A prison in Tallahassee, Florida 

By Dale S. Recinella

Sep 1 2023

Vatican Media presents a story by Dale Recinella, a former Wall Street finance lawyer who, along with his wife Susan, acts as a chaplain for prisoners in Florida.

How did I end up doing Death Row ministry? It’s not something a person ends up doing by accident. For me it was all because of a guy at our church in Tallahassee, an acquaintance and fellow lawyer named Thomas Horkan. “Tom”, as everyone calls him, is a seasoned lawyer with about twenty years’ experience in litigation in Miami. In 1969 he left all that behind and moved his family to Tallahassee, the state capital, to assist the Bishops of Florida in establishing a statewide organization to represent the Catholic Church in the public policy arena. As the founding executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference and one of the earliest parishioners at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, Tom is always looking for so-called volunteers to help with the millions of urgent tasks on his plate.

In 1988, Susan and I move with our children to Tallahassee. We move here from Miami, from the parish of St. Louis to the parish of Good Shepherd in Tallahassee. That is a big move. A big move geographically — an eight-hour drive on the freeway. And a big move in terms of change of culture. Leaving the Miami milieu of the so-called capital of the Caribbean for the Belle of the Confederacy, the deep South of the Florida panhandle. In Tallahassee, we are now living closer to Georgia than we had been to Cuba in south Miami.

Our new parish, Good Shepherd Catholic Church, has a large concrete apron outside the front doors of the church building. This is where people gather outside, before or after Mass. Usually with coffee and a doughnut after Mass. I usually try to enter and leave Mass through a different door than Tom uses. But on this particular Sunday, I am distracted by my kids, and I walk right into him. Thomas Horkan is waiting for me on the apron when I exit the 10 o’clock Mass. I think it’s fair to say, he collars me.

 “Recinella!” he barks in my direction, showing off a bit, that he knows my name and can pronounce it. “The Bishops of Florida, the Archbishop of Florida, need you.”

“What?” I stammer with no real response. I hoped he would just hit me up for the men’s club raffle or to call me on the carpet for the men’s bible study. “What now Tom?!”

“The Bishops of Florida have decided to file an amicus brief in a death penalty case, and they need you to write the first draft.”

I am beyond speechless. “Are you kidding me, Tom?! I handle project financing.” Tom shrugs off my concern with a half-hearted waive while I continue pleading for relief. “If the Bishops need an airport or a water and sewer system or a hospital …  call me. But I have not been in court as a lawyer since law school.”

“So, you are refusing to help?” Tom musters his Irish bluster into a thunderous clap of indignation.  “Should I tell the archbishop in Miami that you refuse to help?”

“Tom,” I ask in exasperation, realizing that this is going nowhere. “if I help, how long do I have to write a draft of the amicus brief? A year?”

“90 days,” he grunts disdainfully, “How in heaven’s name could it take longer than 90 days!”

I had never been involved with the death penalty, did not want to be involved with the death penalty. And I did not know a thing about the death penalty. I thought I did – but I did not.

“Fine. 90 days!” I relent sarcastically.”

I actually take some annual leave from my legal job and pick a study carol at the Florida State University Law School in Tallahassee, upstairs in their library. Even find out I need to make several trips to the University of Florida Law School in Gainesville to get some Hebrew sources.

At the end of 90 days, I deliver my draft amicus brief to Tom. When I ask him, Tom. were the Bishops pleased? he says, “Well, lawyer to lawyer, I was expecting something better. But they will go with it.”

What had happened accidentally, as a side effect of this research and writing excursion, was this: Even though I started this project not knowing a thing about the realities of the U.S. death penalty, I found out what a mess it is legally, what a mess it is morally and what a disaster it is for everybody It touches.

And so, by the time Susan, me and our children arrive in Macclenny, FL in 1998, after our time living overseas in Rome, Italy, I am ready to serve the church on death row ministering to the men that live in those six feet by nine feet cages. At that time, there are over 400 of them.

We learn that there are no provisions, in the Florida corrections system, to take care of the families of the condemned when they come to say goodbye to their loved one before the execution. My wife Susan steps forward and says that she is willing to make accompaniment of the families of the condemned her volunteer work on behalf of the church. To be there for them, when they come to say goodbye to their son, grandson, nephew, niece, or daughter. And for over two decades, that is what Susan has been doing as part of this ministry on behalf of the church.

Although the execution chamber and the death house are housed at Florida State Prison (FSP), most of the men on Florida’s death row are kept in cells on the other side of the New River at Union Correctional Institution (UCI).

UCI is a prison complex—a campus of buildings containing every level of security and classification: death row, disciplinary solitary confinement, protective custody, medical hospital, close custody, general population, even psychiatric solitary confinement.

The prisoners and staff together total almost the population of our new city. When the planned construction is completed, UCI will be larger than the city of Macclenny. The escort for my first visit to UCI is Fr. Joe Manniangat. He’s been coming to UCI twice a week for almost sixteen years.

