· Vatican City ·

Blessed Ashes in the Shadow of Death

 Blessed Ashes in the Shadow of Death  ING-010
10 March 2023

It’s not even spring, but the mercury is pushing eighty degrees Fahrenheit before noon. “Already sweating and it’s only Ash Wednesday,” I sigh to myself making my way into the prison guard stations and entry gates at Florida State Prison in Starke, Fla.

There are barely any Catholics living in the rural areas and small towns around Florida’s death row and massive solitary confinement prisons. But all year long, the State ships thousands of inmates north from the large cities in south and central Florida, east from the panhandle, and west from the Atlantic coast. This results in hundreds of Catholic inmates from the areas of Miami, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa, Pensacola, and Jacksonville living inside the walls of these maximum-security facilities.

Those confined to their solitary cells, including death row, are not allowed to come out to the prison chapel for services. So, to practice their faith, they must receive the ashes in their cell. The Catholic prison ministers for this prison will trek to every cell on every wing and offer every Roman Catholic inmate blessed Ashes on the forehead for their Ash Wednesday Lenten observance.

The central office of the statewide prison system in Tallahassee has issued a memo approving the distribution of the ashes in the prisons by Catholic clergy and authorized laity. The first order of business is to bring the ashes into the prison through the intense front gate security.

We have the blessed ashes in Styrofoam cups with thin plastic lids so that the contents will be susceptible to search by x-ray. And we have applied Holy Water to the Ashes in each cup so that as the lid is removed and closed, the Ashes will not blow all over the staff and the inmates.

Even so, rarely will there be a security officer from the local area around these prisons who has any clue as to what the ashes are for or why Catholic Christians observe this practice. In fact, most of the officers and staff attend rural Christian churches that do not observe Lent at all. Suffice it to say, clearing security on Ash Wednesday morning at a maximum-security prison in the U.S. Bible-belt is rarely routine.

I enter the shakedown line in security. Empty my pockets, remove my shoes and belt, and place the Styrofoam cups on the conveyor belt to be x-rayed. Lastly, I place a copy of the approval memo from central office and a copy of the gate pass from the prison warden on top of the x-ray machine.

When the cups enter the x-ray machine, the conveyor belt stops abruptly.

“What’s in the Styrofoam cups?” barks the gate sergeant stepping around to my side of the conveyor belt where I am standing in my stocking feet and holding up my beltless pants with one hand.

“Ashes,” I respond nonchalantly, as though I’m back in Detroit in the Italian Catholic neighborhood of my youth. “Ashes for Ash Wednesday, sir.”

“Say what?”

“Ashes,” I repeat, pointing to the telltale outward sign on my own forehead. “It’s a Catholic thing, sir. The ashes are on the gate pass.”

Soon I’m cleared to walk to the chapel where the prison chaplain hands me the list of names and cell numbers of the Catholic inmates in this prison. “There’s over a hundred of them. Good luck.”

Twenty years ago, many of the men in this prison were in general population. That meant Catholics could come to the chapel for an Ash Wednesday Service and receive ashes on their forehead, just like in a church. Those days are long gone. This prison is now all solitary confinement. The almost 1,200 cells are all lockdown. There will be no ashes for Ash Wednesday unless the ashes come to them at their cell.

Solitary confinement has its own rules which are added to the general rules for the prison. The ashes must be administered through the “food flap,” the narrow opening in each man’s door through which food, toilet paper, clothes, laundry, mops, toilet brushes and everything else pass between the world inside that cell and the world outside that cell.

Only an officer on the wing can unlock the food flap. And he must stand right there until it’s relocked. With twelve prison wings of 100 cells each, I will need help from at least a dozen different officers today.

The hall sergeant turns open the hall-side lock in the thick metal door of the first wing, then bangs his key against the door’s huge brass handle. The clanging reverberates up and down the wing stairwells announcing to the officers inside the wing that someone is “on the door.” That door still won’t open until a wing officer inside the wing inserts his key in the door lock from the opposite side of the door. When the wing officer opens the lock from his side, the door opens revealing the wing sergeant and two wing officers waiting to greet me.

