By Francesca Merlo
Dale Recinella, a Catholic lay chaplain for Florida's death row for the Catholic Bishops in Florida, recently spent a day visiting Paliano detention centre in Italy, a rehabilitative prison, where the inmates, all ex-mafiosi and now collaborators of justice, spend their days working with iron, ceramics, wood and so much more.
Many of these inmates have committed terrible crimes, but with the luck of living in a country where capital punishment has been abolished, and where rehabilitative prisons such as Paliano exist, they are now on the road towards redemption.
Truth behind the US death penalty
It is difficult to understand how a country like the United States, considered the country of justice and freedom, still carries out the death penalty.
Dale Recinella explains that both history and religion play a role in this. 93% of the executions in the United States in the last fourty years or so have taken place in the old Confederacy. “It is a remnant of slavery and that's why it is so racially biased,” he said.
Brother Dale explained that the death penalty and the executions in the United States are overwhelmingly racially-biased against African-Americans. Using his state, Florida, as an example he says that “where only 12% of the population Is African American, 36% of the people on death row are African-American.”
But in addition to this historical bias, there is a tremendous misunderstanding of scripture that permeates the Old South. For example, he continued, “slavery was justified by scripture”, but “not by a proper reading of scripture, it is by a misreading of scripture.”
In that same way now the death penalty is being justified by a misreading of scripture. “The death penalty in the United States cannot possibly be justified with the scriptures as they really are written. It's just an assumption. It's not real,” he said.
His visit to Paliano
Dale Recinella addressed numerous detainees at Paliano detention centre during his visit and he thanked them, telling them his visit there had been more beneficial to him than to them.
This, he said, is because of “the relief I feel knowing I'm not in a place where I'm going to get a call that somebody I care about has had their warrant signed and that I'm going to be going from here to death row.”
He recalled that two years ago, as soon as his plane had landed back at JFK airport on 12th June 2019, his phone rang and it was the warden telling him a man’s warrant had been signed the night before and he had asked for Dale as his spiritual advisor.”
Whereas while I’m here I am free of that, “as soon as I land in the states I'm always watching my phone to make sure that somebody I really care about hasn't been scheduled to be killed.”
Life sentence: worse than death row?
There is a debate in Italy about whether life sentence in prison can be considered a death penalty itself, with some saying it is actually worse than the death penalty. Dale notes that in his encyclical, Fratelli tutti, our own Pope Francis considers life imprisonment to be a "secret death penalty".
Dale agrees with the Pope, but the true problem, he said, is that “every guy I know on death row and every woman I know on death row, who is sitting there under a Sword of Damocles waiting to find out they're going to be the next one to be killed by the state would gladly take a life in prison sentence without possibility of parole.”
Dale explained that he has to work within the context of his country, not in the broader context of what is morally and theologically right, because unfortunately “we are not there yet”.
If we abolish life in prison right now, Dale notes, “we are going to have a much harder time getting rid of the death penalty”. Once we are rid of the death penalty, and only then “will I be ready to deal with life in prison.”
Where there is hope
And there is hope, concludes Brother Dale. “As Pope Francis says, our hope is not based on politics or on human beings,” because sometimes even human beings who are trying to do the right thing still disappoint us, he said.
“No”, he concluded. “Our hope is based on who Jesus Christ is and what he said he would do. And in and through Jesus Christ, I believe we will see the end of this horrible barbaric practice.”