All names have been changed.
“You took all of this on, Lord.” This was my prayer after I visited “Peter” in the mental-health unit in a prison in Philadelphia. The twenty-five-year-old man had murdered a neighbor in a fit of rage for unclear reasons. Since his arrest, he had been confined in prison, awaiting assessment to determine if he would stand trial. I was already at the prison visiting other inmates when the supervisor of the Catholic chaplaincy called to ask me to visit Peter.
I walked down the bare stone corridor to the mental-health unit. When I asked a nurse if I could speak with Peter, she and the other nurses gave me a wary glance. I knew this was a risky encounter; Peter’s mother Tracy had told me he was likely psychotic, and had been placed under suicide watch. I asked the nurse again, adding, “His mother wishes that I see him.”
She brought me to the Central Control Office, sealed with what I imagine is bulletproof glass, where a few uniformed officers run the lockdown units from a safe distance. The nurse stood quietly until the head officer looked at her. “The chaplain would like to visit Peter Grambling,” she said. He too gave a look that said to me that I must be crazy. “I’ll just say hello,” I uttered like a fool, indicating with a wave of my hand how I planned to do so. He shrugged and got up to lead me to where Peter was held in solitary confinement.
I had been to these cells a few times before. First, a thick gray door with a slim rectangular slit of a window; past it, mentally ill prisoners alone in their cells; nothing in each room but a narrow cot to sleep on and a stiff padded blanket to cover oneself with (a blanket that couldn’t be used for self-harm), a toilet, and a sink. As we approached his cell, I spotted Peter’s name on the door and the warning signs written in large capital letters: “ASSAULT RISK. SUICIDE RISK.” Yes, Peter must be gone, I thought—a murderer, and probably insane. On some level I hoped he was insane.
I remembered how the newspaper article had described his crime. It said that Peter stormed out of his family’s house and used a garden tool to beat his neighbor to death. The victim was a forty-three-year-old man who was the caregiver for his mother.