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I Was In Prison
Online Prison Ministry Newsletter
October 1, 2011
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

Catholic Lawyers Guild Honors Dale Recinella at Red Mass in October

The century’s old tradition of the Red Mass will be celebrated by Bishop Felipe J. Estevez at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 20, at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, 131 E. Duval St. in Jacksonville.

The tradition is celebrated throughout the world for elected officials and members of the judicial, legal and law enforcement communities to gather and to invoke the Holy Spirit on the justice system. A reception will follow the Red Mass in the church courtyard. For more information, call Cristy Russell, president of the guild at (904) 346-5571 or email:

Each year, the Catholic Lawyers Guild selects a recipient of the “Law & Spirituality Award.” The award is presented as part of the Red Mass celebration. The 2011 recipient is Dale Recinella, a 20-year volunteer Catholic lay chaplain, who for over 13 years has served inmates on Death Row and long-term solitary confinement at Florida State Prison and Union Correctional Institution. A well-respected national voice calling for an end to the death penalty, Recinella is the author of two books, Now I Walk on Death Row and The Biblical Truth about America’s Death Penalty.

What follows is an interview conducted by Maria Aguila with Dale Recinella and Father Slawomir Bielasiewicz, pastor of St. Mary, Mother of Mercy Parish in Macclenny. The two men work closely together in ministering to inmates in North Florida. Maria is a member of the Catholic Lawyers Guild.

Prison Ministry: A Day in the Life of a Priest and Lay Chaplain

Each year at the annual Red Mass, the Catholic Lawyers Guild awards a person who has exemplified his or her work in the law arena and at the same time made spirituality a part of his or her work and life. This year's recipient, Dale Recinella, is a perfect example of such an individual. A successful lawyer turned Catholic lay chaplain, Dale has provided general and cell-to-cell ministry for more than 20 years to inmates.

picture of Dale and Father

Dale and Father Slawomir Bielasiewicz, the new pastor assigned to St. Mary, Mother of Mercy Parish in Macclenny, visit Death Row inmates at Florida State Prison (FSP) and Union Correctional Institution (UCI) each week. They have become a powerful team. What I learned about their stories and experiences may surprise you.

Q (Father Slawomir): You have a mental health degree from Poland and were working at a mental hospital before you decided to become a priest. Do you feel right at home bringing the word of God to prison inmates and patients at the Northeast Florida State Hospital?

(FS): I feel like I've come back home. That is something I've always enjoyed; as a priest, you deal with the people, you work with the people so the foundation, the skills that I had, it's a continuation in the way that I had the experience.

Q (FS): You went from kindergarteners to convicted felons. How unique are the prisoners needs compared to children or are there similarities?

(FS): You may be surprised, but I have found that kindergarteners and death row prisoners have a lot in common. Children, they are very honest, and they show you their emotions. The same in prison, on Death Row; right away, you see their emotion. The difference between those who found God and those who didn't is hope.

Q (FS): Do you find that most of them want to talk to you or is it just a small percentage?

(FS): Most of them want to talk to you. The trouble is that we have very little time, and sometimes, we have to just cut the conversation. The confessions that I had, they really prepared themselves. They went into the details of their lives, not just the habitual sins we face every day, but the changes they've made in their lives. That was really amazing to me. [They were] very honest, without complications, a real reflection of the changes in their lives.

Q (Dale Recinella): Dale, I loved your book, loved it, couldn't put it down. Oysters.* What comes to mind? Had any lately? (Laughter). [*Dale explains in his book, Now I Walk on Death Row, his near-death experience after eating raw oysters.]

(DR): What comes to mind is the pearl of great price. Having been poisoned eating oysters, I can now see how God worked through that oyster poisoning to completely redirect our life in a way that we never would have guessed. Yet, for our whole family, it's been an improvement – bringing happiness and fulfillment. So the oyster had flesh-eating bacteria, but the spiritual side of the oyster was the pearl.

Q (DR): How did your family react to this transformation or journey that you were going through?

