By Dale S. Recinella
Apalachee Correctional Institution — called ACI — sits about 55 miles west of our home in Tallahassee. Deep in the Florida panhandle, it is right on the boundary of the Eastern and Central time zones. I accept the prison chaplain’s invitation and in January of 1990, I show up at the ACI Chapel to be a prayer partner for men with terminal illness. Mostly AIDS and cancer. I am very clear in limiting my commitment to the terminally ill because I do not want to be swamped by healthy inmates who are anxious to meet a lawyer. I am here to pray with men who are dying.
As I enter the prison chapel, there is a long line of over 50 prisoners snaking around the exterior of the church building as they wait for their individual appointments with me. The chapel clerk, who has been assigned to assist me, also requests a prayer appointment. My voice is sharp and my demeanor is curt, “So, tell me inmate Kenny – What is your terminal condition?”
This young chapel clerk, without guile or sarcasm, smiles brightly, ”My terminal condition is sin. Can you handle that?”
On that fateful day 31 years ago, I have just met a man who will be my guide and my companion on a fantastic journey of discovery into the world inside Florida’s prisons. I have just met the Real Deal Kenny Cofield. That’s what he calls himself. He is proud of being exactly who he seems to be. No pretense. No airs. No show. No flimflam, as they say in prison.
“So, what exactly does ‘the Real Deal’ mean?” I ask.
‘It means that what you see, is what you get. No surprises. No shenanigans.”
“Okay,” I say while thinking, we’ll see.
Little could I know that this Kenny guy will become like a son to me and Susan. And like an elder brother to our other children who all call him “our sixth child.”
I am amazed at the things he is willing to dare for Jesus. Kenny comes to me at one point and says, “I want to try and live the nonviolence of Jesus Christ right here in prison.”
We are sitting face to face with knees a few inches from each other in the small storage room that the chaplain allows me to use for spiritual counseling. I hesitate to respond. My thoughts are running a million miles an hour. What should I tell him? Should I encourage him or try to dissuade him? I decide to try and pour cold waters of reality on his newly kindled hot embers of gospel faith.
“That’s going to take some doing. Every street tough from south Florida that checks in to this prison and knows your reputation will be looking to take you out in order to prove his bravery.”
Kenny just laughs and pats my knee, “Don’t worry, brother. God can handle it.”
He sets out to live gospel nonviolence at ACI. Not a passive nonviolence, mind you, but rather an active nonviolence. Active in the gospel. Active in relieving suffering. Using his own meager funds from his prison job to buy soap and shower slides for men who cannot afford to buy anything in the canteen.
Kenny proclaims himself a guardian and protector for the prisoners in his dorm who are so small and so short that they are subject to the will of every person that means them harm.
“He is with me. You deal with him, you’re going to have to deal with me first.”
I see one of those guys still to this day. He has been out of prison for 20 years now. I see him monthly. And he never fails to say: “If it wasn’t for Kenny Cofield, I would never have lived long enough to be released from prison.”
Because Kenny has a reputation in the statewide prison system as the toughest guy at any camp he lives in, word gets around. Everybody knows who Kenny is. And they know that if you lay a hand on him, you will either leave for the hospital on a stretcher or, even if you win the fight, you will wish you had never touched him.
Not surprisingly, when Kenny decides to live the nonviolence of Jesus Christ in prison, some people figure this is a good time to have some fun. One day, he shows up for our prayer appointment saying, “Do you know so and so?”
“Yeah, he's new to this camp.”
Kenny continues, ”Well, sir, he decided to prove how tough he is by taking it out on me.”
“Kenny, what happened?”
“Well, I looked at him and I busted out laughing. And the fella got angry.”
“Then what happened?” I am bracing for a tale of blood and gore.
“He said, ‘What are you laughing at? I'm dead serious! You're going to leave here on a stretcher.’”
And I said to him, “Brother, Jesus gave me a message for you.”
“Well then, the guy started getting really angry, saying, ‘What?! You think you're going to stop now and preach to me about Jesus, to save your hide?’”
“Oh no, no, no.” Kenny corrected him. “You don't understand. Jesus gave me a message for you! You're not going to die today because I've been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ.”
