'How can we help?' bishops ask during pastoral visit to San Quentin

By Christina M. Gray

Catholic News Service

10/14/2013

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. (CNS) -- Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco and eight other California bishops made a daylong visit to San Quentin State Prison Sept. 30 on a pastoral mission that included discussions with inmates and staff, a tour of death row and prayer inside the prison's death chamber.

The prelates left with a broad view of life at the Marin County prison and some ideas from longtime prisoners about how to help keep today's young people from spending — or ending — their lives in prison.

"I didn't show up to school one day and no one came looking for me," said Miguel, 32, who grew up in the Central Valley. He has been locked up since he was 16 and is serving two life sentences. "If one kid can get lost, two kids can get lost," he said.

"Red," 37, a prisoner for 13 years, echoed the need to reach at-risk youth before they get into trouble.

"Maybe laypeople can get involved to reach kids before they get here," he said, noting that broken families, poverty, substance abuse and funding cuts for youth programs all make kids vulnerable to a life of crime.

The full names of the inmates have been withheld for privacy reasons.

Though the bishops did have encounters with inmates in the death-row block, it was the small group discussions in the prison's Catholic chapel with Level 1 and Level 2 inmates like Miguel and Red — those deemed the least dangerous — that gave them the opportunity to ask, "How can we help?"

Though barely into their 30s or 40s, the inmates answered with almost universal protectiveness for the youth of today and for inmates at other, smaller prisons who lack access to programs such as music, yoga, sports, anger management, and restorative justice.

"This prison is unique — we are privileged," said Dwight, a "lifer" who also fronts a prison band called The Blues Brothers — a reference to the color of its members' uniforms.

Dwight added that despite the incorrigible stereotype of prison inmates, many want to improve themselves if given a chance. "The church could help make sure restorative programs are available to smaller prison populations," he said.

Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Monterey thanked the inmates on behalf of the delegation, adding, "The blessing is that you are thinking beyond these walls, thinking beyond yourself."

The bishop's visit to San Quentin, which houses the largest population of condemned men in the country, was organized by the Restorative Justice Office of the California Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops.

Though pastoral in nature, the other goal of the delegation's visit was to bring focus to the church's opposition to capital punishment, which it sees as an affront to the culture of life. A ballot measure to end capital punishment in the state fell short last year, but another electoral attempt is expected in 2016.

During a tour of the death chamber where hundreds of men have died by lethal injection or gas, the bishops offered prayer and reflection. "Every person worthy of dignity," said Archbishop Cordileone, peering through the window at the death-chamber chair where inmates are strapped down for lethal injection.

In a reflection on the visit, Archbishop Cordileone wrote: "These are men who committed heinous crimes, who have done evil. In fact, they seemed to have so much potential, and I cannot help but wonder how their lives would have turned out if they had a grown up under more favorable circumstances."

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Gray is a staff writer at Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Copyright (c) 2013 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops  

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. (CNS) -- Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco and eight other California bishops made a daylong visit to San Quentin State Prison Sept. 30 on a pastoral mission that included discussions with inmates and staff, a tour of death row and prayer inside the prison's death chamber.

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