Of Many Things

There it was, Baltimore’s huge gulag of a jail and prison complex covering two and a half city blocks. I was looking at it from the northeast corner of St. Ignatius Church, where I was to give a talk on prison ministry that Monday evening; the sight served as a useful if painful inward preparation. Late every Monday afternoon, as it turned out, a dozen or so people gather near the complex for an hour’s peaceful protest against the death penalty. The supermax segment of the complex houses Maryland’s death row. Walking over to join them, I found two longtime friends in the group, Willa and Brendan Walsh. In 1968 they founded Baltimore’s Catholic Worker, known as Viva House. As we stood together on East Madison St.a major outbound rush hour routemost passing cars ignored us, but a few drivers gave us a thumbs-up in support of the basic message on our placards: The death penalty is wrong.

We were soon joined by the mother of one of the death row prisoners. A woman in her mid-60’s, she had driven from Salisbury to visit her sonthree hours over, with the immediate prospect of three back that same eveningand this after having worked all the previous night at her job as a waitress. Visits to death row inmates are limited to half an hour; hers was made all the more difficult because the telephones on either side of the plexiglass window dividing prisoners from visitors were not working properly. We almost had to shout, the mother said, fatigue and frustration evident in her whole being. Her son is more fortunate than others on death row; he is to receive a new trial because of the grossly inadequate representation provided by his court-appointed attorneya not unusual occurrence in the case of indigent defendants. It was at least heartening to be able to remind listeners later during the talk that the U.S. bishops have spoken out strongly against capital punishment, as has the pope.

The jail and prison complex is located in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, and whether on death row or not, virtually all the prisoners are from the poorest segments of society. But Baltimore itself has become a poor city. Despite the veneer of glamor around the inner harborwith its expensive hotels, convention centers and new stadiumsthe prosperity that has lifted many urban areas has passed it by. Every month a thousand residents leave in search of better opportunities elsewhere. The pastor of St. Ignatius described Baltimore as a city that is bleeding to death. Unemployment is high (ironically, the jail and prison complex is one of its major employers), and low-income housing is scarcer than ever, now that the city has torn down most of its high-rise housing projects.

The day before the talk, I walked over to visit Viva House on the other side of the city. The route took me past several small parkswhere homeless people gathered around benches in the still-warm autumn sunand then along a section of West Lombard St. marked by dozens of abandoned or burned out row houses.

Viva House itself stands out as a sign of hope amid the decay. Along with volunteers, Willa and Brendan carry out the works of mercy through a soup kitchen, food pantry and other services to neighborhood residents. Their daughter, Kate, a Fordham University graduate, has begun a now-thriving after-school program for elementary school children. Her husband, Dave, an attorney, is currently putting in long hours representing one of the death row prisoners. One boy in the after-school program did so well that he was accepted as a student at the St. Ignatius Loyola Academy next to the church.

In their own small but significant way, the efforts of Viva House and the St. Ignatius Loyola Academyan all-scholarship school with a primarily African-American enrollmenthelp to lighten some of the city’s darkness, a darkness epitomized by the gigantic jail and prison complex with its apparatus of death.

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