San Quentin State Prison is an iconic American prison. More than 150 years old, it has witnessed thousands of prisoners pass through its massive iron gates. One does not have to be there long to feel a spirit of oppression and cruelty, the fruit of generations of violence and suffering. Since the late 1970s, penology in the United States has steadily turned away from hope in the power of rehabilitation and reform and has instead embraced an ideology of incapacitation and revenge. In the face of such indifference to the plight of the incarcerated (and their families), Catholic prison ministry is needed more than ever. Since my first experiences in prison ministry as a novice, I have learned over and over to see the face of Christ in the prisoners as well as in those who guard them. It is in prison that I continue to see the light of God every day shining forth.
This Easter, I celebrated my first baptism on death row. (There are currently more than 750 men on California’s death row at San Quentin.) Since my arrival there in January, I worked with Bobby, preparing for him to be welcomed into the Church. In fact, his first words to me when I met him were, “Oh, you’re the new priest, I want to become a Catholic!” He had diligently studied Catholicism in his cell and was eager to be baptized. I got permission from the warden to baptize him on Easter Monday. Death row at San Quentin is a maximum-security area. All who enter must don a stab-proof vest before meeting with the “condemned” prisoners who are always kept locked up separately from staff. There is no human contact. Any time prisoners come out of their cells, they must first be handcuffed and shackled with waist and leg chains. Baptizing Bobby had to be accomplished within these security constraints. With his hands cuffed behind him, and attached to a chain around his waist, he was escorted down the tier of cells to the entryway of the building housing the condemned prisoners. About six members of the medical staff and administrators were on hand by his invitation to witness his baptism.
The normally noisy hallway became quiet and uncharacteristically peaceful as we began. Bobby read a passage from Romans 6: “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” I had to hold the book for him as his hands were handcuffed behind his back. No exceptions for the death row inmates, even baptism to the rigorous security measures. The words of the ritual were hauntingly powerful as we stood against a black-painted wall, a wall that hid from our view the old gas chamber behind it. “If we have been united with him through likeness to his death, so shall we be through a like resurrection.” The words of Saint Paul, (like Jesus, a man put to death by the state), challenged the whole machinery of death around us. The words blessing the water were similarly a rejection of the power of death, violence and revenge: light, hope, healing, rebirth, joy, peace, love. Each word, each symbol hit like a sledgehammer against what promised only despair, only death.
We who were gathered in that dark corner in that gloomy building that morning witnessed in the baptism a clear sign of God’s grace shining into one of the darkest corners of our world. “Do you reject Satan?”
“And all his works?”
“And all his empty promises?”
This is why I love being a priest. In a final breathtaking sign, as I prepared to anoint Bobby with chrism, he said, “Can you bless my hands as well?” In order to do so, he had to turn and offer me his hands, handcuffed behind his back. The same hands that took lives received the anointing with the chrism of salvation. God’s promise of liberation from those shackles brought tears to my eyes.