This is the second part of a series of three interviews with Father William Pickard, Prison Chaplain in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania. For part one, click here.
This is our second interview, Father Bill, and I would like to focus on advocacy efforts you and others in Pennsylvania have undertaken to address the quality of life of prisoners in the state penal system. As we ended the interview in the CMN December Newsletter, the Pennsylvania Senate had just approved a two-year study of capital punishment. So, would you update us first, Father Bill, on this major event?
Father Bill Pickard:
So far, only one person has been named to the task force, and we are hoping that religious leaders will be named. Senator Stewart Greenleaf, whose committee issued the Pennsylvania Death Penalty Study, as it’s called, named the costs, deterrent effect and the appropriateness of capital punishment as the leading concerns that brought about the study. We are disappointed that the study does not include a moratorium, but the two-year period gives us time to get the word out to the churches to help people reevaluate the death penalty.
Pennsylvania has had just three executions since the death penalty was reinstated there in 1978, but a large backlog of 219 prisoners are waiting on death row. Father Bill, how has this dire situation shaped your ministry as prison chaplain?
Yes, the situation is dire: members of our communities – the inmates – are warehoused in this system and reduced to products, actually like raw materials for the gains of the “prison industrial complex.” By that I mean, for example, that the state pays prisons generous “per diems” for each inmate and this, in itself, has led to prisons becoming a major business. Pennsylvania has committed to building four new state prisons. In Scranton the prison population has soared 400 percent in the past 10 years. As chaplain, I saw and heard of the abuses and inhumane conditions. My sacramental ministry led to advocacy for restorative justice programs and prisoner rights.
You were arrested and tried twice for your advocacy work. Tell us about this, Father Bill.
Prison chaplaincy has been a thorn in the side of public officials for decades. At the same time, in my experience, I enjoyed widespread community support. In the 1990s, I was arrested in Philadelphia and jailed overnight for passing out leaflets. The headline in the newspaper read, “Catholic Chaplain May Now Be in Jail Just for Leafletting for Those in Jail.” Several news articles were published on this, and a support group was formed. We held a vigil, with (then) Bishop James Timlin of Scranton and a former state attorney general in attendance. The trial lasted nine months. We leafletters were found guilty. Our lawyer got a delay in the sentencing, and we quickly organized a letter-writing campaign. We were able to present to the judge 10,000 letters supporting the leaflet’s premise that the death penalty is immoral. The judge reversed his decision and found us all innocent. Twenty years later, people still recall this trial.
The extent of the public officials’ reaction to what you did sounds almost unbelievable.
Yes, but it shows that small things, like passing out leaflets, can be effective advocacy – even in the rain. One reporter saw me leafleting in the rain, bought me a cup of coffee and said, “If you’re willing to this in the rain, you’ve got to be right!”
For the third interview, click here.