“And how did he take that, Kenny?”
“The fella was speechless; he couldn't even respond. I just walked away laughing.”
As it turns out, that guy goes back to all his homeboys and says, “Don't go anywhere near that guy. He's crazy!”
When Kenny is moved to Holmes Correctional Institution, almost all the way to Pensacola, his favorite officer at Holmes is called Locker-top Susie. She is called Locker-top Susie by the inmates (but only outside her presence) because no matter how hard one works to clean their locker for inspection, she will always find a violation.
She comes up to Kenny one day and says, “Inmate, why are you always so happy? Don't you know you're in prison?”
Kenny smiles and says, “Officer, I've got a choice every morning. I can be happy in prison, or I can be miserable in prison. I choose to be happy.”
She just shakes her head in mock disbelief and laughs, “You are crazy!”
Then Kenny is moved to Sumter Correctional Institution in central Florida. Then to Everglades Correctional Institution way down south. We joke that it is practically a suburb of Havana, Cuba. I clock the drive at almost 440 miles each way from our house in North Florida.
Finally, in the fall of 2009, the Parole Commission says we can pick him up at Everglades, and drive him to North Florida.
Now, the prison is not going to make this easy. They act like they don't have any paperwork on us. Or we might have to come back another day. They make us stand out in the rain and not right by the fence under the umbrella. We don’t care. Susan and I finger the beads of our Rosaries in our pockets, imploring the intercession of Mother Mary.
The moment that we can see Kenny on the other side of the fence, he is in sneakers that look like the bottoms are falling off. They are.
And pants that look like they are a foot and a half too long for him. They are.
He is just smiling from ear to ear.
We wait, and finally, the control room pops the gate and Kenny walks through to the outside. As he shuffles to us, Susan and I bear hug him from both sides, and Susan says: “Kenny, this the first day of the rest of your life.”
Soon, he is doing really well in Jacksonville in a reentry program: working hard, following the rules, doing everything he is supposed to do. Sometimes, it is hard to do the right thing. One day he is on a bus in Jacksonville going to his meeting at the parole office to check in. It is over 100 degrees outside. The bus breaks down and Kenny runs the three miles for the rest of the way.
Upon learning about this I’m astonished.
He shrugs, “Easier to run 3 miles in 100 degrees than it is to go back to prison.”
I think to myself, This is a man who is going to stay free, if society gives him half a chance.
For his birthday in September of 2010, and also to celebrate almost a year outside prison, we take him to lunch at an Italian restaurant in Jacksonville. Susan decides it would be nice for him to meet one of her friends. She invites Cathy, a longtime friend from church.
It is a great lunch. After that day, Kenny and Cathy are calling each other on the phone and praying together. And they are getting together without inviting us. No problem.
Six months later, we are asked how we feel about Kenny and Cathy getting married. They play their song for us, Who Will Love Me for Me by J.J. Heller. At this point it is Valentine’s Day, February 2011.
In the meantime, Kenny starts working at Christian Healing Ministries with Francis and Judith MacNutt. He is working full time as maintenance and janitorial for the ministry and is able to avail himself of healing prayer from all the wonderful people working there and from Frances and Judith Macnutt, as well. Kenny also finds he has a calling as a prayer partner. He starts praying with people.
Cathy and Kenny are engaged in 2011, and are married on January 1, 2012, at the chapel of Christian Healing Ministries.
By January 2014, Kenny and Cathy are attending Saint Barnabas Anglican Church and Kenny is handling the church’s prison ministry. Susan and I appear with him in front of the Parole Commission in 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017, and in 2019, when the Commission says the magic words: “You are released from any conditions of parole. You are a free citizen.”
The words said by the three Commissioners who voted on that release are remarkable. They have gotten to know Kenny and Cathy over a full decade.
Mr. Dumphee, who has been there longer than the peeling plaster and headed Miami’s security for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1987, says he always remembers two men: Kenny Cofield and one other. “Kenny came to prison mean as a rattlesnake and then made this process and this honorable Commission look good by the way he conducted himself during his parole.”
