Finding God on Death Row: 10 Questions for Chaplain Dale Recinella
Dale S. Recinella is a lawyer and lay minister who serves on behalf of the Catholic bishops of Florida as Catholic Correctional Chaplain to Florida's Death Row and Solitary Confinement population. Together with his wife, Dr. Susan Recinella, who is a psychologist specializing in mental illness, he is a lay minister to the families of executed prisoners and of murder victims. He holds a J.D. from Notre Dame University Law School and an M.T.S. degree in theology from Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology.
Mr. Recinella is also an author and a columnist for the Florida Catholic newspaper, winning a 2000 Press Award from the Catholic Press Association for his coverage of the death penalty. In 1997 he was named a University of Notre Dame Exemplar for modeling faith and citizenship in action, and in 2000 he received a Humanitarian Award from the Franciscan Alumni Association. On July 24, I interviewed Mr. Recinella by telephone about his work and current issues facing death row pastoral ministry. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.
What are the biggest concerns of death row chaplains right now?
As a Catholic correctional chaplain on Florida’s death row, with the second-largest death row population in the country, I know that our biggest concerns as ministers are the conditions of confinement. They’re extremely primitive. We have 412 men being held in six foot by ten foot cells with a toilet, a stainless steel shelf that serves as a bunk, and a small property locker for their legal materials and religious books. And that’s it. There’s no air conditioning in the summer when the heat indexes here are astronomical. So the first concern of someone ministering in these conditions is the plight of people in the cells, which is extremely difficult emotionally, physically and mentally. We’ve all heard of inmates who say “just give up my appeals and kill me,” and those are folks who don’t have the strength to endure these conditions. Eighty-five percent of the executions in the past 37 years have been in the southern states, the former Confederacy and slave-holding border states, since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the restarting of the death penalty. So we have a lot people here and heat is our first concern.
Our second concern is the fact that these are human beings being held in cages until we kill them. The reality of this process is that we have people, some younger than my kids and some my dad’s age, who are under the control of the state and cannot commit another crime. And yet we’re going to kill them. That reality hangs over every cell visit and is extremely debilitating for the prisoners, the ministers and the people working there. God didn’t make us to feel good about being part of the machinery of death. Especially with all of the botched executions recently, we’ve heard a lot of people defend it by saying “it’s not as bad as what the criminals did.” Really? Should our standard of moral action be that we’re not as bad as the criminals in our midst? The environment and the reality of this process is, for me and for the men who are there with me in Catholic prison ministry, the greatest weight on our minds and spirits.
How can American Catholics approach the reality of the death penalty in light of current church teaching?
I think we approach it from a faith standpoint. The secular culture could be crying for vengeance, but faithful Catholics don’t start with the noise in the street. What the church is teaching us through the catechism, through Evangelium Vitae and through the teachings of our bishops is that we can’t morally take the lives of offenders if non-lethal means are available to protect society. And non-lethal means of punishment are available in every state where the death penalty is legal, including Texas which was the last state to come on board. There are fewer new death penalty sentences in Texas because of that.
I wrote an article for America Magazine years ago, explaining why American Catholics must oppose the death penalty, in which I discussed the doctrine of procedural bar in death penalty law. Hardly anyone knows about it. The catechism presumes we need to make sure we have the right person who is fully guilty and mentally competent before we even discuss whether non-lethal means or a death sentence is appropriate for individual cases. But because of procedural bar there’s no constitutional right not to be executed just because you’re factually innocent. Nobody knows it. So as I see it, no American Catholic can support the death penalty under current law.
What perspective does the Bible give us on the death penalty?
