I Was In Prison

Dale S. Recinella, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed
A Glimpse of Harvest
By: Dale S. Recinella

Some of my initial encounters on death row were difficult. But few were as dramatic as the first time I met one man in particular.

From his cell near the end of the wing, he heard me come onto the corridor. He knew from the sound of my voice that I was white. He knew from my speech patterns that I was socially privileged. He was waiting for me.

“Good morning,” I greet him. “I’m brother Dale. How are you doing today?’

“Yeah, I know who you are,” he dismisses my salutation in a breath. “And you are in way over your head, Mister Brother Dale. You think you know what’s going on here. But you and your cracker mind don’t have a clue!”

“I’m sure you’re right.“ My lips form the words. But my mind has already detached, hastily building a shadow space to think and analyze from a distance while my body stays in the moment.

“You don’t even have a clue how right I am!” his pointed finger is now an inch from my face. “With your cracker upbringing on the right side of the tracks you don’t know nothing about my life or about my world.”

His eyes burn with intensity as he leans forward, close to my face. In my silence, he assumes I disagree.

“Don’t be a rube, boy.” His hands grip the bars of the cell door, twisting back and forth with each breath. “You think some cracker judge put me here? You’re wrong. You think some cracker jury put me here? You’re wrong!”

On the heels of the tirade, his pause seems louder than his words have been. Sounding as neutral as possible, I ask the obvious question.

“Then how did you get here?”

“I was born on this side of this door! From the first day of my life, everything put me on track for this cell on death row. I was born on this side of this door!”

His words hang for a moment. He is angry. But I don’t sense any animosity toward me personally. The steel bars standing between us afford me a luxury. I can step into this anger and claim it as fertile ground for the kingdom.

“Let’s assume that you’re right,” I speak firmly while leaning into his space. “That means I was born on this side of this door, that I had just as little to do with being on this side of the bars as you did with being on that side of the bars.”

My words have met an open heart.

“Here we are,” I continue. “What are you and I going to do now?”

He is puzzled for a moment. Finally he responds, “I don’t know. Let me think about it.”

An inauspicious beginning? Perhaps. But since then, we have become friends. We talk about many things. We even pray a little. I’ve learned a great deal about what it has been like for my black brother to grow up in poverty in the rural South, about beatings and humiliations at the hands of whites, about the rage that grows from the seeds of receiving prejudice and racial hatred. I’ve also agonized over the plight of the family of the victim of his crime, a middle-aged white woman with a loving husband and beautiful children.

Little by little, Jesus is redeeming the barriers that divide my brother and me.

But there’s no escaping it: we are really from different worlds. Often, amused by my reactions to his life experiences, he just shakes his head. “Man oh man. You sure are white.”

First published: The Florida Catholic, March 9, 2000
© 2000 Dale S. Recinella & The Florida Catholic.
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.