This is the first in a series of three interviews with Father William Pickard, Prison Chaplain in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania. It was conducted by CMN’s Sister Kathie Uhler, OSF on December 6, 2011.
Greetings, Father Bill! Thank you for agreeing to share some of your experiences, concerns and thoughts about the life of prisoners on death row, the death penalty and the effect of pastoral advocacy for those on “the row.”
Father William Pickard:
Thank you for this opportunity to spread the word about prison ministry and the much misunderstood prisoners on death row. A prison chaplain has to carry out pastoral counseling of the prisoners, as well as advocacy to the wider community about what is learned of prison life. Once entering into this ministry, you really get involved as a pastor, into deep water. It becomes a challenging and a prophetic ministry.
You have spent 26 years as a prison chaplain in the Scranton/Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, penal system. What has it been like as a prison minister to make visits on death row?
The inmates respond more than people think. After celebrating Sunday Mass in the prison, they sign up to see me. It has been very effective also to have the bishop (of the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania) come for holy days and Christmas. In the one-on-one visits, I have found amazing trust and rapport. I find out that there is so much going on. Advocating for the inmates is very important. Three Pennsylvania prisons are being investigated by the federal government, and several officers have been indicted for alleged civil rights abuses. Statistics are important, but telling the stories of the inmates educates the public. Education brings on enlightenment and moral outrage.
Tell me one of these stories.
I knew Steven Duffy, a prisoner on “the row” for 22 years. He was mentally ill, having become debilitated, as some inmates do, due to the inhumane conditions of prison life, especially carrying a death sentence. I received a phone call from Mrs. Duffy, his mother. The superintendent had just called her to tell her that her son was scheduled for execution in five days! I became overwhelmed that Steven did not know this and that he did not even have a lawyer. [These are flagrant human rights violations.] After Mass that day I told a paralegal, who was able to draw up a petition to block the execution. The next day, I took the petition to the judge, who almost said, “Thank you.” This shows how far the system has gone awry: the judge was furious. The execution never happened.
Thank God that his mother knew you and called you. In the 37 years since the end of the U.S. Supreme Court’s moratorium on the death penalty, your state has held only three executions, although it has 219 inmates on death row. Is there any movement in Pennsylvania to abolish the death penalty?
There is a bill in the state legislature calling for a moratorium and an expert study of the use of capital punishment in the state. It has been held up for so long but it indicates that the governor and policy makers have second thoughts. [The bill, SR6, was actually passed on December 6, as we spoke.]
Would you leave us for now, in Advent, with a pastoral, prophetic message?
The season of Advent and the time of the Savior’s birth assure us – and the entire world – that the great and victorious plans of God are not frustrated and are normally accomplished by the most unlikely people in the lowliest of circumstances. So it is in the simple and ordinary family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. In the words of the old Church hymn, “Christ will come soon and will make the darkest places bright.” Do you believe?
This article first appeared in CMN’s December 2011 newsletter.
For the second interview, click here.