Can a holiday card have eternal consequences?

 Can a holiday card have eternal consequences?  ING-012
25 March 2022

Since 1999, my annual rituals include February, April and May pilgrimages to the discount stores across rural north central Florida from Jacksonville to Lake City to Gainesville to Starke. Each year I need about 1,400 Valentines’ Day cards. Mothers’ Day cards — about 900. Fathers’ Day cards — about 700. All to be passed out to the death row inmates at cell front.

Prison regulations are strict when it comes to holiday cards for inmates to send to others. No sparkly stuff. No ribbons or fancy whatnots. No cards with 3D popups or glued inserts. No plastic. No metal. No foil. No wood. And no envelopes that are not white, light-yellow or light-blue. The red ink imprint of the Florida Department of Corrections that is stamped on every envelope leaving a Florida prison by mail must standout clearly.

No cards that are lewd or sexually suggestive. No cards with alcohol or drinking themes. No cards with pictures of young children. No cards that are overly romantic.

It gets harder every year to find cards that meet the prison limitations — even for Mothers’ Day. So, every year, I greedily hunt down hundreds of 50-cent cards in the discount store bins across rural north Florida’s less travelled county roads.

Timing is everything. If one shows up just a day or two after the cards have been put out on shelves at a particular store, there can be eight or twelve or even twenty-four of a kind. I still remember vividly an awkward moment with a friend who is keeping me company on such a pilgrimage from store-to-store. I unexpectedly hit the jackpot in the discount card section of a remote shop. As I gleefully fill my handbasket with dozens of sets of twelve each of prison qualified Valentines’ Day Cards, I must look a bit like Blackbeard the pirate scooping up gold coins.

My companion for the day lovingly addresses me with concern, asking, “Brother Dale, are you sure this is spiritually healthy?”

Be that as it may, there is nothing quite like the experience of stepping to the checkout line in a rural discount store with hundreds of holiday cards.

“How many mothers have you got?” is among the politest comments I have received from disgruntled clerks who must hand scan the bar code on the back of every 50-cent card individually.

Invariably, I use the opportunity to mention that the cards are for the men on Florida’s Death Row to send to their loved ones. That is guaranteed to kill the conversation for a moment or two. Then, it gets really interesting, and many of the store patrons move closer to listen in.

“So, you are against the victims and in favor of the criminals!”

“No.” I always make eye contact and speak gently. “Actually, I have become aware that the unseen victims of these horrible crimes frequently include the innocent family members of the perpetrator. So, the cards are for them — the children, the mothers, the fathers, the brothers and sisters, the wives — most of whom have done nothing wrong.”

“How do they get to be victims?”

“Nobody goes to prison alone. They always take their family to prison with them. And when a man goes to Death Row, he takes his family to Death Row with him.”

“But his crime victim is not getting to send any cards to her mom or her young’uns or her husband! What about that!”

“You’re right. And I cannot fix that. So, I do the little bit that I can by trying to relieve the suffering of the other innocent victims in his own family.”

A few store clerks register indifference. Some simply say that they are against what I am doing but have to check me out because they need their job. Some clerks have thrown the cards back at me and refused to check me out. One left the premises after telling her manager that either she or I would have to leave the store. There is no doubt in my mind that such strong emotional reactions are rooted in the horror of the loss of a loved one to a violent crime. Our society has not even tried to learn how to bring healing to those who have suffered such a horrendous loss.

There are some clerks who express surprise at the thought that people on Death Row have families and loved ones. They seem a bit shaken at that, and then are fine scanning the cards.

Several times each year, as I leave a store and tote my bags to the parking lot, someone will approach me from behind. A man, an older woman, a couple who appear married. They always speak softly and deliberatively, as though pushing out the words with great effort.

Our son is in prison… My dad is in prison… My brother is in prison… My grandfather is in prison… My mother is in prison… Our daughter is in prison… Our grandson is in prison… followed by a heartfelt sigh: “Thank you.”

In Florida ministry volunteers have been allowed to pass out Valentine’s Day cards, Mother’s Day cards and Father’s Day cards at Death Row cell-front since February 1999. We must clear security with them in our transparent plastic bins. If any single card in our bins turns out to have contraband hidden inside, the officer who cleared us will be looking for a new job that night. Each search of the cards is extremely thorough — and it is not unusual for the plastic bins of cards to be searched multiple times: at the prison entry gate, at the chapel, at the Death Row building entrance, at the wing entrances, and any place in between.

