by Joseph Ross
Our involvement with the issues of our time can lead us into study, analysis and opinions–all of which are important. But a danger for those involved in the struggles of people who suffer is forgetting that it is precisely people who suffer. We can easily treat the injustices of our world like issues, forgetting that such wrongs are injustice only because they are done to people. When we lose sight of the human, we can miss the essential reality of the hunger and thirst that Jesus knew. By getting to know the people who suffer such wrongs, we can begin to experience its reality and yearn, like Jesus, to change it.
For four years I was a volunteer chaplain at the Indiana State Prison. I came to know many of the men on Indiana's death row. They know injustice well. Here is one of their stories.
Nearly every day, I lived through the bizarre experience of entering and leaving a maximum-security prison. Usually, the only people who enter and leave each day are, of course, guards. Their job is to keep the men locked up, as a service to the State. My job was, to some, less clear. To me however, it was quite clear: to listen, befriend and care for the men who were locked up. If I had a pastoral strategy, it was to walk up to a cell, ask the man in it "How are you?" and listen for the answer. With the men on death row, I listened to the answer to that question for four years. Their answers revealed remorse, fear, anger and sadness, and they often unfolded in friendship and brotherhood. It sounds odd to say, but I count as some of my good friends these men on death row.
Entering the death row building was always strange. One enters the prison through the lobby, a clean, tiled hallway. I would place my belongings–keys, wallet, Psalms, books–in a large, plastic crate. These would be examined by an X-ray machine. Meanwhile, I would walk through a metal detector and then be frisked from head to toe by a prison officer. Then I could proceed. I would stand before an electric steel and glass door, waiting for another officer behind more steel and glass to see me, approve me, and begin the motorized opening of the door. From there I walked into a small area locked in on both sides, where another guard, behind bullet-proof glass, would size me up, check my identification again, and let me pass by opening another motorized door. Then I walked through the guard hall, have everything I carried checked again, and was let through three more electrically locked doors. They buzz loudly and I can open them myself. I walked out of doors and, finally, I would be inside, behind the wall. To my right stood a long, dirty brick building with a massive, blue, steel door. Next to the door and drilled into the bricks hung a flat metal sign reading: "X-Row."
One of the great realities of death row is denial. And with this sign, I always felt that the denial begins at the door. In all prison correspondence, from office to office, state official to state official, death row is termed X-Row. If you work in it long enough, you have to tell yourself something other than the truth. To keep saying "death row" over and over might eventually create a tug on the conscience.
Once inside that massive blue door, death row is dark. The windows are caked with grime and let in very little light. The floors are cement. There are black steel bars every few feet. Guards' radios crackle through the air. An occasional phone rings. But if you walk further and actually stop before a cell, many beautiful, sad, funny and complicated people can be discovered.
Jerry was one of the first men I met on death row. His cell sat near the guards' station, where I would enter the row. For some years he was the porter–the prisoner who delivers food and other items from the guards to the prisoners. Perhaps the only advantage to this job is that the porter is out of his cell most of the day. The regular death row routine keeps a man in the cell 23 hours each day, with one hour for recreation. The porter is out for 8 to 9 hours a day, doing his delivery work. This work requires the prisoner to balance many different personalities, those of guards as well as other prisoners. Jerry always did this quite well.
Jerry's main weapon against the brutality of "life" on death row was his humor. When I arrived, he would usually shout from his cell to the other prisoners: "Brother Joseph on the set; make like you're asleep!" Then he would laugh, thinking he had said something really funny.
Jerry and I talked about everything we could think of. I would often pull up an old plastic milk crate, right next to the bars of his cell. He would slide his plastic prison chair to the bars and we would talk and talk. He told me about his family, being shunted around a lot among several different relatives, his various addictions. He told me about his crime, the result of his addiction to drugs and alcohol. He spoke often of his sadness at having killed a man. He spoke of this man's wife and son and how every day he prayed for them, angry and hurt by how deeply he had hurt them. He spoke of the prosecutor in his case and how she said things she knew were not true but would inflame a jury into sentencing him to death. He spoke of the pain that caused him.
Jerry was always clear, though, that "No one put me here but me." This was his way of taking responsibility for his own life and deeds and, in the end, that responsibility was probably healthy for him. But I sometimes doubted that this was really true. I sensed that a whole web of realities landed Jerry on death row–from a lack of mental health care, to an unstable family, to poverty, to drug addiction. All these things contributed to his presence here in this eight by ten-foot cell.
