A Sign Of Light

The meaning the Jesuit priest serving at San Quentin finds on death row.

“For this is my body, which will be given up for you.”

Saying these words, I lift up the host for the men inside the cage to see.

The “chapel” in San Quentin State Prison’s death row is a windowless old shower room encased in a heavy metal cage. Inside are six wooden benches bolted to the floor upon which the members of my congregation sit. I stand, a black stab-proof vest over my priestly vestments, inside my own cage about twice the size of an old phone booth. As required by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, I have padlocked myself inside. All this makes me, to my knowledge, the only Jesuit in my community who regularly celebrates Mass in a Kevlar vest.

Mag 2

As I raise the consecrated host, the harsh flourescent light illuminates it. I look past it to the men in the cage. They are quiet and focused. It’s at this point of the Mass that I often imagine, as I am standing there facing them, separated by the steel mesh, that the light of Christ is streaming forth from that host, dispelling the dark shadows of East Block—San Quentin’s death row for men.

There are 726 men currently condemned to death in the state of California, all of them housed at San Quentin. (There are 20 women on death row as well, but they are housed in another prison.) I work as the Catholic chaplain on the largest death row in the United States, possibly the Western Hemisphere.

Some of these men have called death row home for over 40 years, since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1972. Executions were resumed that year by Proposition 17, a voter initiative that amended the state’s constitution, overturning previous court decisions that had found capital punishment unconstitutional. They remain here despite a moratorium on the death penalty issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom ’89—a temporary reprieve with an unknown endpoint. In the past 40 years, far more men have died of old age or from suicide on San Quentin’s death row than the 13 who have been put to death by the state. Their hopelessness and despair linger in the shadows long after their bodies are wheeled out.

It is a building of many, many shadows. Visitors invariably comment on how eerie and dark the place looks and feels. Inside the 12-foot-high black doors to the building, above which the words “CONDEMNED ROW” are written in calligraphic lettering, an almost palpable air of oppression broods over the inhabitants. There are plenty of ghosts, too.

Walking onto death row, one is first taken aback by its size. As long as a city block, five floors high, the place looks like some kind of huge warehouse. There are windows so dirty, they are practically opaque. They let in a yellow light that does nothing to brighten the cavernous and lifeless space.

East Block smells terrible. As you walk past the cells, the smell of an outhouse blends nauseatingly with the smell of a neighbor cooking rice and beans in a hot pot. Perhaps surprisingly, however, death row is remarkably quiet. The loudest noise is the incessant intercom at the guard’s station calling officers to bring inmates to and from visits, medical appointments, or the shower. The concrete and metal walls trap the intercom’s sound, echoing it back and forth.

Each man has his own cell. Windowless, fronted by the same kind of heavy metal mesh, a barred door, and a food slot that is padlocked shut most of the time, each cell measures 5 feet wide by about 10 feet deep. The cells are dark and cramped. At the back of each, at about eye level, there is a shelf, below it a stainless steel toilet with a built-in sink. Most of the men take the thin, 1-inch-thick cotton mattress and put it on the floor to sleep. They use the flat metal platform of the bed as a desk instead. All have small televisions, which are always on, and which provide them their only view of the outside world.

One set of cell-fronts faces east, toward the Bay that cannot be seen for the dirty windows. The other 250 cells face “the yard”—a World War II-era, rusting, corrugated-metal-roof structure housing a dozen large free-standing cages resembling dog kennels. It is inside these cages that the men on “walk-alone” status go to “recreate” for a few hours each week.

These men walk alone because they have shown themselves too dangerous to mix with other prisoners. They are, in the main, responsible for the frequent stabbings and assaults that occur within a group of inmates who have nothing else to lose and who live in a tiny world of petty gossip and verbal abuse.

Every man there has told me, at one point or another, that the worst part of his life on death row is loneliness. I have been surprised, during these same conversations, to learn that not all of the men on death row are against the death penalty. Some would welcome it.

“This is my body, which will be given up for you.”

These words were spoken at the last meal of a man about to be condemned by the state and executed. It’s strange how the words of the Gospel take on a different resonance on death row. Jesus, the executed prisoner, reflected in the eyes of men also sentenced to die.

I know Jesus was innocent, and I know what these men have done to earn their cells and sentences. It took some doing on their part. It often took horrible, brutal crimes; the stuff of horror movies and nightmares. Over 100 of these men tortured their victims before killing them. Nearly 200 molested and killed children.

Matt Chinworth Death Row Illustration
All of the 726 men currently condemned to death in the state of California are housed at San Quentin.

But as I raise the host, I don’t see heinous murderers standing in front of me. I see human beings. And if His body were not given up for them, too, then what difference did it make? The fact that His love reaches down into this pit of hell is what gives my life its meaning and purpose. I am often moved to tears at this part of the Mass, the part where it dawns on me again what a gift I have been given to be able to stand and bear witness to the mercy of Christ embodied in this sacrament in such a dark place.

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.

It means that I am going where the Church is often absent. If I don’t go, who will? I ask myself.

The United States of America is now the prison capital of the world. We incarcerate a higher proportion of our population than any other country. Structural and institu- tionalized racism lie behind the fact that, while both black and white people commit crimes at an equal rate, one in five black men in America can expect to spend some time in prison in his life. For white men, the ratio is one in 35.

So, no, my work in the prison does not mean I approve of prison. It means that I am going where the Church is often absent. If I don’t go, who will? I ask myself. There are not scores of priests banging on wardens’ doors, begging to be hired as chaplains. I wish there were.

In the same way, if I were to choose to fight against prisons instead of going into them to minister to the prisoners, what would I accomplish? Only my own exclusion.

And I would never get to hold up the Blessed Sacrament as a sign of light and hope in a human-made hell. As a priest, I have come to see my work as one of resisting the evil of prison from the inside, where I find Christ living.

George Williams, S.J. serves as the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison and has taught the Jesuit School of Theology practicum on prison ministry.

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