The first year that I carried Valentine’s Day cards into Death Row I had picked cards of different sizes with envelopes of different sizes, all neatly stacked and sorted in my bins. By the time I entered the Death Row building to begin cell-front distribution my bins looked like their contents had been shuffled and tossed. Many inmates complained that the cards they received from me did not fit in the envelopes or that the envelopes were way too big for the cards.

By the time I showed up with Mother’s Day cards two months later, all the cards and envelopes were the same size. To survive in prison, one must adapt. The prison does not adapt to us.

My responsibilities as a Catholic Correctional Chaplain on Florida’s Death Row include making myself available to the death row inmates for one-on-one pastoral counseling. Such counseling is never initiated by me. Usually, it is at the request of the inmate. In rare instances, it can also be at the request of officers and staff who are sincerely looking out for the welfare of a particular inmate.

For example, on one occasion, officers are quite concerned about a particular inmate, who recently has suffered the loss through death of important friends and family members. The staff are worried that he might be despondent enough to attempt suicide.

Officers are assigned to be on his door — which is prison speak for suicide watch. As the staff shifts change through the day, the assigned officers rotate their vigil sitting in a metal folding chair in front of his cell. They ask me to see him pastorally. I agree to do so, so long as the inmate is willing to come voluntarily. He comes.

The officers escort him in chains and black-box handcuffs from his cell down to the main floor counseling room and lock us in together. The inmate and I are sitting quietly across the table from one another as he sizes me up. He knows me from my death row rounds and knows that for years I have been bringing him cards to send to his mom and sister.

“Thank you for all the Christmas and Valentine’s and Mom’s Day cards over the years.”

“You’re very welcome. I hope they brought a smile to your mom and your sister.”

He waves off my social response and digs in for the meat. “Look! I’m not one of your flock, you know,” his tone is irritated and dismissive.

“Yes, I know.” I smile and nod.

“So, what the heck do you want with me?”

“A lot of people here care about how you are doing. They asked me to meet with you.”

“Okay. That’s how this meeting happened. But you haven’t answered my question. What do you want with me?”

“I want to convince you that your life is a gift from God, and that even in here your life is a gift of great value.”

“What!” he glares at me with a rapid succession of rolling-eye rim shots. “Exc-u-u-u-use me! I assumed you were a Christian, but I must have been mistaken!”

“No. No mistake. I am a Catholic Christian.”

“You Christians are the ones who want to kill me!” The black-box cuffs make a dull thudding noise as his hands beat the table, punctuating his words.

“You Christians are the ones who insist on having the death penalty! And you have the nerve to come in here and tell me my life is a gift? What kind of a Christian hypocrite are you?”

“My turn?” I ask gently after allowing the energy from his tirade to dissipate.

“Have at it!” He snorts in disdain. “This should be good!”

“Not all Christians support the death penalty. In fact the overwhelming majority do not. But we are in a country, and in a particular part of the country, where many Christians mistakenly believe that this practice is mandated by God’s will.”

“That would be the same God that you want to tell me about?” he speaks while pretending to crane his sight to the hallway, as though he wants the officers to end this pointless meeting. “This God that you want to tell me thinks my life is a gift.”

“I cannot speak for others.” I shrug with all the innocence that can be mustered under the circumstances. “I can only tell you about the God I know. And the God I know is mercy, within mercy, within mercy. He treasures your life, and does not desire the death of a sinner.”

“So now I’m a sinner am I!” I cannot tell whether this irritation is real or for affect. He again feigns the search for release and rescue by the hall officers; but this time he is smirking, obviously intending to pull my chain a bit.

“No worries,” I laugh. “Welcome to the club. I am a sinner, too.”

“So, Chaplain Sinner, cut the crap and give it to me straight. What do you want from me?”

“I want to convince you that your life is a gift from God, and that even in here your life is a gift of great value.”

He shakes his head and lowers it to the tabletop as if giving into total despair, as though we are wasting our time. “That’s your story and you’re sticking to it, huh?”

“Actually, that is God’s story, and He doesn’t change it.”

“This God that you know.” His emphasis is effectively sarcastic.

“Yes, the God I know.”

“Well don’t get your hopes up. I’m not going to pray with you, and I’m not going to read from your stupid book that all you Christians quote from to kill me.”

“You mean that ‘some Christians’ quote from to kill you, right?”

“Sure, if you say so.”

“So, does that mean you would like to meet with me regularly?”

“I wouldn’t say like. But it will be okay.”

In the course of the next three years, that man becomes a godson to me and my wife and a regular communicant. Recently, he died peacefully of natural causes in the prison hospital after receiving the last rites from the priest for death row.

By Dale S. Recinella
Catholic Correctional Chaplain, Florida Death Row