Bulletproof Faith The condemned seek solace from their death row companion, a chaplain
Father George Williams, the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison, wears a bulletproof vest as he celebrates mass for death row inmates. (Photo courtesy: San Quentin State Prison)
By Rachel Fobar
The Medill Justice Project
SAN QUENTIN, Calif.- Father George Williams holds up the Eucharist for his parishioners.
"This is my body, which is given for you," he says. Underneath his white collar and priestly vestments, Williams wears a bulletproof vest. That's because he's at San Quentin State Prison, preaching to six pews of convicted killers condemned to die.
On Sundays, Williams, a pleasant man with a graying goatee, addresses his congregation from within a tiny, padlocked cage inside an old shower room, which serves as the death row chapel. No outside visitors are allowed to attend. A group of condemned men sit on wooden pews that are bolted to the floor. The only physical contact is the Sign of Peace, when the inmates wish each other well - and reach through a 4-by-12-inch slot to shake the priest's hand. They receive the Eucharist, or the wafers Catholics believe is the body of Christ, through the same slot.
God is here, even in this forsaken place, Williams says. He is often moved to tears at this part of Mass, when he holds up the body of Christ and witnesses God's profound mercy. "I feel that this is the power of God's grace at work in their life, and I'm just witnessing it," he says reverently.
Robert Carrasco, a 61-year-old death row inmate who speaks with a slow, mournful voice, says, "We always talk, you know,just like regular people ... He just looks at us like ... he's not any better than us."
Most death row inmates are housed in San Quentin's East Block, a red brick building that towers over San Quentin's other Catholic chapel, where Williams performs weekly Mass for the inmates who have not been condemned to die by lethal injection.
Williams, far right, stands on the altar of San Quentin's Catholic chapel, where inmates who have not been condemned celebrate mass. (Sam Hearnes/San Quentin News)
No Kevlar vests here - the only security in sight is a tiny Irish nun, Sister Carmel Crimmins, who carries an emergency whistle. In this other chapel, you won't see padlocks or cages.
Instead, there is a painting of the Sacred Heart, the image of Jesus with a flaming heart encircled with a crown of thorns, surrounded by artificial flowers and candles; a shrine to the Virgin Mary; the stations of the cross carved in wood lining the walls; and a Revelations mural depicting the end of times, the victory of good over evil, which was unveiled on Christmas Eve with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone in attendance. Cordileone did not say Mass for death row inmates. During Mass, television screens project the words to hymns, like "Seek Ye First" and
"Seed, Scattered and Sown," so those in attendance can sing along with the band of four singers, a drummer, a keyboardist, a guitarist and a tambourine player. At the Sign of Peace, prisoners shuffle around the chapel, shaking hands and thumping each other on the back.
Standing out in a sea of powder blue prison uniforms, a handful of visitors see San Quentin as their home parish. One of them is· Brian Cahill, a lifelong Catholic and former executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities. He says that after his son John committed suicide at 42, the most meaningful sympathy note he received was a hand-painted card from San Quentin, signed by about 30 inmates.
Douglas "Skip" Collier, a 58-year-old convicted murderer with tattoos up his arms, says he's known four or five chaplains in his nearly 40 years at San Quentin. Williams remembers everyone's name, and Collier remembers how he came to his cell with the Eucharist when he couldn't go to weekly Mass because the prison was on lockdown for three weeks.
"I thought he'd be a hardline kind of a prison priest," he says. "That's not who he is at all."
On death row, about 150 condemned inmates come to Williams for spiritual direction. They discuss the things that weigh on them. Missed spouses. Slain victims. Being sentenced to die. Feeling worthless.
As the number of death sentences issued in the United States has steadily declined since the late 1990s, a pocket of America designated the new "Death Belt" has bucked the national trend.
This new capital of capital punishment isn't Texas, Florida or other states in or near the Deep South, the regions historically known for their long lines of prisoners on death row. It's California. With this series, The Medill Justice Project features stories about the people of Southern California whose everyday lives are impacted by sentences of death.
"They just feel like the days are endless repetition of nothing," Williams says.
