by Rev. Mr. George W. Brooks

People sometimes tell me that a person who has committed murder has lost not only his civil rights, but his rights as a child of God and no longer deserves to be treated with respect. When did God say that? Have people who think that way received a special revelation?

I've known more than 200 convicted murderers and visited hundreds of others accused of murder. I've prayed with these people and listened as they've expressed their feelings?guilt and remorse, frustration and anger. I've heard their life stories, including stories of conversion and faith. This is what prison ministry is all about.

I'm still not sure how it all happened. Things were going well for me back in the 1980s. I was practicing law and had my own firm, with two partners. Then I felt called to become a deacon. As part of my training, I visited Cook County jail. By the time I was ordained, my wife and I both knew I was going to give up law for prison ministry. Soon I was working for Kolbe House, the Chicago archdiocese's prison and jail ministry, with the title of Director of Advocacy and Chaplain at Cook County jail.

At the time, the State of Illinois was preparing to execute the brutal serial killer John Wayne Gacy. I hadn't thought much about capital punishment until then. Father Larry Craig, executive director of Kolbe House, urged me to speak out against Gacy's execution and the death penalty. As an abstract, theological matter, I had no trouble opposing the death penalty generally. But Gacy? I prayed. I read the Bible and the Church's social doctrine.

Meanwhile the media hype was building. John Wayne Gacy had become an argument for capital punishment. Would I take a pick-and-choose approach, against the death penalty in some cases but not all? As I prayed and studied, my thinking and my attitude began to shift. I no longer opposed Gacy's execution because it was my job. I opposed it because it was wrong.

The execution was set for Stateville Prison. Outside several groups organized a prayer vigil. Arriving around 10 p.m., about 75 of us found ourselves in the middle of a partying crowd of 1,500 or more. People were tailgating, grilling food and drinking. They were cheering and singing fight songs. Men and women exchanged high-fives.

Our group formed a circle, holding candles and praying silently. People blew out our candles and shouted obscenities. It seemed strange to me that women, most of them senior citizens, were the worst. There was loud and sustained cheering when Gacy's death was announced. Then, looking for other sport, the crowd backed us up against a snow fence. The state police had to escort us off the grounds. We prayed for our tormentors before we left, and I asked myself: Why are they so bloodthirsty?

Life in Prison

By now my ministry was exclusively in maximum security, where at least half the inmates were charged with murder.

What's prison life like? Media sometimes depict minimum security federal penitentiaries as easy living. Gacy was shown in his cell with a TV and typewriter. People were furious that he had such amenities.

Reality is usually very different. Prisons are designated "minimum," "medium" or "maximum" security, depending on how much time inmates spend out of their cells and other concessions allowed them. But that doesn't apply on Death Row, where people are kept in cells by themselves 23 hours a day. And maximum security prisons in Illinois frequently go on "total lockdown" for periods from 30 days to 12 months, meaning inmates are allowed out of their cells only once or twice a week to shower. Visits take place on the cell-block, face-to-face, sometimes with a group and sometimes one on one.

A newly arrived inmate is put in a 6' X 8' cell with one or two strangers. He may have a TV or radio if his family can pay for it.

A life of leisure? Consider Johnnie.

Johnnie was convicted of killing someone he'd loved while high on cocaine and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was put in a cell with a stranger, Frankie?a gang member and a Muslim?24 hours a day, seven days a week. They were allowed out of the cell once or twice a week for an hour, usually after midnight, to take a shower and perhaps make a phone call.

Johnnie had been in prison for auto theft several years earlier, but although conditions then were rough, they didn't begin to compare with this. His family was poor and couldn't send him money. He had no deodorant, and a motel-size bar of soap had to last a month. His only eating utensil was a plastic spoon. If he lost it or broke it, it wouldn't be replaced for a long time. His possessions were two undershirts, two undershorts, institutional sandals, and the Bible I'd given him at the county jail.

Frankie had a miniature TV on which he watched cartoons all day. He was mentally impaired, with an IQ below 50, and could not read or write. He'd grown up in foster homes in Chicago, and sometimes he had been physically or mentally abused.