Mr. Davison starts out by mentioning the name of Kenny's victim, and notes that Kenny said that name, Robert Johnson, no less than three times during his presentation to the Commission that day. Then he emphasizes that Kenny has shown remorse and has paid all of his restitution and supervision costs and his remorse has been deeply evidenced by his choices on parole and by habitually doing for others and asking nothing in return. I nod, silently noting that is part of the definition of agape out of the Gospel.
With only two of three Commissioners having voted, the entire room stands up and erupts in applause and hallelujahs and thank you, Jesus!
And then the last Commissioner, who has not yet been able to speak, says, “My vote is the same as theirs. But I want to say that in the intervening years, the victim’s only relative, his aunt, said she had developed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When the crime first happened, she wanted to drag Kenny out to the woods and kill him herself. But soon she realized that Jesus needed for her to be praying for Kenny by name. And she wanted him to know that her biggest prayer for him was not just to get out of prison, but for him to come to know Jesus. She said that she had forgiven him in her heart. And wished him the best in life. That was from the only living relative of Robert Johnson, the murder victim of the crime.”
By the beginning of 2020, Kenny is working full-time as director of a reentry ministry that operates a house for women and a house for men. Cathy assists as a volunteer. And together as a married couple, they are inside Florida prisons every weekend, evangelizing inmates and staff and accepting applications from future reentry candidates. They are all out and all in for the Gospel. Nothing held back.
In February 2020, Kenny and I drive to Louisville, Kentucky, and meet our wives who arrive at the airport. We spend three days speaking and sharing about reentry services at a major conference of over 200 people hosted by the Kentucky Department of Corrections, the University of Louisville, and Catholic Charities.
On the drive home, Kenny and I pray together as we have for decades and marvel that all this is finally happening. After all the years since 1990, all the time spent in visiting parks of prisons around Florida dreaming together about doing this work as a team, it is ready to happen.
By March 17, 2021, Kenny and I are ready to appear together at a reentry presentation for the Florida Department of Corrections at New River Work Camp in Raiford. I am so proud of Kenny as he carries the presentation and I sit in the background adding grey hair and the aura of experience to our pitch. On my drive home to Tallahassee from Raiford, I am sure great things are in store as we work together in this new endeavor.
Then, within days, Kenny’s reentry house for women has a sweet elderly woman with COPD turn seriously ill. With no insurance and no money, the only way she can reach the hospital is if someone drives her. We all know that the fastest way to get COVID is to be in a car with someone who is infected. No matter. Kenny jumps in his car and drives her to the emergency room.
She has COVID. And within a week, Kenny is diagnosed with COVID. She survives. He does not.
For almost a month he languishes in ICU. Susan and I shuttle to Jacksonville to be with Cathy at the hospital. None of us can enter his hospital room. The staff station us at a glass partition that looks into his room, where he is strapped down on a bed with tubes and monitors and machines helping him to breathe. I cannot help but feel the similarity of this picture to the death house view from the witness room into the execution chamber.
“Oh my God! What have you allowed?!” my emotions are screaming silently. At 19 years old, Kenny had missed the electric chair by one jury vote in the 1980s. Then, against all odds, he achieved parole. And for over a decade he has been serving the Gospel and saving souls. “God, how could you allow this COVID disaster? How could you allow evil this victory over my brother Kenny?”
Susan and Cathy step out to the lobby for a break. The nurse attendant dons her personal protective gear and enters his room to take vitals. For a moment I am all alone at the window, struggling with what seems to be an insane outcome to a life of struggle to find good and do good and to redeem the drug- and alcohol-fueled horrors of the past. That is when I feel the warmth of Kenny’s country boy smile wash over me from head to toe. And in my thoughts, I hear his gravely Georgia accent reassuring me.
“Hey, man, don’t be worryin’ ‘bout me. I’m fine!”
Did the Apostle Paul have such experiences of Divine Mercy that allowed him to write: Death, where is thy sting!
We do not know why God took Kenny home on April 23, 2021. But I am sure that our Lord and Savior greeted him at the gate saying: “Kenny, today is the first day of the rest of your life with me.”