Bob was dead.
The people who wrote to her were often the hardest ones to talk to. Like Bob, they always needed so much that they didn’t know when to stop taking. A suicidal sex offender on her letter list began their conversation asking what she looked like, what she wore, and what she did with her husband in bed. Another man who’d killed his girlfriend had lied to Phyllis during his trial, faking PTSD so she would testify for him. She still wrote to them.
Phyllis pulled out a few sheets of plain white paper from her desk, clicked the smooth knob of her pen, and began to write.
I am so sorry to hear that the past month has been difficult for you…
Over two decades, Phyllis had worked with people who’d committed every violent and degrading act she could ever imagine. In almost all of them, she could still see the humanity in them, the capacity for love and change that made her want to listen to their stories.
I know that you are struggling, but please don’t think that I am going to abandon you…
But there was nothing easy about talking to people who had hurt and killed, especially when she could see the damage done to their victims. Much of her recent work outside of prison was with nonprofits helping people who had been robbed, assaulted, defrauded, and traumatized. Now, instead of sitting on the accused’s side of court, she sat with the accusers. The shift in perspective sometimes gave her vertigo.
There was one case where a man had broken into a stranger’s house looking for drugs and money that didn’t end up being there. He killed two people in the house, an 18-year-old and a 23-year-old, with a sawed-off shotgun at point-blank range. Phyllis remembered that one of the victims had long blond hair, hair that was ripped off along with her scalp by the gun and plastered against the wall of the next room over. In court, the defense attorney pointed to the murderer’s life of trauma. He’d watched as his father was killed at the age of four, lived through the death of his grandmother, his only guardian, at the age of 11, and outgrew the rest of his childhood in broken foster homes. Those were all things Phyllis more than understood. But the image of the young woman’s bloodied scalp hanging from a wall wouldn’t leave her. When the murderer got life in prison, Phyllis knew he deserved it. Even though society had failed him, he’d made the choice to kill somebody’s children. His victims had no choice.
I know it hurts you to feel guilty. I know it doesn’t feel good, but feeling guilty is a sign that you are thinking about your actions…
Having spent this long listening to people on both sides, Phyllis couldn’t think that the dichotomy of good and evil really meant anything. She was always learning that almost everyone had a determination to look back at their crimes and wish they hadn’t done them. But there were some people she’d met that made her wonder if that was always possible. She’d only ever met one man who was evil, and she had no doubt about it. He was one of the few people she’d actively testified against during trials. He was famous in the Philly system for telling people that he would try to kill anyone he didn’t like.
His weapon of choice was his blood. He’d had AIDS for years and didn’t seem to care very much whether he lived or died, only that he took as many people as possible down with him. He would chew his tongue and tear the soft insides of his cheeks until they bled. He spit his blood at police officers, C.O.s, judges, and Phyllis, hoping to give them the disease that would eventually kill him. When he was led by officers into the courtroom in handcuffs, he had a spit mask wrapped around his head, a white cloth that clung around his neck and turned to transparent black mesh at his nose so he could breathe and see. The mask was tied all the way above the top of his head with a rubber band. Even still, he found a way to nudge the mask off from the bottom up and spit HIV as Phyllis faced him in court, the thick mix of saliva and blood smacking against the glossy wood of the judge’s bench.
The next day, the officers escorted him into the room without a mask. Instead, the judge had ordered that they wrap the bottom half of his head with duct tape all the way around his neck. As Phyllis looked at the man who no longer had a voice and just barely had a face, she thought she’d never seen anyone’s humanity so utterly destroyed.
There isn’t a person on this Earth who hasn’t felt the way you do. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t…
Yes, Phyllis thought he was evil, that he had no regard for anyone who might have helped him. But looking at the blank place on the wall where she would’ve hung her younger brother’s picture gave her pause. Bob was why Phyllis knew she had no right to judge. Working in the mental and medical wards of prison meant tending to many addicts like Bob, and in them she saw trauma, guilt, remorse, a little kernel of desire to make their lives better, to make it up to the people they loved. Phyllis had always given them a chance even when they might not have deserved it, even when they had wrecked their families and abandoned their children. But she’d never given that chance to Bob. It made her wonder if listening to him would have made a difference. It made her wonder what he would have said if Phyllis had asked him why he was hurting her.
“Do you know the story of King Solomon in the Hebrew Bible?” she remembered saying to one of the inmates in counseling. In the story, two women had come to King Solomon claiming motherhood for the same child. To solve what seemed like an unsolvable dispute, Solomon said that the only way to be completely fair to both women was to saw the baby in half and give one part to each of the mothers. The liar readily agreed to this compromise, but the real mother, at the thought of her child being mutilated over an argument, offered to give the baby up. King Solomon then knew who the real mother was, but the ending was not what Phyllis considered important.
What did it mean to be a mother or sister or wife or loving person to anyone? The story of Solomon told her it was to sacrifice, to speak up, to carry the burden that others couldn’t or wouldn’t. Although she didn’t love Jesus, she helped Dick hang paintings of the cross on the walls of their apartment, and every Sunday, she sat with him at Mass and held his arm for support when he received the Eucharist. And although her brother Bob was dead, she would always carry the love-turned-remorse she could never give him and give it to others instead. She took on burden of prison work without question. Her motivation was simple: if she didn’t do it, no one would.
