Healing Line

Healing Line

What Did You Go Out into the Desert to See?

by Dale S. Recinella
Sep/Oct 2004

"What Did You Go Out into the Desert to See?"
- Matthew 11 :8

In the prison I am visiting, the number of prisoners and staff, taken together, total more than the population of my town. This is a massive complex of various levels of security and functions: death row, disciplinary solitary confinement, protective custody, close custody, general population, psychiatric solitary· confinement, even a medical hospital. Today I am bound for the medical hospital.

After clearing the entry station and greeting the long uneven queue of blue clad men waiting for the outpatient clinic, I climb the stairs to Level Two. The brightly painted scenes of water and birds coating the stairwell walls smack of an oasis, a brief respite from the desert beyond the door ahead: Level Two. This is where it gets serious, especially for prisoners from Florida's death row.

Moving a prisoner out of the death row building is no small feat. Massive security is required, even though the cement walkway out of the building is literally a tunnel-fenced left, right and above-with razor wire hanging in every direction. At one end, an unseen guard who monitors by camera must open the electronic gate that allows entry to the tunnel. On the other end, a different guard in a movement control station regulates the release of the locked gate to exit the tunnel. One has to be seriously ill in order to be removed from the death row building for medical treatment at the prison hospital.

Even so, there's always the security concern about feigned illness as a setup for an escape plot or a misguided attempt to obtain more favorable prison conditions. It's hard to imagine a man faking a brain aneurysm or cancer or a stroke. Yet, in order to discourage even such a remote possibility, the hospital cells for death row inmates are designed to duplicate the regular death row cells. Same dimensions. Same steel door with waist-high food flap. Same property locker. Same steel toilet and wall sink. Same stainless steel shelf cot with the same paper-thin mattress.

If a man becomes so debilitated that he starts to fall out of bed, a hospital bed with side rails may be ordered. Otherwise, he "lies and dies", bedsores and all, on a steel shelf with a mattress thinner than many peoples' place mats. Such is the reality of death by natural causes on death row. A reality which is a far cry from the notions hyped in the media about justice denied because death row inmates die comfortably of natural causes instead of by execution.

Ministry on this hospital wing is usually done through the food flap in the door, just like in solitary confinement. Normally, I would kneel on the tile floor in the hall and the man inside would sit in his wheelchair or on the corner of his property locker. But the man I'm here to see today is too ill to get out of bed. The hall sergeant unbolts the door, allowing me to visit him at bedside. Clearly, he is dying.

I met him six years ago in my rounds at death row. He is Pentecostal. I am Catholic. In this part of the country, the two do not usually mix. But I am also charismatic. So, we made a conscious choice to focus on the gifts of our faith that we share in common, especially the power of the Spirit and of praying in the Spirit.

On prior visits we have shared Scripture, prayed over memories, prayed in tongues and sat for long quiet moments basking in the presence of the Lord's glory. Sometimes, as we prayed, the dull white walls seemed to become brighter, the air felt electric. And his physical pain would frequently abate, at least for a while, as we soaked his weary body in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

He is no longer able to sit up or to move from side to side. Our eyes greet each other first. Then I take his hand in mine and begin. We open our time with the Lord's Prayer. The rhythm of the prayer, which we have spoken together a hundred times, is no longer in his natural cadence. Here is a man who has owned virtually nothing for years. His very clothes are not his own; they belong to the state. His body is not his own; for men under a death sentence, their body is the property of the state. Now, from the paucity of his poverty, even his own speech patterns have been stolen by the deterioration caused through his illness.

A haphazard stack of unopened mail rests atop his property locker, leaning precariously near the edge. I hold each envelope up to his view and, when he nods "yes" with his eyes, slit the top open with my pen and pour out the precious contents. Piece by piece, I read them aloud. One large manila envelope from overseas holds dozens of letters, each with hand drawn pictures to illustrate the writer's heartfelt concern. Holding up each of the lively colored pictures drawn by a classroom full of Italian children, I angle them high and close enough for him to see. The pictures are warm and spirited. Another envelope contains a letter from a friend, a famous author. The lucid, flowing sentences have poured from a pen whose ink is love and friendship. In all the letters, the words are filled with guarded farewells. They know. I know. He knows. His time is almost up.

As I read from his favorite translation of the Bible, the King James, about Paul in prison, I cannot help but marvel at the fact that many of the Apostles, even Jesus himself, were imprisoned and most were executed by capital punishment at the hands of the state. It is indeed a mystery that so many of us Christians don't even try to wrestle with that history or with Jesus' admonition to the eternally condemned in His description of the Last Judgment: "I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me .... Then they will go away to eternal punishment." Mt. 25:43 and 46.

When we have finished sharing the Word, I open the book by Joy Lamb, The Sword of the Spirit: The Word of God, which has been close by his bedside for weeks. The book falls open to special prayers that he used almost daily while he could. I suggest a new battery of prayer for a salvo on issues that many of us face as we near the end. His eyes nod in knowing agreement. We tum to the prayers of forgiveness and inner healing. In a truly Catholic style, I say the words one phrase at a time, which he then repeats, praying to forgive all those who have hurt or mistreated him during his life, for his and their release, and for healing.

Family and friends who have rejected us, fled from us, as though we were pariahs. "Jesus knows that pain," I assure him. Mt. 26:56.

The always present, small minority of people who cannot deal with total control over another's life without heaping abuse, scorn, ridicule, sometimes even physical suffering upon those in their charge. "Yes, and Jesus knows that pain." Mt. 27:27-31.

The public humiliation of being stripped completely-dignity, reputation, humanity, everything, even one's clothes, many times a day. "Jesus knows that pain, too." Mt. 27:28 and 35.

The prayers for healing and forgiveness seem to trigger a stream of memories, pictures visible to him while I can see only his face and his tears. Over and over we pray, "Father forgive them. They didn't know what they were doing."

The healing is deep and permanent. He clutches my hand tighter than ever as he whispers, "Thank you. Thank you. They are all forgiven."

Finally, we pray softly in the Spirit for a long time. My left hand is upon his head with the other folded over his cupped fingers. Tongues pour gently in waves of power and praise. He is no longer grimacing or squirming with unease. The unique cut of his smile, the glint of his eyes, has returned, sublime yet distinctly present.

To my farewell hug, he responds hoarsely but firmly, "I needed so badly to be in the Spirit. Now, I'm filled with peace."

I will always remember the peace in his eyes and face at that moment, the last time I would see him on this side of the great divide.


Francis MacNutt Dale S. Recinella is the Director of Planning & Projects for CHM. Dale is also a volunteer prison chaplain in North Florida. Sep/Oct 2004 Issue