Written on: January 27, 2016
“My earliest recollection of visiting a jail was in 1947. I was 7 years old and wanted to see where Daddy worked. My father, a police captain in the Lowell, Massachusetts police department, took me to his workplace. I recall the small jail cells surrounded by thick bars. My heart ached when I thought of someone cramped into a tiny space. I wondered how a person could endure such confinement. This startling image stayed with me.”
Sister Jean Liston, GNSH
Over the years, my interest and concern for the plight of prisoners increased. I began to read about the growing number of individuals who were enmeshed in the prison system. This led to a closer examination of the legal issues surrounding incarceration as well as a personal need to take action. This desire became acute in 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated in the United States. Each week the National Catholic Reporter listed the names of prisoners who would be executed in the coming weeks. I clipped the notice from the paper and placed it on the corner of my desk. Praying for these individuals was one of my priorities.
I continued to research and study the issues surrounding imprisonment and the increasing use of the death penalty. I learned that prisoners’ race, their education, economic status, intellectual ability, and the quality of their defense were a few of the factors influencing the outcome of a trial. In addition, those convicted and sentenced to death were disproportionately members of minority groups. Becoming convinced that there were many injustices that needed to be addressed, I sensed that God was urging me to take action.
In the late 1990’s, Michael, one of my former students collaborated in a crime which could have resulted in the death penalty. Dedicated public defenders worked on his case. Because Michael had named me as his ‘spiritual advisor,’ I was contacted to help. I visited him in prison, continued to correspond with him, and testified at his trial.Ultimately, Michael was found guilty but was granted life in prison with the possibility of parole.
While in prison, Michael has been a cooperative inmate. He has deepened his relationship with God and often notes his personal mantra ~ Proverbs 3, “Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding.” Michael has continued his education and learned a trade. He is currently awaiting the Parole Board’s decision on his eligibility for release.
What if Michael had received the death penalty and had been executed? His opportunities for reconciliation with God and personal growth would have been lost.
As Pope Francis wrote, “Every life is sacred. Every person is endowed with inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
Support for the death penalty has declined in recent years. While California, Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Pennsylvania have the highest number of inmates on death row, 155 inmates on death row have been exonerated due, in most cases, to DNA testing. 19 states have moratoriums on the death penalty. Texas and Georgia continue to have executions, despite the flaws in the administration of lethal injections as well as clear evidence that a number of those who are to be executed are mentally challenged or have had inadequate legal representation.
As is evident, work still needs to be done:
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” can no longer stand as an acceptable judicial standard. Anyone can become involved by studying the issues, voicing an opinion, writing to an inmate, and/or participating in organizations and protests.
It has been over six decades since my first visit to a jail. This experience has lingered and sparked a sense of compassion (and outrage!) within me. Each person is made in the image and likeness of God; therefore, everyone deserves to be treated with respect, especially the accused who must face the American justice system.
Sister Jean Liston, GNSH has worked tirelessly for a repeal of the death penalty. To see more about this issue, please click here.