In prison, he got money from his gang, and would come back from the commissary with cookies, chips and roll-your-own cigarettes. He didn't buy soap or deodorant, and sometimes the odor in the cell made Johnnie sick. Crumbs from the food attracted cockroaches. At first, Johnnie tried to kill them before going to sleep, but it was an impossible task with food in the cell, and he got used to waking up with roaches in his bunk. Now and then he would find one in his food. Since all the meals tasted the same, he didn't mind skipping one occasionally.

Frankie gave Johnnie a hard time about being a Christian and reading the Bible, especially when he kept the light on late to read while Frankie wanted to sleep. One morning Johnnie woke up to find his thick glasses lying broken on the floor. When he confronted Frankie, he was on the floor being punched before he knew it. His cries for help were ignored. A guard?a former member of Frankie's gang?came by an hour later and, seeing his bloody face, baited him some more. The nurse who cleaned his wounds told him to learn to get along.

It was months before he got new glasses, donated by a local church organization. (He could only hope the prescription more or less matched what he needed.) The hours and days dragged by. He'd had it in mind to get his high school degree and then take some college courses to improve himself, but these programs had been eliminated. He would have been glad to get a prison job?any job?to keep busy and earn $10 or $15 a week, but he knew it would be several years before that would happen.

One possibility did exist for dealing with the pain, loneliness and boredom: drugs. Frankie sometimes got marijuana and even cocaine. Johnnie was tempted?all he had to do was change his religion and join the gang.

The men had no visitors. Johnnie got three letters a month. One was from his grandmother, who'd raised him and still was raising five of his brothers and sisters. One was from his aunt, who sent him $5 every other month. The third was from me. Every other month I sent him $10, which he used to buy soap, deodorant and a bag of cookies. He could send three letters a month, but he didn't have much to write about. His letters were pain-filled, though he did often write about the Scriptures he was reading. He looked forward to receiving religious articles and prayer cards. He wrote of the trouble he had forgiving Frankie and loving him, and of struggling to accept the idea that God had forgiven him for what he had done. Only in his letters could he express an opinion or a feeling.

Sometimes he thought it would have been better if he'd been sentenced to death and executed. He didn't see how he could live the rest of his life like this. His only hope was that if he stayed out of trouble for 10 years, he might be transferred to a medium security prison. Death Row would have been worse, but the expectation of death would have been a relief. At times he thought of suicide. It would be hard, but maybe he could tear his pants into strips and hang himself. Or maybe he could start a fight with Frankie and be killed. Only time would tell whether he could survive and stay a Christian.

Murderers I Have Known

People sometimes tell me that a person who has committed murder has lost not only his civil rights, but his rights as a child of God and no longer deserves to be treated with respect. When did God say that? Have people who think that way received a special revelation?

I do not minimize the evil of murder and the harm it does. Murder, like all crime, has a ripple effect. The pain experienced by the victim's family and friends lasts for years, sometimes for the whole of life. One of my discoveries in maximum security chaplaincy is how many murderers have experienced murder in their own families. Sometimes they have killed in revenge for the killing of a family member or close friend. Sometimes there is a killing in their family while they're in prison.

Opposing the death penalty does not mean siding with the offender against the victim?it means recognizing that every person is a child of God. The execution earlier this year of Karla Faye Tucker seems to have led some people to take a new look at the death penalty. She was white, a woman and articulate, and had experienced a religious conversion. People thought of her as a person with a name, a face, a personality. I suppose it's my advantage as a prison chaplain that all the murderers I know have names, faces and personalities, and most have a desire to find and accept Jesus Christ.

In 1997 I testified in death penalty hearings for five defendants, all of whom I'd known for three to five years while they waited for trial. Four of the five admitted their guilt and expressed remorse. The fifth maintained his innocence and has continued to do so right up to the time this is being written.

Doug is his name. We met three years ago, shortly after he'd attempted suicide. I sat in his cell for two hours while he told me the story of his abusive and traumatic childhood. He concluded: "I don't think I'm capable of loving anybody, especially loving God, and I don't think God loves me?if there is a God." We kept up our friendship for a couple of years, leaving religion out of it. Doug nagged me in a friendly way when he thought I looked tired or was working too hard. One night he looked unusually tired, and now it was my turn to nag him.

What was the trouble? "I was up all night praying to God," he said. "God answered me. Now I know he loves me. I just hope he can forgive me." Tears came into my eyes, and we embraced each other.

