Forgotten Families? A Visit to Death Row
- 2009 18 Sep
Kevin's eyes were dark, wide…and sad. Sad beyond anything I'd ever seen in one so young. It was obvious he had experienced far too much in his brief four or five years of life. And though he undoubtedly didn't understand why things were as they were, he knew enough to realize his life wasn't like that of other boys his age.
I met Kevin briefly nearly fifteen years ago, and I haven't seen him again since, though I've often wondered what became of him. A child who sees his father only once a month under such stringent conditions has a tough road ahead of him, to say the least.
My one-time meeting with Kevin and several others, including his mother, took place on San Quentin's infamous Death Row, a place that has housed such inmates as Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. I had been invited to come to the Row one Sunday afternoon, to meet and talk with one of the inmates and to learn more about the prison ministry in which I was so deeply involved at the time. Though I had mixed emotions about going, I readily accepted.
As expected, I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get inside the Row's visiting area, more even than the usual number of hoops required to gain entrance into any other correctional facility. But the inmate I met with, whose wife had escorted me inside, had become a devout Christian since his arrest and conviction years earlier, so our visit was a joyful one. Even the correctional officers commented on the deep and genuine faith of this particular inmate, referring to him as "the preacher" and proclaiming how he freely shared that faith with anyone who would listen—prisoner or guard alike.
But it was the families of the inmates who most caught my attention. Though we occasionally hear of someone who was falsely convicted of a crime and eventually proven innocent due to new DNA technology or some other breakthrough, for the most part I realize that nearly every resident of San Quentin's Death Row is there because he murdered someone. But guilty or not, repentant or not, most have families somewhere—some who at least occasionally come to visit them, some who don't. Whatever the personal family situations, I couldn't help but wonder at the pain those families endured.
Now I've always been a strong victim's advocate, and my heart goes out to the families of those who have lost loved ones as a result of a violent crime. But that day on Death Row opened my eyes to the unique trauma experienced by those whose father or son, husband or brother, prayed for a miracle even as he counted his days until he walked the "green mile." As a result, I have become a supporter of Angel Tree and other ministries to families of those who are incarcerated. If you could have seen the look on little Kevin's face that day as he visited his daddy on Death Row, you'd understand and join me.
Of course, I've had many experiences during my jail/prison ministry days that affected me just as strongly as my encounter with Kevin, one of which was the opportunity to interview Charles "Tex" Watson, formerly of the Manson Family. Though Tex was one of the actual murderers of both the Tate and LaBianca families that awful night so many years ago, he has now become a strong believer and ministers to many who live in the dark world that exists behind bars. On another occasion, I had the opportunity to help David Berkowitz (formerly known as "Son of Sam" but who has now become a Christian and as such is known as "Son of Hope") edit his prison memoirs, which are now published. I can tell you without hesitation that I have no doubt of the sincerity of either of these men's faith.
Both of these experiences were real epiphanies for me, as I saw firsthand what God can do with those who would often be considered unredeemable. But as we know, with God nothing is impossible. I now pray for those within the prison system whose lives have been changed by a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ and who now work to share that encounter with others. Some of the greatest evangelizing and discipling I've ever witnessed is carried out by these transformed inmates.
I know. I'm walking a fine line here, between justice and mercy, and I am not even getting close to expressing an opinion on the death penalty issue. I am simply trying to bring a fresh awareness of families whose loved ones—for whatever reason—are behind bars, families who might otherwise be forgotten. I pray the result will be that it helps us all reach out to the Kevins of this world, as well as the David Berkowitzes and Tex Watsons, even as we humbly respect the law, defend the victims, and deal justly and mercifully when it comes to crime. For isn't that what God has called us all to do?
He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NKJV)
September 18, 2009
Kathi Macias is the author of nearly thirty books and numerous articles, including My Son, John, which deals with a woman whose mother is a murder victim and her grown son, the perpetrator. My Son, John contains resources for prisoners, their families, and those who minister to them. Kathi can be reached via her website at www.kathimacias.com or her blog http://kathieasywritermacias.blogspot.com/. You can hear Kathi on her blogtalkradio program, "Write the Vision," every Thursday evening from 6-7 p.m. Pacific Time at www.theicn.com.