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Jesuit Father George Williams serves as the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison. (Photo by Lt. Sam Robinson)
Father George Williams, SJ: Minister of Mercy

By Christina Gray

March 10, 2015 — Despite its medieval appearance and echo-filled interior, San Quentin State Prison’s “death row” is no cathedral. It’s a five-story human warehouse of lost hope squatting on the rocky shores of San Francisco Bay. The words “Condemned Row,” painted in black Gothic script over the front door, serve as a reminder of this reality.

Nonetheless, hope is something that Jesuit Father George Williams, the California prison’s Catholic chaplain, has to offer men currently condemned to death for their brutal crimes.

Approximately 125 of the 750 maximum-security inmates wait for their turn to attend one of the two Masses offered here each week. Up to 18 at a time shuffle in restraints to the “chapel” — a windowless old shower room retrofitted with heavy metal caging and six rows of bolted down benches.

Dressed in both priestly vestments and a Kevlar vest, Fr. Williams, 56, looks out at his congregation from within a padlocked metal cage of his own, a little larger than a phone booth. The men, many scarred and pale, are silent as they gaze at the consecrated host lifted into the glare of the florescent bulb overhead.

Fr. Williams says it’s at this point in the Mass when he often imagines the light of Christ streaming forth from the host, illuminating the darkness of death row and the souls within.

“When I raise the host I don’t see heinous murderers standing in front of me, I see human beings,” he says. “If his body was not given up for them, too, then what difference would our faith make? What a gift I have been given to be able to bear witness to the mercy of Christ embodied in this sacrament in such a dark place.”

At San Quentin, Fr. Williams brings a message of hope to those who need it most.

Fr. Williams with San Quentin State Prison in the background. (Lt. Sam Robinson/San Quentin State Prison)

A Path for Healing

Fr. Williams first felt the call to religious life while growing up in North Haven, Connecticut. In 1987, at age 30, he left a career in the Air Force to become a Jesuit brother and chose prison ministry as an “experiment” at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk. It was there, while peering through a narrow slot to talk to a man in solitary confinement, that Fr. Williams says he “realized that Jesus was showing me his face.”

Fr. Williams teaches theology classes to inmates at San Quentin.

Fr. Williams later decided to become a priest because of his experience with prison ministry; he was ordained in 2004. As a Jesuit priest, his mission is to go where the need is greatest, Fr. Williams says. “Nowhere is there a greater need than in the prison system that holds more than 2 million mostly poor and often disenfranchised people,” he said. “I feel a call to respond to that need.”

Fr. Williams notes that beginning in the 1970s, the U.S. prison system shifted its focus from rehabilitation to retribution. Convicted men and women began cycling in and out of prison — angry, violent, drug-addicted, mentally ill or spiritually empty — essentially coming out worse than they went in. Today, the United States holds the largest incarcerated population in the world, with more than 2.2 million prisoners in state and federal prisons.

A 2000 statement on prisoner rehabilitation by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said: “Physical, behavioral and emotional healing happens sooner and with more lasting results if accompanied by spiritual healing. Access to worship and religious formation is … a significant element in rebuilding lives and changing behavior.”

For his part, Fr. Williams says that his job isn’t to fix prisoners or undo the damage they have done. He doesn’t proselytize inmates, but rather meets them where they are. “I offer them a path for healing their souls and making peace with themselves and with God,” he explains.

Recalling his first walk to death row after his arrival at San Quentin in 2010, Fr. Williams says that when he looked up through the razor wire to the rafters he spotted a dozen red-winged blackbirds.

“Their song is a reminder that even in all this oppression and darkness, God is here.”

The original version of this story appeared in Columbia magazine.

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