Kevin Cooper, who has been on death row for more than 30 years, says his cell is 4 feet, 6 inches wide and 11 feet long. Whenever he leaves, he says he's strip-searched and shackled. San Quentin overlooks the San Francisco Bay, but Cooper has only seen pictures. "I do not leave this cage unless it's for the yard, for visits, including attorney visits," he says."...
Nothing really changes on this modem day plantation, it's all the same all the time."
Death row inmates eat meals in their cell. They don't work. They don't take classes. There are no rehabilitative programs open to them.
"If you're going to kill somebody, what's the point of rehabilitating?" Williams asks.
Lt. Sam Robinson, San Quentin's public information officer, could not be reached for comment.
Except they're not being killed. Almost 750 inmates sit on California's death row - more than any other state. More than 100 inmates have spent 30 years or more on death row, and 77 condemned inmates have died of natural causes since the state's death penalty was reinstituted in 1978. Because the state hasn't executed anyone since 2006 after legal challenges to the lethal injection protocol, a death sentence is "basically ... a life sentence," Williams says. In 2016, voters passed an initiative to speed up the appeals process for capital cases, but legal disputes continue to stall executions.
"These guys are getting older on death row, and they're not getting opportunities for rehabilitation," Williams says. "They get hip replacements and knee replacements, surgery, you name it. So, we do a lot to keep them alive physically, but we're not doing much to keep them alive otherwise."
According to a 2011 study by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula M. Mitchell, it costs California taxpayers $90,000 more to house a death row inmate than a general population inmate each year. Death penalty trials, increased security for death row inmates and legal representation cost the state an estimated $184 million annually.
"For me, because they haven't done any executions since I've been here, it all has kind of a feeling of unreality," Williams says."... The death sentence is real, but the chance that they get executed doesn't feel real."
Williams recalls praying for one inmate, who asked God to let him die after being on death row for about three decades.
Cooper says, "When you're in here, sometimes there's no way out except in a body bag." But he wouldn't prefer a sentence of life without parole, which he calls "the death penalty slow."
Other death row inmates worry about a slow death, Williams says. "Most of the time ... they realize that chances are, they're not likely to get executed because there's 750 people waiting in line," Williams says. ''The big thing they're afraid of, I think more than that, is the prospect of dying alone in a cell in prison."
The stone the builders rejected
On a mild autumn day last November, Williams stood in the bushes outside a San Quentin visiting room.
Inside, Carrasco, the death row inmate, stood with his wife, Delia, and his 9-year-old granddaughter. Carrasco had been legally married for 17 years, but he and his wife wanted to be married by a priest.
Williams has worked at San Quentin since 2010. (Lt. Sam Robinson/San Quentin State Prison)
But there was a problem: Williams wasn't allowed in the room, which was meant for lawyers and visitors, not prison employees. So he performed the ceremony through the window.
"He cares for us," Carrasco says of Williams. "... He doesn't remind me of a priest, he's just like one of us."
For Williams, being a Catholic is more than "standing outside condemning" prisons. It's about going in.
"A long time ago I realized, you know, if I wanted to sort of stand on a throne of righteousness and condemn the system, I can do that, fine," he says. "But if I want to help people who are actually suffering, I have to get my hands dirty and go into these places."
That realization came in the form of an answered prayer: he asked Jesus to show him his face. On his first day in the Massachusetts prison, he visited "the hole." As he talked to a man in solitary confinement, he had to kneel to talk through the slot in the door, which was about three feet off the ground. He says he realized he was "seeing Christ's face."
Father James Martin, who has known Williams since they were in their first stage of training to
be Jesuits 30 years ago, remembers seeing Williams do this when they worked together.
"That pose, that gesture, that image of him kneeling down - really putting his face up to this little slot, talking to this guy - you just see this great image of Jesuit ministry," Martin says. "... The kneeling was really sort of a gesture of humility."
When Williams was offered the job as chaplain at San Quentin, home to all of California's male death row inmates, in 2010, he remembers his response: "Hell, yeah!" At his old job at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, a medium-security prison about 30 miles from Boston, he says a prison official had told him, "We don't do feel-good programs here," referring to rehabilitative programs.