While all of us have the potential for both goodness and cruelty, it was always hard for me to imagine how the gentle, thoughtful Christian I came to know in Jerry could be the same person who killed a man at a highway rest stop. When someone starts using drugs, he makes a series of bad choices. He hangs out with others who use and he often breaks the law to get "high." These are choices he could avoid, and it's right that he's held accountable for what follows. But before long, depending on the types of drugs he's using, his judgment goes from impaired to nonexistent. Whatever moral sense, whatever reasoning or free will he once had can slip away. In their place is the one imperative that controls his actions—the next fix. Many who abuse drugs will do whatever it takes to stop the craving. I have to think that when God sees the actions of addicts, mercy factors in this lack of reasoning and control, this absence of premeditation. Should we not also use mercy?
Dying Day by Day
One of the beautiful times I spent on death row came when Jerry and some of the prisoners around him were cooking. They could order some dried foods from the prison commissary. If it was placed in a plastic container under the sinks' hot water, the food would steam and it was like eating a just-cooked meal. The prisoners mixed canned tuna, some packaged beans, chili peppers, and bread, making a simple casserole. Jerry was so excited about being able to share this with me. He and the two other prisoners who cooked with him would shout back and forth and the guards would let me then take the different bowls to the different men. When all was prepared, Jerry laid out two paper towel napkins, two plastic "sporks," two Styrofoam cups of coffee and two apples. It looked like a little restaurant setting. I pulled the milk crate to the bars of his cell. He pulled his chair over, and the small metal food slot became our dining room table. We said Grace, ate, laughed, talked. It became clear to me at that moment why Jesus chose a meal for the Eucharist, the central act of Christian worship.
One of the great sufferings of death row is the day to day brutality. Every detail of these men's lives says to them: "You don't deserve to live." One of the most basic human needs is to love and to show this by sharing and serving. What I realized in this little meal was that Jerry and those on death row always ate alone. Jerry told me that this was the first meal he had not taken alone for eight years. That broke my heart. To set a place for another, to prepare and provide a meal for another is a deep human need. We have been doing this for one another for millennia. To deprive these prisoners of this act creates a distorted, dehumanizing environment.
One of the myths about death row is that there is no justice or punishment exacted until a person is executed. This could not be further from the truth. The brutality of the death penalty begins the minute one is sentenced and continues until one is stabbed with a lethal injection. A death row prisoner lives with the knowledge that he or she will be killed in a calculated, planned manner, barring a miracle. This knowledge begins the process of unraveling a life. To be told, at every turn, in every detail, that one "does not deserve to live," is to be destroyed slowly, bit by bit, day in and day out.
The destruction of your person takes many forms. A number replaces your name as identification. You wear the same ugly clothing as everyone around you. Guards come into your cell at any moment without warning and take things from you, and you have no recourse.
While I served at this prison, Jerry became a Catholic. His many questions about faith, life and God found resonance in the Catholic tradition. He loved the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus. He found in her a feminine guide whose "Yes" to God was courageous, bold, and brave. Her example spoke powerfully to him, and moved him in the direction of faith.
Jerry had been baptized in a Pentecostal church as a child; we decided that he would be received and confirmed into the Catholic church at Easter. We asked the prison administration if he could attend the Easter Vigil, along with other prisoners who would be baptized and confirmed. This was denied.
Jerry even asked if guards could volunteer to accompany him to the service. If they're allowed to volunteer for execution teams, he reasoned, why couldn't they volunteer for this? Several guards told him they would do it–but once again, the prison administration refused. Instead, on the Third Sunday of Easter, 1999, we sat in the death row visiting room, a large cage in the center of the guard hall. Here we celebrated the Eucharist, received Jerry and confirmed him. The priest who worked at the prison, Jerry, two of his friends and I sat around a small table/altar and sang alleluias. He, in his red death row jump suit, kept pushing his glasses back toward his eyes which flowed freely with tears. In the midst of clanging doors and laughing guards, we laid hands on him, anointed him with oil and gave him the confirmation name Dismas, the man executed next to Jesus. We sang our hearts out in that strange world of steel bars and cement.
Two years later Jerry was executed by the State of Indiana. I was able to return and spend the last two days with him. He was his own, genuine self. We laughed, spoke about his family and his sorrows, handled last minute details about his belongings and mostly prayed. We read from Luke's Gospel about the man executed beside Jesus, whose confirmation name he had taken. We read and re-read Jesus' promise to that man: "Today you will be with me in Paradise." I reminded Jerry that God's love for him was that close, that intimate. He would close his eyes and nod.
