By Dale Recinella
Barter may be praised as virtuous in the outside world of our U.S. free-enterprise economy. But inside death row, barter is strictly forbidden. Just like currency is forbidden. And for the same reason: security.
Everything and anything that can be traded as a commodity in lieu of money is strictly controlled. That includes stamps, cards, and coffee. And until recently, cigarettes. Now cigarettes are outright banned.
“Are you kidding me, Brother Dale?” responds a death row inmate who has smoked heavily most of his life and is one of Florida’s longest-serving death row inmates. He is not accepting my wooden recitation of the Department’s health-based justification for this latest deprivation. “Do you think I’m stupid enough to believe the State of Florida gives a frack about my health? I’m here so they can kill me!”
He is well over six foot and, unlike me, can reach above the mesh to grab the cell door bars without even standing on tiptoe. His clenched fists are gripping the bars above his mesh and rotating his knuckles back and forth in 180-degree cycles. “I may be on Death Row with severe mental illness, but I’m not crazy enough to believe that!”
This particular fellow is painfully aware of his severe mental illness which has resulted in his many trips to Chattahoochee, the panhandle locale and nickname for Florida State Hospital. That is the state’s most infamous mental hospital with both civil and forensic departments. He was sent there even before his death sentence and several times since. He was resident in a psychiatric hospital in another state before even setting foot in Florida. In our frequent cell-front discussions during my death row rounds, he is fond of expressing his sentiments about the conditions and operations of Death Row, always with full irony and disdain.
“They say I’m crazy, but at least I know this hellhole makes no sense. And that the way they run it makes no sense. Who’s crazier—them or me?”
I realize even as he is speaking that the energy of his emphatic closing is directed not at me, so much as to the embedded ceiling microphones and the corridor cameras. Then, he stops looking toward the devices that connect our distant audiences for Florida’s first version of reality tv. He rivets his steel-blue eyes directly on mine. “Lucky for you, you are my homeboy, and I even like you sometimes.”
Homeboy is prison slang for someone who is from the same hometown. We both hail from the Detroit area in the state of Michigan. But men with broken motivations frequently have learned in life to measure their power not by the strength of their positive relationships, but by the magnitude of the harm they can unleash through indulging their worst selves. I reinterpret his next statement as a reminder to me of that strength.
“So, forget the State of Florida and the fracking D-O-C. What do you – Brother Dale – think of that crazy explanation for taking away our cigarettes?”
My less wise self wants to quip, “Well, cigarettes are bad for your health” But in a split second my wiser self rejects that impulse as a pointless death wish. My experience at death row cell-front tells me it’s better to recognize his power to cause me harm -- even in this situation of his total powerlessness about losing his cigarettes.
“Look!” my voice is almost pleading. His barely-a-smile smirk tells me that my acknowledgment of my vulnerability has registered. “What I think is irrelevant and could get me expelled if spoken out loud.”
His smirk broadens into a full ear-to-ear smile confirming that he hears the real message behind my words. if you make me talk at cell front about what I think of this crazy situation, you will end my prison ministry and end the holiday cards for everyone. That unspoken message is the one to which he responds.
“We wouldn’t want to do that, now, would we Brother Dale.”
Sarcasm is the privilege of the victor. I expect the slam-dunk putdown is already on his lips. He does not disappoint.
“If that happened, you might have to go back to practicing law, which you couldn’t have been very good at, or you wouldn’t be here delivering holiday cards to me.”
He belly-laughs, loudly savoring the sting on me of his words. He could not imagine how many people at church and among my former colleagues say exactly the same thing. Their barbs have helped to toughen my hide, making me a better cell-front volunteer. I do not respond or defensively deflect his verbal assault. His figurative punch lands without any reply except my warm and sincere smile.
“Do you have any other questions for me before I move onto the next cell?” My intonation and tilt of the head communicate an unspoken I sure hope we are done. But we are not yet done.
“Yeah … are you going to cross me off your card list?”
“Absolutely not. You are my brother.”
“So, I’ll still get cards from you even though I said things you didn’t like?”
“Sometimes my brothers in Christ say things I don’t like, but they are still my brothers. And, that includes you.”
He manages a thumbs up and then smiles as broadly as he can, “Anyway, you can’t take anything I say seriously. You know I’m crazy.”
“Noted!” I smile back, pretending to make a note in my file, while reaching over the mesh to give him a goodbye hand-squeeze. But this time he lets me have the last word. “And I’m sure that all the folks listening in from the north half of Florida have noted it too.”
A few months later he greets me at his cell door, making sure I will pause to chat. “So what’s a godson anyway?”
“It’s a spiritual thing – where you are not my physical son, but if I prepare you to receive sacraments, like Baptism and Communion, you become a spiritual son to me.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Spiritual sonship lasts forever. It doesn’t end when we die. It just becomes more perceptible to us. Do you want to be baptized into the Family of God?”
“How do we do that?”
“First, you have to prepare your heart and your mind to understand that it will change everything.”
“Does that mean I will get out of this cell?”
“No. I’m sorry I wasn’t more clear. It will change everything about your relationship with God.”
“Me and God are okay.”
“Then, you should be fine having God as an adopted Father.”
“So, what do I have to do?”
“We will request from the state prison chaplain for you and I to start meeting regularly to go over what Catholic Christians believe.”
“If you decide you believe that too, then you can request to be baptized.”
“How much does this cost? Do I have to pay dues like in a union?
“It doesn’t cost any money. But it requires that you commit your entire remaining life to God – Heart, Mind and Soul.”
“So, like a slave to a master?”
“A master different from any other master you ever heard of. Jesus is our Master. But He says He came not to be served by us, but rather to serve us.”
“So, do I have to pay for the cookies you bring around?”
“They are not cookies. They are communion wafers, until they are consecrated by the priest at Mass. Then they become the Body of Jesus Christ.”
“And, that’s when you charge for them! Right?”
“No. We couldn’t possibly pay the price for the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. He already paid it for us.”
“So where is the money in this scheme? Why do you and the priest do this?”
‘“Believe me, Brother, it’s not for the money.”
“And I’ll be your brother…for real…no joke?”
“No joke. Jesus meant what He said.”
An awkward silence sets in while the soon-to-be newest member of the Family of God digests the strange things he has just heard for the first time.
“And I won’t see a charge for this on my canteen bill, right Brother Dale? Lord knows I can’t afford your corporate lawyer hourly rates.”
“That’s for sure!” I laugh with him at myself. “In this new life even I couldn’t afford my old hourly rates. Fortunately, when you become part of the Family of God, you will qualify for the family discount.”
“Oh great!” he feigns dismay. “It better be a 100% discount.”
“Hey, it’s a package deal. You get Jesus for free, and Jesus throws me in for free, too.”
“Only time will tell how much of a deal that last part is.”
My homeboy from Southeastern Michigan was baptized at his cell front with the priest pouring Holy Water on his head from a Styrofoam® cup. Then Communion and Confirmation – all with us reaching through the bars of his cell door.
When I first met Gary at his cell front in 1998, he was the longest-serving death row inmate in the U.S. When I said goodbye to him as he succumbed to illness and natural death a decade-and-a-half later, he was still the longest-serving death row inmate in the U.S.
His last words to me were a warning: Don’t spend so much time here after I’m gone. This place will make you crazy.