|Bringing God to the despairing inmates on Florida’s Death Row|
|Written by Kelley Lannigan|
| Thursday, 01 February 2007 |
| Dale and Susan Recinella of Macclenny are sensitive but passionate advocates against the death penalty.|
Together, the husband and wife team have taken on the responsibilty of ministering to the spiritual and psychological needs of Death Row inmates and the family members of both the incarcerated and the victim.
The Recinellas are devout Christians and members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Macclenny. St. Mary’s is responsible for Catholic ministry to Death Row inmates in Union Correctional Institution in Raiford and Florida State Prison in Starke. Mr. Recinella has served as lay minister to both institutions since 1998.
When inmates make the request, he will serve, one on one, as their spiritual advisor and counselor. He also administers Holy Communion.
Mrs. Recinella, a psychologist at Northeast Florida State Hospital, is committed to assisting the family members.
Florida law does not allow an inmate’s family to be present at executions or even be on prison property during the six hours preceding the event. Mr. Recinella may spend the last six hours of the inmate’s life with him at the prison and attend as a witness to his execution while Mrs. Recinella stays with the family.
“As Dale’s duties as chaplain to Death Row inmates evolved, we came to understand there were no services in place to minister to the needs of the family members,” says Mrs. Recinella. “No one or nothing that could help them cope with the tough emotional issues involved with state-mandated execution.
Because of her background as a former nurse and the counseling dimension of her psychology duties, the inclination and desire to help came naturally.
While Mr. Recinella ministers to the man to be executed, Mrs. Recinella trys to accommodate the desires and needs of the family. She has found that each family is unique.
“I make myself available if they want to talk or just want someone to sit with them,” she said. “Some want to be at their hotels, as close by as possible. Some want to be together in church during the moment of the execution.”
Mrs. Recinella assists Father Jose Maniyangat in making the sanctuary of St. Mary’s accessible to them at that time.
Some families may join in peaceful demonstrations outside the prison. Others begin the journey home immediately. Still others may have trouble dealing with their grief and need additional counseling the day after the execution. The Recinellas try to accommodate the family in whatever way they can.
Many people and many Christians feel the death penalty is justified, based on certain segments of Biblical scripture, but the couple came to feel differently. They contend that it may surprise most people to know that not every victim’s family automatically wants revenge. Many don’t want the execution of the inmate. These families seem to realize that other innocent people will be just as devastated as they were, to have a loved one executed.
The Recinellas have discovered through experience that the pain a mother feels when a son has been murdered is the same pain suffered by the mother of the inmate who is executed.
According to Mr. Recinella, the concerns of a Death Row inmate, although he may be guilty of committing a heinous crime, are essentially the same as any other human: regret over past mistakes; a mother suffering with Alzheimer’s; not being able to see an elderly father who may be terminally ill and can’t travel to the prison before the execution date; worry over the welfare of spouses and children.
Mr. Recinella will tell you that Death Row conditions are grim. Prisoners live in cells that measure 10 feet by 6 feet with a bunk, thin mattress, stainless steel toilet and sink, a shelf and a locker. The floors are concrete. Though heated in winter, there is no air conditioning and temperatures soar inside cells during the sweltering Florida summers.
Mr. Recinella can talk through the cell bars to inmates unless they are being held in close management (solitary confinement). Under those circumstances, he must speak and pray with the inmate through the crack between the side of the door and the wall. To give Communion, he kneels on the concrete and administers the host, placing the bread on the inmate’s tongue through the food slot in the middle of the door.
During the last days before an execution, Mr. Recinella often fills the role of facilitator during visits between an inmate and his family. It may have been years since an inmate has seen a brother, sister, children or a parent.
They meet in the most artificial, alien environment you can imagine,” says Mr. Recinella “And they’ve come to say goodbye.”
A tiny cubical is divided by thick plexiglass and there is a phone to communicate. The inmate and the family members are each locked in on their respective sides. As lay pastor, Mr. Recinella is allowed to be present on the family’s side. He does his best to find a common denominator between the two parties.
Knowing about a shared love of fishing, he might try a comment like “now whatever you do don’t tell your brother about that crazy fishing trip you just went on.” This can help break the ice and jump-start conversation. People who had no idea what to say to each other at first often end up talking for three hours.
“What that does,” says Mr. Recinella, is give people permission to be human in this unnatural steel, concrete and plexiglass setting.
It’s the grown daughters who break down the hardest, he says, recounting the many times he has had to help an overwrought woman leave the prison because the emotional strain is so great.
The Recinellas have also witnessed what the death penalty does to guards who work year in and year out with the inmates. They get to know them over 10, 20, 30 years and experience them as the people they are, free from the alcohol and drugs that usually contributed to their initial criminal behavior.
“The guards get to know these guys, view them a decent people, then we ask them to kill them,” he says. “It does something to people who have to be involved in this.”
In the month following an execution, Mr. Recinella often ministers in a low level way to staff.
There are the inmates who have no family or friends. Mr. Recinella then steps in and shoulders that role too. Such persons, if not claimed after death, are buried in a cemetery adjacent to the prison. Through the efforts of the lay pastor, these inmates can at least be assured that they will be buried and their meager possessions will be respectfully dealt with.
Another critical point the Recinellas have come to understand is the strong correlation between mental illness and incarceration.
“Mental illness and the death penalty go hand in hand,” states Mr. Recinella. “You can no longer talk about one without talking about the other. And the incidence is increasing constantly.”
Here in the South, he claims, mental health services traditionally have been at a much lower availability than they have been in other parts of the country. States with much better mental health services don’t have the death penalty, because mental illness gets treated appropriately on the front end.
According to Mr. Recinella, 85% of Death Row executions have taken place in the South. Florida has the second largest Death Row population in the country.
The other great misconception, he contends, is that it is cheaper on the economy to execute a Death Row inmate. The opposite is true. Statistics indicate plainly it is much more expensive to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life.
Serving as lay pastor on Florida’s Death Row has helped galvanize Mr. Recinella’s convictions against the death penalty. He has been very surprised to find that a tremendous amount of support for the death penalty is based on what American people think is required by the Bible.
After comparing the same scriptures in the original Hebrew texts with the translations of The King James 1611 edition and the New International Bible, he found, in his opinion, eye-opening discrepancies. Specific differences can be found, too, in the Greek on which the later translations are based.
For example: In the early texts of Romans 13:3-4 there is no use of the word “execute” such as appears in later translations. The sword that is mentioned is the short sword, a symbol of justice commonly worn on a belt and not used for capitol punishment.
Mr. Recinella believes that for Christians, it is within Biblical authority to administer punishment for crimes and that is what our prisons should be for. However, that authority does not mandate killing people.
Mrs. Recinella is quick to point out that no one, regardless of what the person has done, is excluded from the mercy of God.