The peace I’ve experienced hearing confessions in prison


When he pulls back from the table, it is wet from his tears. It isn’t like he is sobbing. The tears just fall silently.

Salvo, the name of this 30-something man who signed up for confession at the prison where I serve as a chaplain, kept on speaking.

I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to God or to me. I just nodded.

Moments earlier, my hands were placed over his, which were in handcuffs, before he held them in front of his face to pray, half in English, half in Spanish.

The two of us, he in his orange jumpsuit and me in my black clerical shirt and trousers, sat next to each other at one of the hexagonal metal tables in the middle of the cell block, visible to other inmates in the tiers above and below us.

Some of them peered out of the small plastic windows on their cell doors.

The guard who brought Salvo down from “the Hole” 15 minutes earlier, after shackling his hands and feet with chains, glanced up from his desk about 10 yards away from us as I placed my hands back on the table.

I was aware of how intimate this praying looked. I didn’t mind. The tears said it all, to God if not to anyone else.

Today was a day of tears.

Unusual for the men in prison, most of whom have to keep up a tough front. Often, they keep this stance with me too, even when in private, let alone when I meet them on the cell block instead of my office, as I have to meet those who are in protective custody.

I believe if they can find one space to weep and be real with another person and before God, it will lead to their peace of mind and ability to be strong.

I wait for them to pull themselves together before they go back to their cells.

The whole dynamic of hearing confessions in prison is incredible.

Quite a few guys have told me that they believe God got them into prison to save them from heading in the wrong direction.

I use this awesome role of confessor to encourage them to foster this spark of God’s love for them, not to waste it.

To ask for forgiveness from Jesus who came for this reason. And most of all, to be determined to continue this prayer relationship with God that they have discovered on the inside of the prison when they get outside.

Usually when I finish a visit with one of them, whether it is a formal confession or not, I say, “Do you want to pray?”

“Yes,” they invariably say, as though it is normal for two men to share their souls together.

I open my hands on the table between us, face up. As though they are children, they place their hands in mine.

I have no idea what these hands may have done — robbed? Sold drugs? Abused someone? “Go ahead,” I say, waiting for them to start.

“Oh no, you do it,” most respond.

“No, you do it,” I say.

But I usually have to. They aren’t quite ready to launch out into this God territory with a virtual stranger, even one they amazingly trust because I am “Father” to them.

I bow my head, feeling the calloused hands of a tough guy who would ordinarily never be resting his hands in another’s so vulnerably. Continue reading

  • Paul Morrissey, O.S.A., is a priest in residence at St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia, Penn. He served as a Catholic chaplain at the Philadelphia Prison from 2007 to 2019. This article has been excerpted from his forthcoming memoir Touched by God: Confessions of a Prison Chaplain.
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