Well, it’s interesting that when I used to support the death penalty, I would quote offhand things like “an eye for an eye” from the Bible. Now, as my wife and I go around to churches, most Protestants and even Catholics who support it are also quoting short verses from scripture. That bothers me. So I spent five years at the Judaica collection at the University of Florida, researching the Biblical death penalty as it operated when it was the law of the early Hebrews before the time of Christ. What was the death penalty as governed by Jewish law in scripture? I was shocked to find out there were 44 mandatory requirements of substantive law and of procedural law to determine how and when someone should be executed. The American death penalty doesn’t satisfy a single one of those requirements. In my research, I compared the American death penalty to the Biblical death penalty, and I found that we Americans don’t match up with a single requirement from the Bible. How can anyone then support our American death penalty using scripture? That’s why I wrote the book, The Biblical Truth about America’s Death Penalty, so that people could see the analysis for themselves.
You and your wife have spent many “execution weeks” with the condemned and their families. What’s that like?
When a man’s death warrant is signed, he’s moved from regular death row to the actual death house about five or six weeks before the scheduled execution. That’s when his family starts coming in to say goodbye before he’s killed. Now each man has the right to select a spiritual advisor who will be with him during those five or six weeks and be present for him on the other side of the execution window when he dies. And men on death row started asking me to be with them. It’s a process of helping someone prepare to be killed and I’ve found that it’s very different from helping the terminally ill at death. At least terminal illness is a natural death. This is getting a healthy person ready to be killed by other human beings and it’s very dark.
Here in Florida, the family of the condemned are not allowed to be present when the execution takes place, even though the chaplains are allowed to be there. We found out that the family usually goes back to a motel and watches on TV to see if the execution takes place. Only the condemned man’s lawyer and spiritual advisor are present for him. My wife Susan said “this is horrible” and started making herself available to be with the families. She found that even those families who weren’t Catholic usually wanted to be in a quiet and sacred place when the execution happened. So then St. Mary Mother of Mercy parish—the only Catholic parish between Jacksonville and Lake City, located just 15 miles from the death house—started providing a place for Susan, the parish priest and the family to pray. There are only 125 people in this parish, but it was one of the first two parishes in the country to formally ask for a moratorium on the death penalty. Sometimes I come straight from the death house to join them at the parish. We try to take care of these families that nobody cares about.
You’ve also ministered to prisoners in solitary confinement. How do you approach them?
In solitary confinement as opposed to death row, the doors are solid steel instead of being barred with mesh, and the prisoners are not being held there to be killed. A chaplain spends a great deal of time in solitary confinement kneeling on concrete because of the need to minister through the food flap, which is just a hole in the wall that the guards unlock. Catholics have a constitutional right to receive sacraments from a Catholic minister. So the guards have to unlock the hole for priests to hear confessions, and for chaplains to give communion and pray with prisoners. We have 2,100 men in long-term solitary confinement in Florida.
As with death row, in solitary confinement, we are a ministry of presence to all the men in those cells, even if they aren’t Catholic or religious. In the old days, when it was just me and the priest, it took us a long time to get through all of those cells. In recent years we’ve been joined by an army of 15 volunteers from the Knights of Malta, Legatus and Tallahassee Christ Renews His Parish. They’ve really helped our ability to be with the men in those cells and with the prison staff as well. There’s a tremendous burden on the staff in these places, where the officers and other employees talk like they are in prison as well. Many of these employees from rural areas never met a Catholic before we started coming to death row. We show them that our church cares about humanity and about human beings, whether they’re wearing orange or brown, and that we’re able to build bridges of connectedness through our faith. Many staff members who initially were skeptical about Catholics coming into their prison have started feeling a lot of solidarity and support for us.
Together with your wife, who is a psychologist, you’ve tried to raise awareness about criminalization of the mentally ill. What’s going on with that issue?
In solitary confinement prisons, there’s a high prevalence of severe mental illness. Over the past 30 or 40 years there’s been a well-intentioned approach to get the mentally ill out of public institutions and put those funds into community mental health centers, to put the funding into wonder drugs for chemical and brain imbalances. The hospitals have mostly been closed down now. There are only two state mental hospitals in Florida and they only have a fraction of the beds they once had, from over 30,000 in their heyday to 1,500-2,000 beds in the whole state today. Where did those people go? The community mental health centers never got funded and those people went to the streets where they get in trouble, and end up in jail and in prison.
