Behind Bars, She’s Come to Realize the ‘Part of God That’s Inside’

Stepping over an aged dog to enter a modest living room on a quiet street in East Mount Airy – cooled by an afternoon breeze and decorated with pictures of her children, both biological and adopted – it's hard to imagine that the woman sitting inside spends much of her time inside prison walls.

But in between sips of powdered iced tea, 63-year-old Phyllis Taylor explains that she does.

Taylor is the facility chaplain for the Philadelphia Prison System's Detention Center, a 1,400-inmate minimum-security jail in Northeast Philadelphia. A nurse for more than 30 years, she also overseas the system's hospice care, and serves as chaplain for all Jewish inmates within the city's penal system, which she says fluctuates from between 10 to 20 men and women at any given time.

Every few weeks or so, the Long Island native is given a list of the new Jewish arrivals in the system.

Not only is she essentially unpaid for the work, receiving a small weekly stipend, but Taylor endures the logistical difficulties of working inside a dank jail while often fighting a battle with her own body. Taylor suffers from lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that in her case is not life-threatening, but causes enough pain in her joints to make it difficult to function at times.

The first question she's often asked about her prison work is: Why?

"I love it," she begins, explaining that she relishes the interaction with people. Her belief in the need to reach out to those that society has forgotten carries her through the days when her body urges her to stay in bed.

"For me, it goes back to the Holocaust. It's a fundamental question of how you respond to the world's injustices," she says. "I have to ask myself, how can I at least try to speak up when I see injustice?"

Faith and Inspiration
For Taylor, who met her husband, Dick, on a civil rights-era Freedom Ride, the injustices are clear and manifold.

For starters, she says that the number of blacks and Latinos in the prison system is highly disproportionate. She also believes it can be next to impossible for inmates to have adequate access to jobs and employment once they are released, a factor that contributes to high rates of recidivism.

Trying to fix social policy is one thing, but what does God have to with it?

Everything, replies Taylor, who draws heavily on the writings of the biblical prophets for faith and inspiration.

Though she lacks official religious training and does not hold the title of rabbi, she did have to complete the correctional officers' training course (minus the shooting practice and push-ups) in order to become a chaplain.

"No matter how scarred you are physically and emotionally, you are loved and are loveable. I hug a lot, even though I'm not supposed to," she reveals. "I don't believe God's a magician. You have to find the part of God that's inside of you."

But that doesn't mean it's easy to separate who people are at their core from the things they have done.

"I have to wrestle with my own furor," she says. "I am often enraged by what people do to each other."

Routinely she moves unarmed, unfazed and unaccompanied throughout the Detention Center, walking into the cell blocks to deliver letters and religious materials, or simply sitting alone with inmates inside her windowless office, warmly greeting those most would avoid.

Is she ever afraid?

"Could something happen?" she asks rhetorically. "Absolutely," she says, in answering her own question.

But she doesn't think a prisoner would intentionally harm her. Although, if they did, she's pretty sure that others, many of whom she says look to her as a motherly figure, would jump right in to protect her.

Still, her judgment cautions her to the fact that "there are a lot of people in there who are mentally ill. In many ways, prisons have become the state's new mental hospitals.

"But I absolutely love what I do," she insists. "People ask me if I am going to retire, and I tell them I'll retire when I die."



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