||Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed|
But For The Grace of God, There Go I
By: Dale Recinella
About two-thirds of Florida’s death row inmates are baptized Christians.
More than fifty are Catholic. Most of them are regular Communicants. Another five are in RCIA. The Catholics are peppered randomly throughout the halls of death row. But one particular corridor houses more Catholics than any other. The guys jokingly call it Catholic Row.
Sometimes as I make the rounds, one of my regulars will be absent from his cell. He could be on a medical or legal callout or be “on vacation,” back at local court for a hearing. Today, one of my guys on Catholic Row is absent. The other men are worried. His symptoms came on suddenly. The diagnosis was immediate. Cancer. It has already metastasized throughout his body. He has only a few weeks to live. I am about to experience my first death by natural causes on death row.
The secular media tends to project such an event through the football reporting-style lens used for death penalty stories: Who won, the bad guys or the good guys? The substance of this reality is much more complex than a sporting event. A human being is dying a painful and solitary death in a six foot by ten foot concrete and steel cage in the prison hospital. I have no idea what to expect.
The administration, officers and staff could not be more cooperative. They do everything allowed to facilitate visits by the family, the priest and myself. The room is a death row cell deep inside the prison hospital within the compound. An officer unbolts the solid steel door to the cell and takes up watch, sitting on a stool in the hall. As I enter the room, I know that death is not far behind.
Except for its location, my friend’s new cell looks amazingly like the death row cell he was in when I gave him Communion a few weeks ago. His bed and mattress are of the same size and material as before. His personal property locker is still with him. And he is still hanging tough, facing everything with a stiff upper lip.
But he seems to have lost half his weight. The pain is so intense that just breathing causes involuntary moans. I search for an opening line.
“Your tattoos are holding up well.”
He manages a grin while struggling to an upright position. It takes several attempts. Finally, he is sitting up. And we begin many hours of praying and sharing together. We discover a great deal in common.
We both grew up in large families in ethnic neighborhoods and both attended Catholic grade schools about one mile from each other in Detroit.
“After eighth grade I left home and moved into a Franciscan monastery for high school,” I explain.
“We both joined gangs at fourteen,” he chuckles. “But I was into outdoor activities. You were inside praying and I was in the streets.”
The diminutive room serves as a time capsule where we share childhood memories of May crownings, daily Masses, Benedictions and tough nuns wielding rulers and slinging erasers. We sing together, intoning our favorite songs from those Catholic school days, including Hail Holy Queen and Immaculate Mary. And we pray together, especially the Rosary.
Who could have imagined this scene thirty to forty years ago, as we each stood boy-girl, boy-girl in post-lunch processions on the blacktop.
Who could have guessed this future, as we shuffled uncomfortably in the May warmth, twisting the “JMJ” embroidered on our parochial school ties.
Who could have conceived this moment, as we subtly elbowed and back-kneed our classmates while muttering over and over, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…
First published: The Florida Catholic, December 9, 1999
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.
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.
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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