Even though she was a chaplain, Phyllis still didn’t believe in God, or at least not God in the sense of a man. She didn’t think that there was one person out there controlling invisible strings on people’s backs or orchestrating floods or wars or concentration camps. But she felt the world was alive with something that resembled a spirit. She saw each religion as an alternate path leading to the same ending, an understanding that people could be greater than just human.
At the end of several pages, Phyllis drew her letter to a close. I believe in you. Know that I will always write and always care. Fondly, Phyllis.
Phyllis spent the rest of the day responding to letters and attending to paperwork. The prison was still in lockdown. To avoid the invasiveness of going through security again, Phyllis ate lunch with the COs inside the prison before returning to her office.
By the time Phyllis rose from her desk again, it was nearly 5:00 p.m. She was tired, and Dick was waiting for her at home. She thought about how easy it would be to just pack up her things, sit in her car, and watch as the lines of barbed wire disappeared into nothing as she drove away. But she still hadn’t visited Tomas.
As she passed through security and the maze of metal doors and long corridors to the interior of the prison, she noticed everything felt more hushed. There was still conversation in the cells and the overhead drone of prison announcements, but it was nothing compared to the usual tumult when the prison wasn’t in lockdown. The halls in the cell block were spacious without inmates and engulfed Phyllis in their emptiness. Every door she faced was shut.
Tomas was sitting on his bed when Phyllis got there. She guessed that Tomas was in his fifties. He was a little heavy, but not abnormally so for an older man. She would have described his demeanor as pleasant. He’d been given a light sentence for harassment, which could have meant anything from dumping trash on his neighbor’s lawn to making silly phone calls to not picking up dog shit on the sidewalk. She didn’t know that, besides harassment, he had a rap sheet of crimes ranging from stalking to witness intimidation to terroristic threats to simple assault. She didn’t know that all of his crimes were crimes against women.
A C.O. unlocked the cell door and stood by to keep it open. For security reasons, it was against prison policy for chaplains to enter the cells, so Phyllis stood with her feet on the threshold and gestured for him to come closer, which was what she did for everyone else.
Something about it being the end of the day made Phyllis groggy, but she didn’t feel like she needed to be vigilant. As Tomas stepped towards her, her eyes brushed through the objects in his cell. Sheets twisted in an unkempt spiral on the bed. The lidless metal toilet glinting too brightly from the sunlight coming through the barred window, emitting the smell of piss and shit. Sprinkles of beard hair scattered along the edge of the sink. Tomas’s shadow slanting towards her on the dusty floor, growing larger as he came close until it encapsulated her.
Their conversation was brief and indistinct, but the time felt stretched out like a taut rubber band. She said something about how he was past his minimum and could be gone any day now. He nodded and asked if she wanted any of her books back, pointing to the stack of religious books and pamphlets thrown together in a small bin beside his bed. She said that they were his and he could keep them. The sun had already dimmed in the short time she’d been standing there. Tomas’s shadow had grown longer. It was time for her to go.
“If you’re still here,” Phyllis said, turning to leave, “I’ll see you next week.”
That was the last thing Phyllis remembered saying before Tomas grabbed her head in both his hands and slammed her face into the metal bars of the cell door. People would later tell her that he would vigorously deny touching her at all, claiming that the cell door simply closed on her face. But the C.O. beside her had seen Tomas grab her body as she went limp from the initial impact, break her nose, and purple her jaw with bruises. Phyllis herself remembered very little, least of all the pain. She only felt her lips form the words “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” while Tomas’s fingers wrapped like a noose around her neck.
Most of what she felt and saw from the outside was just blackness, the blank canvas of her inner eyelids allowing old memories to spread themselves like spilled paint across her vision. First she saw Dick, Dick with snowy hair and tan skin, Dick who was waiting for her at home after this was all over; Dick who loved her so much he wanted her to love Jesus; Dick sliding the wedding ring onto her finger; Dick calculating how much money they could donate if they didn’t eat out this one time; Dick from college, Dick who lived in black-and-white photos, Dick holding the best files around. Then she heard a dozen rich voices blending into one voice of the gospel, the one night her empty stomach found itself barred from every restaurant off the shore of Maryland, the night when she first saw exposed metal diner seats lined up in a row like steel fence spikes. She felt fried chicken and collard greens spreading warmth into her body, the deep voices singing in prayer nourishing her spirit.
Phyllis saw a row of babies lying in cribs as cold and unloving as cages, crying over and over and over without anyone to comfort them. In college, when she was still weighing God in one hand and the Holocaust in the other, she learned about orphanages in the 20th century where babies were left for months on end without human touch. Their only contact was the brief feeling of cold fingers changing their diapers or holding the end of their formula bottles. Physically, the children were healthy, but as they grew and learned that no one would care if they cried, they became rigid and silent. And when Phyllis learned that oftentimes the stillness led to death, she was no longer doubtful that God existed. She learned that love was more essential than anything, that to live a life without love meant that life thought you weren’t worth it. Love flowed through her veins and the veins of Dick and Bob and all of the people she knew who had killed and raped and wished they were dead for having done it. She could hardly breathe for all the love that made the air warm and sweet. And she chose to call love God.