At the Sign of Peace, we shake hands through our cages. This is our only point of physical contact. They reach their hands through a 4-by-12- inch slot in the mesh wall to shake mine. I am often surprised at the way they grasp my hand—there is so little human touch on death row. There is a desperation to it, as if I am a raft and they have been treading water for hours. The handshake of a serial killer, a child molester, a torturer feels the same as any other handshake.
There are moments of (admittedly dark) humor too. Recently, one of my parishioners said to me, “Now Father, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” This is no doubt the best advice I’ve received from a serial killer to date.
It might seem strange to you, reading this, that I love this work. But I do. I feel it is the best ministry I could ever do. I wouldn’t trade it for tenure at Harvard. Seriously. When I leave the prison, or when I’m driving to work over the Golden Gate Bridge with the breathtakingly beautiful Bay to my right, I feel like I must be dreaming to work at a place so charged with the power of the Gospel.
But if there is any drawback for me about this work, it is well summed in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, in his memoir of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, wrote: “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Am I cooperating with evil by working in a system that I believe to be—in a very real sense—demonic? Is my work on death row somehow being complicit in state murder?
I don’t think so. Over many years of working in prisons and doing prison ministry, I have come to believe that prisons themselves are a mistake. I believe that they do far more harm to both prisoners and society than any purported good. What prison seems most good at is incapacitating and warehousing human beings.