As we enter the massive beige structure that houses most of Florida’s death row, a young female officer hands each of us an electronic device to clip on our belts. If we cease standing vertically, the black plastic box will sound an alarm. Another pod station and four heavy steel doors later, we are on the row. It is as hot as I’ve imagined hell to be.

Florida‘s August sun has been beating down for hours on the exterior wall and windows along the left side of the corridor. There is no shade because there are no trees. Trees are a security risk. Along the right side are the fifteen solitary cells, each with a ventilator fan in its back wall. The unintended effect is that the superheated air off the outside face of the wall is sucked in through the windows and circulated across the walkway into the cells. I have stepped into a solar convection oven.

Cell by cell we greet the man inside. All are dressed only in their undershorts, the attire of choice in a solar oven. Until we approach, most are lying on the concrete floor of their cells in a vain effort to find relief from the heat. It’s useless.

The scene is the same – corridor after corridor, wing after wing. And these are just the hundreds of men on death row. There are hundreds more in disciplinary confinement. I never imagined the impact of Florida’s summer heat on thousands of men locked in solitary steel cages in concrete boxes of buildings. No porch to retreat to for relief. No shade to walk to. Only relentless heat, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Within minutes, Father Joe and I are drenched in perspiration. We still have hours to go. As the sweat pours and the prayers flow, I find myself examining the men on the other side of the bars. Some look grandfatherly. A few are covered with tattoos. One who takes Communion has obscenities etched in his shoulder. The next, too young to shave, looks like a neighbor kid who would mow your lawn. The pervading experience is unreality.

Fr. Joe has a warm smile and a greeting for every man, Catholic reading material for anyone that wants it, and sacraments for those who are Catholic.

After 150 cells, barely a drop in the bucket, Fr. Joe and I lean against the cool of the metal door that leads off the row, waiting for the control station to release the locks.

“These are God’s children, our brothers,” he smiles, placing a gentle hand on my soggy shoulder and wiping his brow with the other. “That is the teaching of our Church.”

Then, moving his head in a sweeping gesture toward the hellish heat around us, he continues in a voice heavy with sadness and dismay, “But that also means we are supposed to treat them with dignity and respect.”

Yet, the horrendous heat and humidity is only the tip of the iceberg. The routine and barely acknowledged execution of the mentally ill is a corruption of every moral principle posed to justify and defend the death penalty. I expected such a circumstance to be a rare aberration. I am shocked to discover through my experiences that the immoral justification of executing the mentally ill is a prevalent subtext of the death penalty in the states that are using it. That truth hits me like a truck during the first year of my service for the church on the halls of Florida’s death row.

This horrible truth is driven home to me like a hammer blow to the head by the case of Thomas Provenzo. Thomas lived on the streets of Orlando, Florida. He had been severely mentally ill for many years, back to before his crime. A manifestation of his mental illness is a belief that he is Jesus Christ.

Clearly, in 1984, Provenzano is a severely mentally ill man struggling to exist in the rough survival of the fittest streets of Orlando. Then, Provenzano walks into the Orange County Courthouse, muttering threats against two police officers who charged him with disorderly conduct. Beneath his jacket, he has concealed a shotgun, an assault rifle, and a revolver. In his backpack are hundreds of rounds of ammunition. When the officers guarding the courthouse decide to search Provenzano, he opens fire, killing one of the officers and paralyzing two others.

Many avenues of critical analysis might have followed this tragedy.  For example, “why was such a sick man, who suffered from psychotic delusions and paranoid schizophrenia, able to acquire such weapons and ammunition in downtown Orlando?” Unfortunately, such questions were not to be part of the public discourse.

The issue monopolizing the day is whether it is legal in Florida to execute a man who is so mentally ill that he believes his is Jesus Christ. In fact, it is uncontroverted that he believed he is Jesus Christ before his crime, at the time of his crime and now on death row. The pro-death penalty politicians and pundits are vehement that there is no legal requirement that the condemned must know who he in fact is, nor that the condemned must not be psychotic.

The noise of these arguments reached all the way to the State capitol building in Tallahassee, There were those who were appalled by the imminent execution of a man who was certifiably mentally ill before he even committed his crime, was denied treatment for mental illness by the state, before he ever became violent, and was now to be killed by the same government that had refused to treat him.

Others railed against making excuses for the mentally ill, claiming that it amounts to coddling criminals. This bizarre assertion is fueled by the religious belief that mental illness is a hoax. It doesn’t exist. Or, to the extent that mental illness does exist, it is blameworthy morally because it results from choosing to let Satan play with your mind.           

A fed-up House lawmaker … Rep. Howard Futch, R-Indialantic, made the suggestion to fellow lawmakers at a House Criminal Justice and Corrections Council meeting.

“I told then that if he thinks he is Jesus Christ, why don’t we just crucify him,” Futch said. “I’d make him a cross, and we could take it out there to Starke and nail him up.” [i]

Thomas Provenzano was executed at Florida State Prison by lethal injection on June 21, 2000.

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[1] Jo Becker, “Lawmaker: Crucify Inmate”, St. Petersburg Times (Oct. 7, 1999). – Vatican News