For some reason, I have never written about my ministry at Sterling Correctional Facility (above) on the Eastern Plains of Colorado. It’s an extremely high-security prison in Sterling, CO. I was once stationed as a Catholic priest here about 10 years ago. Sterling contained Colorado’s criminals who were on death-row. However, two years ago (to the week) Governor Polis abolished the death penalty. This was obviously several years after I left the facility. (Notice that the Federal-crimes death-row criminals are located in Colorado at infamous facility called Supermax.) In any case, I used to go to the high-security Sterling Correctional Facility a few times a month to hear confessions, lead a Bible study and sometimes offer Holy Mass. This location held many of Colorado most violent criminals including murderers and rapists and sexual predators.
I was never called to ministry into solitary confinement and I never ministered to anyone who was on death-row. But I did see someone let out of their solitary confinement cell for his one hour of recreation in seeing the sunlight. Similar to the above picture, I was on the main floor and he was on the second level. I looked up and saw him walking around the recreation cell that was perhaps 12 feet by 12 feet. He walked around like a tiger in a cage. I asked one of the guards about what it’s like to work with people in solitary confinement. He explained to me that the prisoners are often so catatonic that they have to be drug out of the cell to have their hair cut or nails trimmed. Essentially, solitary confinement is a slow torture.
St. Joseph Cafasso (1811-1860) was an Italian saint known as the “saint of the gallows.” He ministered to men on death row and he had a 100% success rate in convincing criminals about to be executed to make a confession. St. Cafasso even assured these penitents making life confessions to him that if they also accepted the death penalty in abandonment to Divine Providence, they would avoid not only hell, but even Purgatory. Many others saints coached and comforted those who were executed including St. Francis Xavier and even the famous story of St. Catherine of Siena and her beloved criminal. None of these saints had any problem with the death penalty, first because the Bible and Magisterium promote it and secondly because they saw it lead to many people’s salvation.
When you have a timer on a countdown over your head, you tend to repent more than if you’re under a slow burn in solitary confinement. Those in the solitary-confinement cells (like those I was near in Sterling) were violent criminals being tortured into losing their minds so that they could never make a confession. On the other hand, the old-school priests who supported the death penalty saw many criminals repent and have their souls saved for eternity.
You tell me which is more merciful.