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'We are throwing people away,' Sister Prejean tells conference on prison ministry

By Val Hymes
[Episcopal News Service]  Conferees attending the Prison Ministry Task Force Conference entitled 'Out of Darkness into Light,' held October 17-18 in Baltimore, were challenged to confront their legislators and representatives with facts about the death penalty.

They also were urged to confront prison conditions, poor neighborhoods, excessive telephone rates for inmates, and a lack of aftercare for released inmates and ministries to prison staffers and inmates' children.

Maryland Bishop Robert W. Ihloff welcomed those who came to hear Sister Helen Prejean, author of the best-selling book Dead Man Walking.

'People with money don't go to death row,' Prejean said. 'People who live in poor neighborhoods get shot all the time. Where is our outrage?'

She stopped in Baltimore in her multi-state journey for signatures on a petition for a moratorium on the death penalty that now has more than 500,000 signatures. She challenged the conferees to tell their legislators that murder rates are lower in states where the death penalty is banned than in states that employ it; that the death penalty costs more than life in prison; that it is racially inequitable, and that the United States is the only western democracy that executes offenders.

She said her introduction to death row started when someone asked her to write a letter to a condemned inmate who had no visitors and received no mail. 'We are throwing people away,' she said. 'Prison is the place of the untouchables. Who would Jesus visit today?'

'We have legitimized and legalized vengeance,' she added, but 'there is a crack in our Berlin wall.' She said, 'We have a cloud of witnesses who want to follow Jesus in forgiveness and we have the facts.'

Forgiving murderers

Kitty Irwin of Radford, Virginia, forgave the family acquaintance who murdered her 16-year-old daughter, Tara Rose, two years ago.

'Why do we want to kill anyone?' she asked in her keynote address. 'We are more like the murderers when we get together as a group to kill.'

Even after she developed breast cancer two weeks after Tara Rose was buried, and before she knew that the defendant, Jeffrey Thomas, came from a family of schizophrenics, she forgave him.

'I knew what I had to do,' she said. 'I got up in court and looked at Jeff and said, 'I forgive you for what you have done.' And for the first time, he cried.'

Another of the conference participants was 84-year-old Dottie Toulson of Baltimore, who said from her wheelchair, 'Forgiveness is a gift from God.' She said she opposed the death penalty for the inmate who killed her prison officer husband during a riot. 'That's God's job,' she said.

'Cast out demons'

The Rev. Jackie Means, director of prison ministry for the Episcopal Church, said there were three executions in two weeks in her state of Indiana. 'Where is everybody?' she demanded. 'We talk the talk a lot, but we need to walk the walk.'

A former nurse and prison chaplain, Means said Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold has promised to visit a death row next year. 'I want him to cast out the demons, to bless the building, touch the staff and look into the eyes of someone facing death. Until he does, nothing will change,'

she said.

She listed successful ministries around the nation, including the Magdalene Hospitality House in Cumberland for families of inmates, the parish inside Louisiana State Penitentiary, the Kairos Horizon interfaith communities inside Florida prisons, and camps for inmates' children.

'Every diocese has a retreat center. Every diocese should have a camp for these innocent children,' she said.

Telephone 'tax'

Other speakers included Annapolis attorney Frank Dunbaugh, who described the struggle over Maryland's telephone 'tax,' or 'commissions,' which drive up the cost of inmates' collect calls home and to their attorneys to as much as 71 cents a minute. Corrections officials say the 'commissions' paid to the prisons by the phone companies are necessary to pay for 'essential' programs like education, recreation and chaplain salaries.

'They are just plain kickbacks' paid by the telephone companies to obtain the contracts, said Dunbaugh, a former deputy attorney general for the U.S. Justice Department, now the director of the Maryland Justice Policy Institute. 'It's an unlawful tax' that affects the families severely, he said, adding that 'the state constitution says only the legislature may impose a tax.'

'Death Row Live'

Michael Stark, coordinator of the Baltimore-Washington chapters of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, described the 'Death Row Live' sessions CEDP has sponsored since 1997. Inmates on death row at the 'Supermax' prison in Baltimore talk on a speaker phone so chapter members and others may interview them. The proper name of the institution is the Maryland Correctional Attitude Center.

'It rips off the shroud of labels,' said Stark, 'that they are animals and a constant threat. We hear about their dreams, their losses, their poetry. It transforms the listeners.'

He said the work of the volunteers--many in area colleges--is overwhelming. 'It took only ten years to double the number of prisoners behind bars, now at 2 million with 3,700 on death row despite the fact that thousands have marched in protest,' he added.

Yet he reported that support for the death penalty is declining, even after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, with the options of sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

The conference included book-signings and sales, networking, displays and a closing Eucharist celebrated by Means.

For more information, see (Outreach, Prison Ministry) or email