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Dale and Susan Recinella surrounded by ceramics made by inmates at Paliano detention centre Dale and Susan Recinella surrounded by ceramics made by inmates at Paliano detention centre 

Death row spiritual advisor to Paliano inmates: thank you for allowing me to breathe

Dale Recinella, lay chaplain and spiritual advisor to Florida’s death row prisoners, visits the Paliano Detention Centre in Italy, a rehabilitative prison for around 70 people who have chosen the path to redemption through collaboration with the state.

By Francesca Merlo

“He spent 25 years kneeling on concrete floors to speak to death row inmates through the food flaps of their cells. That’s why his knees are weak”. Susan explains why inmate Giovanni felt the need to run over and help her husband Dale down the stairs.

Who’s who?

Giovanni is one of the ceramicists at Paliano detention centre, housing 70 prisoners. Dale and Susan Recinella are visitors, husband and wife, and a wonderful team of two who have dedicated their lives to supporting prisoners on death row and their families. Once a finance lawyer on Wall Street, Dale is now a lay chaplain and spiritual advisor to inmates awaiting execution in Florida.

Paliano

There is no capital punishment in Italy, and situated in a 15th century fort, Paliano is like no other detention centre in the country. As Vatican News learned on a recent tour of the facility with Dale Recinella, it's like no other detention centre in the world.

Ceramics, carpentry, iconography, steelwork, embroidery, candle making, a pasta kitchen, a pizza oven and a soon-to-be-inaugurated library. This prison is what all prisons should look like, says Dale Recinella.

“It is living proof that rehabilitation exists, and it works.”

Dale and Susan with the prison's warden
Dale and Susan with the prison's warden

The path to redemption

Dale assists prisoners throughout their years on death row, the final years of their lives, until the very moment of the execution. He says the mentality is the US is: “Well if we ain’t gonna kill ‘em then what are we gonna do with ‘em?”

Capital punishment was abolished in Italy in 1994, and although some of the inmates at Paliano detention centre have committed heinous crimes, their first step towards redemption comes from the peculiarity that they are all what are known as “collaborators of justice” (from the Italian collaboratori di giustizia): all ex-mafiosi who have turned to justice and who now give information in exchange for small benefits.

In each prison, collaborators, also known as “repentants” (from the Italian, pentiti) are separated from the rest of the prisoners. This is for their own safety. Brother Dale says that the equivalent in the US is “high-security”. These men are considered traitors, and with the mafia being mainly family organisations, it is often their families that they have “betrayed”. In Paliano they are protected, both from society and from their difficult past. But repentance is the first step to recreating a relationship with your conscience and with God, and these men and women at Paliano, according to Dale Recinella, are “on the right track”.

Dale’s discourse

The final part of the tour took place in a small room where the inmates have their Christmas dinners. Here Brother Dale stood up and addressed around 30 men and 2 women detainees. "I am here because after seeing the horror of death in my country, I needed to meet you. More than you think”.

He tells the inmates he can't wait to go back to the US to be able to reply to those who ask “well if we ain’t gonna kill ‘em then what are we gonna do with ‘em?”.

"I'm going to tell them about you", he says. "Coming here has served me more than it has you", he added.

Dales speaks to detainees in Paliano detention centre
Dales speaks to detainees in Paliano detention centre

He spoke openly, touchingly, deeply. “When I first started as a spiritual advisor in 1998 the inmates would make fun of me as I walked down the corridor,” he said. He changed his tone, and imitated them: “‘Didn’t the Catholic Church have anything better to do with you?’”

After finding out about Dale’s history as a finance lawyer one of them laughed and exclaimed: “Well that’s good news! If Jesus forgave a greedy, money-hungry person like you, then he’ll have no trouble forgiving me!”

“He was right!”, said Dale. “Who is Jesus going to forgive? The greedy finance lawyer or the 18-year-old, who when drunk and high tried to rob a grocery store and who in the panic accidentally fired a shot and killed someone?”

The first murmurs of agreement came from the otherwise silent inmates listening to Dale speak. Then silence fell again as he described Florida’s death row, which is located on the border with the state of Georgia.

Brother Dale travels to this remote place “suitable only for alligators and not for humans” even when the temperatures rocket. “There’s no air conditioning on death row”, says Brother Dale, the mentality is: “they’re going to die anyway, so why should we spend money on them?” The place described by the American chaplain is a circle of hell. The cells are two metres wide and three metres deep. In one corner there is a toilet and a steel shelf serving as a bed. On the bed, a too-thin-to-be-a-mattress mattress. “That way, if they try and hide anything underneath it, it will show”, explains Dale.

The execution of Ángel Nieves Díaz

Brother Dale then told the chilling story of Ángel’s botched execution in 2006, the year Dale says his nightmares began.

Tears came to his eyes as he recalled Ángel’s 29 minutes of hell. He was looking right at Dale, because that’s what Dale had told him to do. “The witness room is full of people who want to see them killed”, he explained. The defendant is only allowed two people in the witness room: their lawyer and their spiritual advisor. Not even their families are allowed in, at least, not in Florida.

“The lawyers are usually in their offices trying, until the very last minute, to find a way to save them. So, I’m the only one there for them. I always sit in the same place: front right, and I tell them that’s where they should look. I tell them to look at me and only me, and they do.”

What is known as the "death chamber" where inmates are executed in Texas, USA
What is known as the "death chamber" where inmates are executed in Texas, USA

In the last 50 years, over 189 people have been saved from unjust execution at the very last minute. “A few of them already had the needles in their arms. How many have we missed?” asked Brother Dale. You could have heard a pin drop.

“Thank you”, he then said, again and again, because, “coming here has allowed me to breathe.”

Question time

The floor was then opened to questions. “How long are people kept on death row before they are executed?” someone asked. “Are the states in which capital punishment is still legal more democrat or republican?” “How does a death row inmate feel?” These were some of the questions the inmates asked.

The last question was not a question at all: “You said your visit here has been more useful to you than to us, because you can go back to the US and tell them about us. But I think it has been more useful to us. I don’t think we will be complaining about what we don’t have anymore. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we have realised just how privileged we are. So, thank you.”

It didn’t take long for everyone to be up on their feet, clapping and thanking brother Dale who hugged his wife, Susan, who so clearly understands and shares all of his pain.

Dale and Susan are seen with staff and volunteers of Paliano detention centre
Dale and Susan are seen with staff and volunteers of Paliano detention centre
04 October 2021, 15:31