(DR): This is a very, very important question. And it goes hand in hand with a subsidiary question that Susan and I get asked all the time. Do we think everybody should do what we did? The answer is absolutely not. Everybody should do what Jesus is calling them to do, and he's calling all of us to do something. When I was asked to go into prison ministry, I was sure there was no way God would have asked me to go into prison ministry. I get claustrophobic in an elevator. And my wife and children sat there and read Jesus's words in Matthew 25. That's an example of how God completely brought the family on board with this. But every family is called to do something.

Q (FS): Did it take time for the inmates to trust you as you are a new face to them?

(FS): It's not actually like that; to my surprise, they somehow caught up with me right away. This past Wednesday, one of them told me, "I see that you want to be here, and I'm grateful; otherwise, I would show you I do not want to talk to you."

(DR): They've embraced him.

(FS): They know we don't work for the prison; they know we just come to them with Christ, with the sacraments; to bring them hope, consolation and just to be for them as people.

Q: Are there people from other denominations that go and visit these inmates?

(DR): There's a few. But you need to understand that most of the Evangelical denominations, their goal is to bring the person to Christ and then, [they believe] their work is finished. As Catholics, we have that very important concept of the family of God, so we initiate a person into the church. It's initiating them into a family, and there's a relation with God and with each other. So bringing them into the faith is not the end; it's the beginning.

Many years ago, one of the men on Death Row was interviewed by The Florida Catholic, and they asked him, "Why did you want to become Catholic?" He'd been on death row for 27 years when he became Catholic. He said, "I want to belong to the church that wants to belong to me."

(FS): When I had the first Mass Sunday at [UCI], some inmates from Death Row thought we'd really much appreciate if you would acknowledge us at the beginning of the Mass, because they watch the Mass on the television. They wanted to celebrate Mass as a community. I was very much surprised by this, because I did not know. Next time, when we had a Mass, we acknowledged them, and they were very grateful. They said there are only two ways to be in the community: Mass and the sacraments. Of course, participating in the life of the church; they really do receive the sacraments with great joy.

(DR) interjects: And reverence.

(FS): To me, as a priest, it's incredible to give communion to a person through the bars. Even though the person cannot be close to you, [demonstrating a face crushed against imaginary bars] their faces are waiting for the communion of Jesus Christ, the moment of the silence, of personal prayer.

Q: It's obviously important for them to be a part of the community, part of the church, and participating in the sacraments.

(FS): It's important because many of them were abandoned by their families. If we do not come - we cannot abandon them, then we would not be the testament of Christ.

Q: Mental health. What is the link between mental health/mental illness and the inmates?

(FS): Use your imagination. If you're put in a cell – we like to live in a community, we like to enjoy our freedom. You live on a thread, you're not very happy, especially if you do not accept your situation, inside of your soul; there's a constant fight. At some point, you're losing that fight. That's the difference between those who found peace; all of them went through that process. Anger – they couldn't accept that they were in prison. They were angry they got caught, not for what they've done. Then it was a process; then the examination of their conscience, that actually, I did it, and somehow, I have to live with my life. Then what would be next?

The image I have in my mind is when Jesus was dying on the cross, on the two sides of the cross, there were two murderers; in the reading, it says "thieves" but Romans, they didn't crucify thieves, they crucified murderers. One of them acknowledged his guilt; the other was just looking for excuses. The one who finds peace, that's the face of a person who is close to God. "I'm not guilty, I don't want to accept my situation, and everything is bad; I don't want to accept salvation, God, not accept self." It's just one huge denial of everything.

Q (DR): Your book talks about the expansion of psychiatric cells.

(DR): Father has addressed what happens when you're standing out there on the wings [of the prisons]. But my book also addresses how we got to the point where our prisons have become our mental health system by default. To put it in a nutshell, money going into mental health has been insufficient for either the hospitals or the communities. So we started locking up the mentally ill. And the DOC's own statistics, at least 10-11 percent of all the adults in Florida's prison system are medically diagnosed as severely mentally ill. That's how the mentally ill are tumbling in droves into our prisons. No one gets sentenced to solitary confinement; they're sentenced to prison. We are to be the presence of the church and say [to the inmates], "We cannot make it cooler, we cannot get you stronger medication, we cannot improve the food, but we are here to tell you, you are not forgotten."