In California, Williams says, inmates ask to be transferred to San Quentin, once notorious for housing inmates like Charles Manson and the "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez, but is now known for programs that help inmates. One such program is restorative justice, which encourages inmates to think about the impact they've had on their victims and teaches ways of dealing with crime other than incarceration, like restitution or reconciliation with victims.
Williams, who has a doctorate in criminology from Northeastern University, decided to become a member of the Society of Jesus religious order when he was a captain in the Air Force. He was drawn to the Jesuits because of their emphasis on working with the poor and disadvantaged, and in 1987, he became one. When he began working in the prison ministry six years later, he knew he wanted to help those on the "margins of society."
Martin says, "One of the ways that Jesuits make decisions is, where can you do the most good? Where are there people in need of the church?"
Williams' faith is a quiet one; he's hesitant to talk about himself, seeing himself as only a conduit of God's grace.
"He speaks gently, you know, he's not a raised-fist table-pounder, but the depth of his authenticity and the pictures he paints are extremely moving," says Brother Dale Recinella, a death row chaplain in Florida who met Williams when they were both speaking at a meeting of the Order of Malta, a lay religious order.
In 2004, Williams, then a Jesuit brother, which meant he could not celebrate Mass nor administer sacraments, became a priest so he could hear confessions and practice the sacrament of Reconciliation, during which Catholics confess their sins to a priest and receive absolution from God. In Massachusetts, the inmates he worked with "were calling me to be ordained for them," he says, since only priests can hear confessions and the inmates longed for God's forgiveness.
"It seems more real to hear God's word in here," Williams says in the chapel. (Photo courtesy: San Quentin News)
For death row inmates at San Quentin, Reconciliation is one way they can experience healing. Coming before God to ask for forgiveness allows them to feel "the power of God's grace" in their lives, Williams says.
"Witnessing somebody who is suffering, carrying a lot of suffering and pain, and to be freed from that pain - I imagine it's like what a doctor feels when the patient does well/' he says. "You're helping people who are suffering and when the suffering is reduced, it feels good."
When he encounters people who don't believe inmates, especially death row inmates, deserve ministry, he reminds them of the gospel passage where God instructs people to visit prisoners: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." Even those who have done terrible things deserve God in their lives, Williams says.
"Everybody thinks that everybody on death row is like Hannibal Lecter, and you know, they're not," Williams says. The convicted murderer has repented, the death row inmate is also a beloved father.
Williams says, "We label them as the worst thing they ever did, so, calling somebody a 'murderer' is awful because, you know, he may have committed a murder, or two or three, but he's not- that doesn't define everything about him or her."
The keys to the kingdom
"How many of you want to go free today?" Williams asks a room of Bay Area locals intermingled with men in sky blue and denim uniforms, the letters "CDCR" for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation stamped in yellow letters on the back.
The men in blue raise their hands immediately, laughing.
In today's reading, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus promises Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Williams focuses on this: Jesus gives Peter the power to lock or unlock, the power to imprison or free.
During mass for the death row inmates, Williams stands within a cage. (Lt. Sam Robinson/San Quentin State Prison)
"Jesus has the keys to free us," Williams says. Jesus' keys, he says. can open the locked doors of people's hearts.
The inmates nod in response. Collier, who has been eligible for parole since 1988 but has been denied more than a dozen times, grows teary. He's still processing his most recent denial, and it's the most difficult one to accept thus far, he says.
"There are monsters that need to be here, without a doubt," Collier says. "There are also people who are capable of change."
As Mass ends, the local church-goers cross the lush courtyard, show their ID to a guard dressed in a tan and forest green uniform, walk through two sets of clanging metal gates and sign out of the visitor's log before driving away.
"It seems more real to hear God's word in here," Williams says of the chapel. He sees Jesus reflected in the eyes of the inmates.
In here, Williams preaches on Jesus' dining with tax collectors and prostitutes, on the recruiting of Paul, a murderer, as his apostle, on the wrongful conviction and execution of Jesus Christ.
"There is certainly this pervasive aspect of prison that ... these people are beyond help, and that they can't change, and that they're just trash," he says. "That they should just be locked up and throw away the key, forget about them."
He adds, "Here's the bottom line. You either believe that people can change or you don't. And I believe people can change."