As his spiritual advisor, I was able to be with him at his holding cell from 5:00 p.m. until 10:45 p.m. before his execution, scheduled for midnight. He made a few last phone calls, one to his niece, to whom he was quite close. She was in a hospital bed, having just given birth. While they spoke on the phone, she nursed her newborn daughter–she in a maternity ward holding new life in her hands, Jerry in a holding cell next to the room where the State would execute him. I stood back to give him some privacy and marveled at the sadness of it all.
Also during his final hours, he wrote his last statement. He asked me to read it to the reporters; he didn't know if he'd be able to say much once on the gurney. He wrote: "I know that I have hurt a lot of people in my life, especially my family and the family of my victim. I am sorry for the pain and sorrow I have caused (here he named the wife and son of the man he killed), my own friends and family. I ask that they forgive me. And to those here at the prison who do this to me, I say: 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do to me'." He asked me if I thought that was ok. I told him it was beautiful, that it was exactly the right thing to say. He seemed pleased.
I told him also, as I had many times before, that the crime that landed him on death row was not the entirety of his life. I reminded him that "Jerry Bivins is a lot more than one act." I told him that he was deeply loved by family and friends who knew him as a funny, thoughtful, caring, gentle man.
As the evening drew on, the priest who served at the prison and I decided to anoint him. Because he was a healthy man, we did not think it made sense to give him the Sacrament of the Sick, rather we anointed him with Sacred Chrism. We told Jerry this oil was "strength for the journey." We made a cross of chrism on his forehead and read the "Jesus remember me" passage again.
Shortly after this, guards came to the holding cell and told us it was time to leave. The reason for this is to keep the identity of the execution team a secret. I went up to the bars again and Jerry stood. He thanked me, told me he loved me. I told him I also loved him. I told him that if he needed to see anyone during the execution, he should look at me. I reminded him to keep the words: "Jesus remember me" on his lips. He cried and nodded. I told him I was honored to know him and to be his friend. We held hands through the bars and cried. Finally I asked him: "Tell God we did our best." He smiled through tears and said to me, "He knows you did." I released his hands, turned and walked out. Before going through the door I looked back and saw Jerry re-tracing the cross of oil on his forehead.
I sat with the other witnesses in the chapel until we were called to go into the execution-viewing room. Among the other witnesses were some attorneys and two of Jerry's friends–Bishop Dale J. Melczek, the Catholic Bishop of Gary, and Father Paul, the prison chaplain. Around midnight a guard came into the chapel to take us back to the death house, through several barred doors, to a room where three rows of chairs sat facing a window whose blinds were shut. This window looks into the death chamber.
We sat there for a few minutes, surrounded by several guards, until the blinds snapped open. Jerry was lying on the gurney with an I.V. inserted into his left arm which hung off the gurney's side. His glasses were still on. He looked toward us and smiled. With his arms strapped to the gurney, he managed a small wave of his left hand, from which still hung a handcuff. He continued looking at us. It was difficult to tell when the injections began. Jerry's head remained turned toward us, looking through the window at us. After a few moments of stillness, Jerry coughed hard and seemed to be choking. Some of the witnesses gasped. Jerry convulsed and gagged and strained against the straps. These painful seconds stretched into years. Finally, his convulsions stopped and he was still. His head lay back straight, his mouth rested wide open. Some of the witnesses sobbed. I prayed: "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." The blinds snapped shut. A guard told us to stand. Bishop Melczek stood and made the Sign of the Cross toward the window. We walked out in silence to a prison van and were taken out to the parking lot. It was around 1:15 a.m., a dark Indiana night.
These events underscore for me the devastation this penalty inflicts on all involved: the family of the victim, the prisoner and his family, other prisoners, attorneys, friends and corrections officials. No one is left untouched by the inhumanity of this act. Yet there are politicians, prosecutors, presidents, even some church leaders who defend the death penalty in terms of deterrence, justice, safety and retribution. They are mistaken. And their mistake can have deeply destructive consequences for many people. It is wrong to avoid the fact that the death penalty brutalizes all involved.
People of faith must speak out. If we believe that all life comes from God, then we cannot allow such a brutal act to be done by the State, with public monies, in our names. Knowing that innocent men and women sit on death row, that this penalty is unjustly pressed on people of color and the poor, we must speak out. But most deeply, knowing that every person is made in God's beautiful and holy image, how can we presume to cut short another's life before God has given every opportunity for conversion? People of faith should put aside their fear, put aside their thoughts of vengeance, and put a stop to this penalty.
Joseph Ross lives and writes in Washington, D.C.