In every state now, a huge portion of the inmate population is diagnosed as severely mentally ill. Florida reports that one out of every nine adult inmates is severely—not moderately—mentally ill. As these people get in trouble in prison, they get moved to long-term solitary confinement, and that’s where we meet them through the hole in the door. It’s almost medieval. But it’s driven by our society’s refusal to spend money to care for the mentally ill, not by the Department of Corrections. This criminalization of the mentally ill is a crisis. Add to that the death penalty. In the southern states which use capital punishment the most, many people still think mental illness is a result of moral failure, a manifestation of the devil. The result is that mental illness is a subtext to the American death penalty. During one stretch of executions in my tenure as a chaplain, seven out of the twelve people executed were mentally ill. It’s the perfect storm. In order to be declared mentally competent to be executed, our primitive legal standard is that you need to know what it means to be killed and know that you’re going to be killed because you did something bad. That means someone who has been psychotic since his teenage years, and who believes he is Jesus Christ, could be executed even if he doesn’t know who he is. It’s so primitive that it’s hard to find words to describe it intelligently.
How do you pray with inmates on death row and in solitary confinement?
It’s the same way you would pray with people standing next to you in church. Everybody has a circle of connectedness of some kind: Their family, their mom and their friends who are all going through illnesses and other things. When you ask them what to pray for, they say the same things that people in church say, while also asking prayers for their own situation and legal cases. But the overwhelming majority of prayers are for people in their lives. Some of them ask for communion and confession at their cell, but whether they’re Catholic or not, we always ask if they want to pray for something that day. And we pray for whatever need is in their hearts.
How are the death penalty and abortion linked for Catholics?
One of the teaching tools I use is the U.S.C.C.B. video “The Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death.” One bishop admits in that DVD that the death penalty may not have the same moral gravity as intrinsic evils like euthanasia and abortion, which are not evaluated on the circumstances like the death penalty. But he says we still need to say no to the death penalty because we don’t need it to protect society anymore. I started out as an anti-abortion activist in college, but then I gradually heard what my church was teaching about the death penalty as well. My faith and reason came together. We need to have a consistent ethic of life. These two things may not be of the same moral gravity, but they are both wrong.
What can people, Christian or otherwise, do to get more involved in your line of work?
I think people need to pray and ask themselves how God is calling them to get involved. Some people feel called to get involved as pen pals, not for romance, but as healthy spiritual correspondents for people on death row, who are starving for that sort of friendship. We can also raise awareness on the parish level that the death penalty is a life issue. We can make all these wonderful Catholic people aware of that on the parish level. We can become involved politically. Here in Florida, we have Catholic Days at the Capitol, and busloads of Catholics show up to tell their legislators that the culture of life and other social issues are important. In some cases, people even feel called to start visiting someone on death row. That’s a tremendous commitment that needs to be carefully discerned with a spiritual advisor and pastor. It’s a journey to the cross. But the bishops ask us to educate ourselves, educate others and be a voice for change. One of my dear friends, Jim Wallis at Sojourners in Washington, told me something I’ll never forget: “Politicians are always going to hold up their finger and check the direction of the wind before they vote. What we have to do is change the direction of the wind.” That’s what we need to do.
Do you have any final thoughts?
One of the things my wife Susan and I always mention is that every occupied death row cell, whether the man inside is guilty or not, represents a horrible crime where someone’s loved one has died. Susan and I also minister to families of murder victims and we’ve been shocked to realize how isolated many of them are. People don’t know how to touch that pain and so they stay away. So we always end our presentations with a plea that Catholics in parishes find ways to minister to the victims of these horrible crimes and to their families. Find ways to offer the true healing of community, love, compassion and walk with these people through a horror that hit them like a lightning bolt out of the blue. These people are in every parish and every community. We need to be creative about bringing real healing to these suffering people in our midst.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.