(FS): But it's a very difficult issue because most of society is afraid of mentally ill people, of people on death row...because we do not understand them, we're afraid of them. So if there is something you don't understand, you're afraid of it; it's just easier to put them in shadows where you don't have to have contact with them.

Q: How do you deal with those who oppose any ministry or service to inmates?

(FS): Let He who is without sin.

Q: [Laugh]. Cast the first stone. Right.

(DR): In a country with a Catholic world view, the denial of freedom is the punishment. And the reconstruction of the offender and the healing of the community would be the focus of our efforts. But in a Calvinistic world view, being in prison is not enough. One must suffer while they are in prison. And anything done to ameliorate the suffering or to help them improve themselves is seen as approving the crime they committed. So this is a huge obstacle. The answer I give to your question, from my experience, in dealing with Christians on how do we improve and make more Catholic our response to violent crime is that it first requires conversion. It requires the change of our hearts.

Q: Would you say that is the biggest challenge? Changing hearts?

(DR): That IS the challenge. To get away from "no suffering is enough," and if you speak about human dignity of the offender, you're against the victim of the crime. To move from that to the church's teaching on dealing with the victim, the community, and the offender requires conversion.

(FS): And we do believe we are accomplishing the mission of Christ. He picked the most difficult, those possessed with demons, tax collectors, people who committed crimes, sinners, and he ordered his disciples to do the same. He ordered them strictly to go, and he gave them the mission - even though his time was running out, he ordered them to continue that mission.

Q: Very rarely do people think of the family of Death Row inmates, especially the family members of those about to be executed. (DR) Your wife, Susan ministers to the inmates' family members before and after an execution. You must have really interesting dinner conversations; how do you deal with this at home?

(DR): We're hopelessly normal. Our youngest daughter, Addie, used to say to us, "Do other families have conversations like this at their dinner table?" Part of what we've learned we have to do is hold each other accountable to keep giving the suffering people back to Jesus. If we start carrying them ourselves, we'll start walking like this [demonstrating hunched back, barely able to walk]. My wife and I hold each other accountable and ask, "Are you starting to carry them?" And we sit and pray again, because we keep meaning to give them back to Jesus; he's the Savior, the one who carries them. This is what a priest must do, day in and day out. But as laypeople, we are still learning.

Q: Who else assists you in this ministry?

(DR): Bishop John Snyder has been coming to cell-front on Death Row twice a month for over a decade. Deacon Ken Cochran trained to take over the pastoral work at Northeast Florida State Hospital from me in 1999. At UCI, he began assisting Father Jose Maniyangat with the general population and RCIA in 2003, as well as cell-to-cell rounds in solitary confinement in 2005. At FSP, he began assisting with distribution of ashes and Communion rounds in solitary confinement and with performing the monthly Communion service for the general population in 2006.

(FS): Deacon Ken goes often, and he does a great job. Dale and I handle Death Row.

(DR): We also have three volunteers from Holy Faith Catholic Church in Gainesville that distribute literature at UCI and six volunteers from Jacksonville and Tallahassee go to FSP once a month for solitary confinement rounds. There are about 1,400 at FSP, and 800 at UCI in solitary confinement.

(FS): Prison staff and chaplains are extremely friendly and helpful; they facilitate our presence and make sure we can do what we do.

Q: The more we empty ourselves, the more we are fulfilled. What does this mean to you?

(DR): For me, that is the spiritual process. John the Baptist said, "I must become less, so that He can become more." And so it is less and less me, and more and more, Jesus. And that's what I'm there for, to bring Jesus to these men, not me. Him with a capital "H", not me.

(FS): Very often the danger with the ministry is to believe that it's too much mind and body. A lot of times, you face very difficult cases, difficult emotions – so you have to be true and honest, be yourself. You don't have to be this wonderfully skillful person. It's Christ [who] wants you there, not to claim ownership, but we are there for the mission of the church. It's not about me. You're standing there, in a cell, with a person facing death, and you think, "What should I say?"

Q: Right, the pressure to say the right thing!