When I step into the wing, I am standing on a short apron between the control desk and the hall door. It is not yet as hot here as it will be in the depths of the wing. But between heat and humidity, sweat runs down from my forehead, morphing the ashes from a sharply distinct cross into a moist oval.

“Good morning, sir.” I smile brightly as all three uniforms are standing and focused on the black smear on my forehead. I know without asking that they were extremely busy completing their regular morning duties when my arrival interrupted them. The sergeant’s desk is piled high with clipboards of paperwork to be processed and signed. I enter, identify myself, and announce my purpose by handing a copy of the authorizing memo from Tallahassee to the wing sergeant.

The blank expressions around me are not unfriendly or uncooperative. They are just blank. In a few words, I summarize the purpose of the ashes and the method of application. The officers nod. One is assigned by the sergeant to escort me through all three floors of that wing. As we climb to the third-floor atrium, my wing escort pauses on the steps and turns to me asking, “No offense, chap, but just what are those the ashes of?”

I realize he is trying to be respectful, even though his voice is filled with concern. I can only imagine what he has been told in this part of the country about Catholics and our practices.

He seems visibly relieved at hearing about the blessed palm branches used to make the ashes.

Cell by cell, floor by floor, wing after wing, officer after officer, the food flap is opened. I kneel on the concrete floor in front of each cell as the man inside kneels on the concrete floor of his cell and presses his forehead against the opening, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit….”

Brother after brother bows his head and receives on his forehead the sign of the Cross made in blest ashes, “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.”

In each wing, several inmates who are not Catholic request to receive the ashes as well. The wing sergeant nods consent. After administering the ashes, I write down their name and cell number and make notes of all those who request to see the priest for sacraments. My pads of paper for writing follow up notes are losing the battle to the heat, sweat and smudges of ashes.

The interruptions to my progress by the daily routines on the wing are inevitable. The prison nurse must distribute meds. Food carts arrive with lunch to be distributed by the officers to every cell. Laundry must be collected. The wing officers patiently juggle priorities while trying to accommodate my mission.

Finally, it’s the last wing. Almost five hours have passed. There are thirteen more cells to go. My escort officer listens quietly as I kneel and pray in front of the next cell.

“Lord, do not face us suddenly with death, but give us time to repent.”

“Sounds like a good prayer for all of us,” he sighs, locking the flap.

“All of us who are dust,” I smile. “Have you met anyone that isn’t?”

That question can sound rhetorical until something unexpected like the covid pandemic forces us to acknowledge that we are all standing in the shadow of death.

The statewide prison system in Florida has about 24,000 employees and 87,000 prisoners. The first known death of a Florida correctional officer from covid was here in the Florida panhandle just a few miles from our town. Less well known is that the wife of that sergeant also died from covid . It is generally believed that the virus came home with him from the prison and killed them both.

In summer of 2020, the press reported that so many corrections workers had tested positive for covid that many were sleeping in their car to try and prevent transmitting the virus to their family. And the inmates who live inside the prisons are also at risk. As reported by the U.S. Government National Institute of Health:

The standardized mortality rate in the Florida State Department of Corrections population increased by 45% between 2019 and 2020, causing an overall 4.0-year decline in life expectancy. … Within the Florida State Department of Corrections population, life expectancy decline could be attributed exclusively to covid -19 mortality.

The state of Florida prison population saw a substantial increase in mortality driven solely by covid -19 mortality, leading to an overall 4-year decline in life expectancy.1

The numbers are clear. For people of faith, covid has been a poignant reminder that none of us know the day or the hour that God will call us home to account. The time to repent and return to the Gospel is now.

1  Am Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2022 Jun 62; (6); 949-952.

By Dale S. Recinella