Doug knew that if he went to trial, he would get the death penalty. In fact, he'd been counting on that. But now he decided to try to live. He felt God had called him to bring peace and comfort to others in prison. He entered a guilty plea, and received four consecutive life sentences without parole. Now he has good days and bad days. Sometimes he questions his decision, and other times he feels the Lord is comforting and guiding him.

Tim is one of the nicest guys I ever met, in or out of jail. Many of the correctional officers say the same. Because there had been extensive media coverage of his case, I thought I knew a lot about his crime. But he never talked about it, and after a while I supposed I'd confused his case with someone else's. Every week we talked sports, current events and religion. We prayed together, laughed together and sometimes cried together.

I told him I'd be in court for him. Then he told me about the crime. He had brutally murdered his great-aunt and two senior citizen friends while he was high on cocaine. He didn't know if he wanted the death penalty or life in prison. He wasn't sure he could handle Death Row. He would have been glad to settle for guaranteed execution after 30 days. I tried to talk him into living, but neither his attorney nor I knew what he would do when he stepped before the judge. After a 12-hour death penalty hearing, he got three consecutive life sentences without parole.

There are so many others. Randy's mother came from out of state to testify at his hearing. He was 10 when she left, abandoning him to raise himself on the streets of Chicago. ... Pierre's mother is one of the most deeply spiritual women I've met. She's raising his four children. She has another son who also is serving time for murder. ... Peter's mother came to court in a wheelchair. Her husband has had a disabling stroke. Her daughter is a successful professional, and her other son has done well in business and has never so much as gotten a traffic ticket.

Of course, victims have families, too. I've heard their heart-wrenching testimony. Even after years have passed, the pain can be unbearable. There is pain on all sides. Most of the murderers I've met are filled with the pain of guilt for what they did, pain for the pain they caused the victims' families and their own families. Some people say, "Good! That's how it should be." But I am there to encourage their conversion, and that can only come about by treating them with respect. Not excusing, not justifying, but making them aware that they, too, can receive God's forgiveness.

A Call for Compassion

Many murderers are severely mentally ill. I know some of these men. When they take their medication, they are cooperative and likable. Off medication, they are volatile and dangerous. As a legal defense, mental illness is very complicated and seldom succeeds. We should be concerned about the inadequacy of treatment for the mentally ill, about the willingness of society to kill them and about the way they are treated?and frequently victimized?when incarcerated.

Some people say that everyone who deliberately kills someone should be executed. There are about 30,000 murders a year in the United States. Do we really want 20,000 executions yearly?55 a day, seven days a week? The number of inmates on Death Row is now about 3,500. They are overwhelmingly poor and Black or Latino. The death penalty reflects, I believe, the attitude of a "disposable society" toward certain of its members.

This is an attitude shared even by ourselves as members of the Church. We tend to avoid the really tough work. We evangelize?up to a point. We forgive?up to a point. We respect?up to a point. But we do not forgive and respect certain people, and so we neither evangelize them nor want them to be evangelized.

Not all murderers will experience religious conversion. Not all will repent and seek forgiveness. But whether they do or don't, all are children of God.

What can we do? Prayer?for the humane treatment and rehabilitation of the incarcerated?is a large part of it. Just as important, we need to pray that society will have a change of heart. Perhaps some of you who read this will feel called to prison ministry. But visiting inmates is not for everyone. Exchanging letters with inmates is another possibility, but this should be done only with proper security precautions. Contact your diocesan prison ministry office for information. All of us can work to improve our own attitudes toward criminals and the incarcerated. We can share the insights thus gained with those who express contempt toward them.

Media and politicians often pander to fear of crime and criminals. One result is the modern-day leper colony called a prison. Not even correctional officials pretend that the present national policy of warehousing offenders is working. Many of those whom we send to prison serve their terms and return to the community worse than before. It is part of our responsibility as Catholics to support adequate funding of programs for intervention, prevention, rehabilitation and restoration. Those who work in prison ministry should not be lonely voices. The whole community of faith must speak out in defense of the dignity of every person.

Deacon Brooks is director of advocacy and jail chaplain for Kolbe House, the Archdiocese of Chicago's prison and jail ministry.