(FS): And it's not about you. If you empty yourself, it comes to you. The second you think this is stupid, the Holy Spirit comes to you, and you've touched the life of that person. Other times, you say something you think is wise, there's no reaction. You must try to listen, not come up with your own wisdom, not to fulfill your own agenda, to have compassion, understanding and just try to be there for that person with Christ.

(DR): As an example of what Father is saying, we have so many men on Death Row who tell us, "You are the only ones who come back here and laugh."

Q: And laugh?

(DR): And if you think about it, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is joy. So if you have men standing in their skivvies, in a 6 ft by 9 ft cell, and the thermal index is 130 degrees, and you leave them laughing, the Holy Spirit showed up.

(FS): One more thought: A man who is facing execution on Death Row [gives us] an amazing example of the faith when he said, "Years ago, you would not like me. I did not like myself. But now, I'm a different person, and I deeply regret that I took that life. But, if my death gives consolation to that family, I am at peace, and I am willing to do it [go through execution]." To me, it was very touching, he was very honest. It was amazing to witness, the conversion of this man. He acknowledged everything, but he changed, too.

I left this interview deeply contemplative about my faith, thinking of the inmates, their families, the victims and their families.

For the sake of all our souls, let's hope our hearts change, too.

I was in prison, and you visited me. (Matthew 25:36)

©2011 St. Augustine Catholic Online Edition
Jacksonville, Florida U.S.A.
Used with Permission. All rights reserved.

Upcoming Events:

Now I Walk on Death Row October 2011
By: DALE S. RECINELLA, Catholic Correctional Chaplain for Florida Death Row

Thursday October 13 @ 6:30pm - Parish Hall
Open to the public

Friday October 14 @ 9:00am - Coffee Klatch
Open to all parishioners

St. Columbkille Catholic Church
12171 Iona Road
Ft. Myers, Florida 33908
Presentations followed by book signing
New Book Now I Walk on Death Row will be available for purchase.

For Information:
Contact: Chris McBride
Office: (239) 489-3973
Fax: (239) 432-0066
Saturday October 15 @ 3:30pm
Open to public conference participants:
With God All Things Are Possible
Florida Respect Life Conference - 25th Anniversary
St. Martha School
4380 Fruitville Road
Sarasota, Florida 34232
(2 miles from I-75 at Exit 210, Fruitville Road)
Sponsored by:
The Catholics Bishops of Florida
The Florida Catholic Conference
State Pro-LIfe Coordinating Committee
Hosted by:
Diocese of Venice in Florida
Presentation followed by book signing
New Book Now I Walk on Death Row will be available for purchase.
For information:
Contact: Respect Life Department
Diocese of Venice in Florida
941) 441-1101
Diocese of Venice

Now I Walk on Death Row - On Air
Catholic Correctional Chaplain for Florida Death Row
Wednesday October 19th 9:00 am MT
(Taped for international broadcast):

Everlasting Love
Host: Patricia King
God TV: Phoenix, AZ

I Was In Prison
News & Updates
This ezine is targeted for people involved in prison ministry or in stopping the death penalty, we think you will find helpful information for people who are undecided about capital punishment, for those who have never experienced the inside of a jail or prison, and for those who feel called to participate through prayer and adoration.

Your name and information will never be used or shared with anyone. We promise!

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

If you Like this Monthly Ezine - You will love Dale's Book!
The Poor Clare Sisters
Paperback: 433 pages

Excellent book on the topic!,
June 13, 2005 Nathan Eanes
(Review from

The Biblical Truth about America's Death Penalty is a must-read. It deals with Biblical standards of Capital Punishment and then compares them to the system used in America today. It is the best-researched, most faithful to scripture, and most evenhanded analysis I have ever read concerning the Death Penalty. Whatever your persuasion on the issue, this book will teach you a great deal. Recinella is a trained lawyer and committed Christian who now volunteers part-time on Florida's death row. He thus understands law, the Bible, and the system of execution in America. I challenge anyone who supports the Death Penalty to read this book.

This ezine edited by The Poor Clare Sisters of Spokane
to support the IWasInPrison Outreach