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Glimpses of Christmas Through a Looking Glass

 Glimpses of Christmas  Through a Looking Glass     ING-051
22 December 2023

It is more than three decades ago — Christmas Eve morning, 1990. Nothing could have prepared me for this. I process through the guard station and collect my chapel keys.

Spirals of razor wire are heaped two-stories high on the three rows of electrified fence. The silver-gray teeth glisten like tinsel in the crisp morning air. A dozen inmates peer at me from the other side. They are huddling at the gate that separates the chapel from the prison compound.

“Merry Christmas,” smiles the officer.

My stomach tenses into a knot as she hits the button that releases huge electric locks on the steel access doors. A loud bang echoes through the sally port. I step inside the prison. The knot in my belly tightens.

The inmates at the gate beat their arms, warming themselves against the December chill. Small clouds of breath hang in front of their blue fatigues.

Why does this picture jar me? For almost a year, I have been coming to this prison chapel every week. The specifics are no different than usual. This should be just another day as a volunteer spiritual counselor at Florida’s Apalachee Correctional Institution. But this isn’t just another day. It is Christmas Eve.

In this very moment, I am amazed that I have never wondered what Christmas is like behind bars.

Chapel appointments with volunteers are by call-out, written requests processed through administration. We open the chapel. A clerk hands me the day’s roster — 19 call-outs. A normal morning is five.

I telephone my wife from the chaplain’s office, “I will be here until 6:00 tonight.”

I am wrong. We won’t close the chapel until 9:30 Christmas Eve night. But there’s no way I could know to expect that. This is my first time in prison on the morning before Christmas.

I dig in with coffee and my first inmate appointment at 8:30 a.m. We pray and I ask, “What is on your heart this morning?”

“Give me a reason to not go for the wall,” he whispers.

We both know the term is prison slang for feigning an escape attempt in front of the guards, in the hope they will have to kill you. Men are said to have done such things when they received a dear john letter from their wife or learned of the death of their child. Is Christmas here that painful?

Man after man. Blue shirt after blue shirt. We talk, we cry, we pray. Murderers. Rapists. Molesters. No one to call at Christmas. No one to write. No one to see. Their children severed by the courts and adopted by other men. Or their family too far away to visit.

About 5:00 o’clock p.m., I tell the chapel clerks we need more prison Kleenex. The rolls of toilet paper we unwrapped that morning are all down to the cardboard.

My last call-out, an intelligent and verbal man, has met regularly with me all year.

“I’m not saying that I shouldn’t be here,” tears tug at his eyes, “I did terrible things and don’t even know why. I can understand why society wants me inside this fence. I’ll be here the rest of my life. But I’m a human being. I still need friends and relationships with normal people. I’m a baptized, practicing Christian. Christmas is our day. Where are the Christians?”

My lame response about people confusing compassion toward wrong doers with approval of their bad behavior only angers him.

“Jesus said that when His followers visit an inmate, they visit Him!” he grips the tissue roll with both hands. “Jesus didn’t say the inmate had to be innocent. Why isn’t anybody visiting Jesus at Christmas?”

Looking away, I stammer, “I don’t know.”

Soon, it’s time for us to end.

“What do you want to pray for?” I ask.

He leans back in his chair, as if he is talking to the ceiling, “What do I want God to give me for Christmas?”

“Sure,” I reply.

“That every Christmas all the prisons in Florida will be busting at the seams from all the Christians trying to get in to visit Jesus.”

“Brother,” I caution, “that prayer could take a long time to answer.”

He shrugs, “I’ll be here.”

By the Saturday before Christmas of 2001, my wife and I have been visiting prisons for more than a decade. We have met dozens of wardens and chaplains and hundreds of inmates and staff. One inmate in particular has become very special, like family to us. His name is Kenny.

Our family is well into the several-hour trip from our home in Jacksonville, Fla, to a large medium security prison near Pensacola, the opposite end of North Florida. The distance is almost 400 miles one-way. We are making our Christmas visit to Kenny.

After an overnight in Tallahassee, we grab coffee and breakfast and finish the westward part of our drive. We arrive to the prison just after sunrise. The weak December sun is climbing as we line up for the visitor gate, waiting our turn to disgorge identification and the contents of our pockets, remove our shoes, walk through the metal detectors and raise our arms high for a full body pat down search. The security search to enter a prison was a little unnerving for my wife and children the first time. Now we are all used to it.

The female officer who searches the children is polite and always remembers us. “You’re that unusual family. The ones that aren’t really family.”

“We are family sure enough,” I laugh. “We’re called a Christian mentoring family. But if the truth be told, the man we are visiting teaches us more than we could ever teach him.”

She smiles a knowing look. The officers know what most of us in free society don’t know. The difference between some of those on the inside and many of us on the outside can be a thin line indeed. As thin as one or two drinks or a weapon too handy in a fit of anger. Thin enough for Christians to find family inside the razor wire fences.

Even in prison, Christmas is the time of special visits with loved ones. Kenny has saved his canteen money for a Christmas picture. We gather around him, arm in arm, in the photo corner of the prison visiting park.

“Make it a good shot,” he chides the inmate with the Polaroid camera. “This is my family Christmas picture.”

In November of 2009 Kenny was granted parole. We picked him up at Everglades Correctional Institution and drove him to his Jacksonville re-entry program. For the next year we visited him at his re-entry program in Jacksonville many times a month, and from Christmas 2009 until he passed in 2021, all his Christmas pictures are in free person clothes. He even joined me in Louisville, Kentucky to participate in a statewide program on providing re-entry services. In those last eleven years, Kenny lived a full and dynamic life, working as a prayer minister/custodian at Christian Healing Ministries, meeting, courting and marrying his wonderful wife Cathy, doing prison ministry on behalf of his church, and sponsoring and assisting numerous men transitioning from prison to freedom.

It is hard to believe that this wonderful, sold-out for Jesus, Christian servant was originally facing the electric chair in the 1980s. He was instead sentenced to life by a divided jury. Kenny was released from all conditions of parole on May 22, 2019, so he lived the last two years of his life a completely free man. But from his release from prison on parole in 2009 and through his time of complete freedom (2019 -2021), a total of 12 years, he never stopped seizing every opportunity that came his way to relieve suffering and make the world a better place.

Now, as Christmas of 2023 is rapidly approaching, I cannot help but wonder how it is that we who claim to believe in Jesus Christ’s power of redemption for ourselves, dare to deny that possibility for others by cutting their God-given time of life short through executions? Our last execution in Florida literally forces us to face the harm we do by denying repentant killers the chance to do good — even from within prison. This question is not abstract. It is concrete and real. Its name is Michael Zack.

Michael’s life is a horror story of abuse and trauma. He never had a chance to experience the love and safety of a nurturing and protective family. Yes, it is true that no one gets a perfect childhood. But, some unfortunate people, like Michael Zack, endure unfathomable horror in the womb (fetal alcohol syndrome), as a toddler (victim of attempted drowning, and hospitalization from alcohol poisoning and drug overdose both induced by an adult caregiver), and documented extreme physical abuse and torture. As a preteen, Michael endured his mother’s murder with an axe by an older sibling. Then, he and his sibling were sent to a psychiatric hospital, and he ended up in foster care where he was continuously abused. It is no surprise that he suffers from a host of debilitating psychological disorders.

Michael was convicted for the murders of two women and sent to Florida’s death row just before Christmas 1997. I met him on cell front rounds in the Fall of 1998 and in short order he requested pastoral counseling and rcia. He also struck up a very positive paternal relationship with Fr. Swavek, the death row priest from St. Mary’s of Macclenny, who provided sacraments of initiation to the “kid from Kentucky.”

In my decades of experience of death and dying ministry, both in prison and in open society, nothing so defines a person as much as their last acts. While one’s last words may not be a canonical sacrament, I hold those words in deepest respect. I never prepare or suggest last words to an inmate facing natural death or execution. They are too personal. If I am the execution spiritual advisor, I hear the condemned’s last words from the witness room, just like everyone else. He and I had been together earlier in the day and together with Fr. Swavek when Michael received the Last Rites.

On October 3rd at 6 pm. I am watching Michael on the gurney through the observation window from my seat in the execution witness room. As always the gurney is surrounded by Department of Corrections staff responsible for carrying out this killing. The witness room is filled with state staff and the family members of the two victims of his crime spree. Michael’s lead lawyer, Linda McDermot, and myself are seated in the attorney and spiritual advisor seats.

Michael is asked, “Do you have any last words?”

He answers, “Yes, sir.”

Michael lifts his head from the gurney and allows his gaze to take in the entire execution chamber and the witness room. He looks at every single one of us present and says,

“I love you all.”

And then we kill him.

Postscript:1 in the post-execution final statement prepared by Michael Zack and his attorneys and released by FADP, they have captured his words in greater detail.

“Twenty-seven years ago, I was an alcoholic and a drug addict,” Zack said in the statement. “I did things that have hurt a lot of people — not only the victims and their families and friends, but my own family and friends as well. I have woken up every single day since then filled with remorse and a wish to make my time here on earth mean something more than the worst thing I ever did.” “I make no excuses,” he added. “I lay no blame. But how I wish that I could have a second chance, to live out my days in prison and continue to do all I can to make a difference in this world. To all my brothers on death row, please continue to help each other.”

Michael Zack’s sisters wrote:

Michael Zack endured “unimaginable abuse,” his three sisters wrote in a statement. He “did his best to protect us,” they wrote, “yet we all have enduring scars from the trauma.”

“We are aligned in the belief that he should have remained separated from society, where he would face accountability for his actions and maintain the sobriety he has achieved over the last 27 years.”

“Still, our love for him endures. With his execution, our family faces another irrevocable and profound loss.”

i  Aila Slisco, “Michael Zack’s Last Words Before Florida Execution”, Newsweek https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/ crime/michael-zacks-last-words-before-florida-execution/ar-AA1hEK83

By Dale S. Recinella