“Gentlemen, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has established a new Religious Practices Policy, as of February 1, 2018. The main one that applies to your Catholic service is that no offender will be allowed to consume the wine. Only the priest may do so.” He looked away, as if he had created a list of potential responses to our reaction.
Angel’s thin mustache turned down with the corners of his mouth. “You gotta be kidding me. We litigated this before. New policy? Right. We’ll see about this crap. I’ll write to the Vatican again. We’ll just have to sue you guys again since you’ve forgotten.”
Disgusted, Jeff dropped the front legs of his chair to the floor and unfolded his arms. “We’ll just have to write some grievances.”
“You cannot grieve policy,” said the chaplain.
“Really?” Jeff sat up. “What is this, a friggin’ tyranny? We can’t write grievances about policy? That’s what they’re for!”
We have to write a grievance just to get stays of execution. Writing an Administrative Remedy Procedure, or grievance, is the necessary first step before any litigation can move forward. Even if you want to sue the prison because the guards are beating you in full restraints – you have to write a grievance first. Of course doing so is a ridiculous waste of time; the patent response by the administration is to quote the very policy you are claiming has been violated or is unconstitutional; and they claim their officers are doing the job they’ve been paid to do. Grievances on the inside mean nothing, but courts on the outside require us to fill them out anyway.
Keith, Andrew and me sat and watched, knowing the chaplain didn’t really care what we thought or did, so long as it did not involve him. With a few exceptions, the chaplaincy has never really been there for us. They’re seldom more than another type of guard enforcing a specific set of rules.
Sensing it was time to move on, the priest cleared his throat and began Mass, reciting the familiar greeting and making the sign of the cross. “Saints of God. We gather in celebration . . .”
For the entirety of my nineteen years on death row I have attended Catholic Mass and celebrated the Eucharist – both the host and wine – on Thursday afternoons. There has never been a problem with, or abuse of, the Holy Sacrament by anyone on death row or anyone in the general population. The amount we consume is mixed with water – as is required by the rite—and never more than a sip, if that much. Getting a bureaucracy like the prison system to understand this requires a court.
Before the early 90s there was no Catholic Mass on death row until Angel, a devout Catholic from New York, wrote the Vatican and explained how the chaplaincy at the prison refused to acknowledge Catholicism as a Christian faith, or allow a priest to deliver Mass at the prison. It took a few months, but Angel received a letter from the Vatican representative who asked for a detailed account of the anti-Catholic sentiment at the prison. Angel responded and, about six months later, the first Catholic priest delivered Mass on NC’s death row; and one has done so – hearing confessions, delivering Mass and conveying the Holy Eucharist – every week since then.
Of the original members in our small church only Angel, Jeff and me remain. Keith, Ryan and Andrew are our newest brethren, though Andrew is Greek Orthodox. The others I was confirmed with in 2000 have since been executed or succumbed to cancer. We are a small group because the chaplaincy refuses to allow our services to be open for just any prisoner to attend.
Over the years we have experienced a number of petty slights and restrictions on the Catholic faith that are not experienced by Protestant denominations. While most Christian religious programs in prison are intended to be inclusive and serve all prisoners, it’s because they are sponsored almost exclusively by Baptists. Catholic prison ministry is rare, and typically rebuffed or undermined by the Religious Affairs Committee within the NCDPS.
We have received mixed reactions from the Church on this latest affront and ban on our receipt of the Blood of Christ. The previous bishop, Monsignor Burbridge, before transferring to another diocese, told us “The grace of Christ is present in both the host and the wine.” Some of the priests agreed. Some of the deacons disagreed.
The problem is less about whether we are receiving the full grace of God conferred in our celebration of the Last Supper, it has little to do with the ingrained disapproval of Catholicism’s spread into southern W.A.S.P states; our conflict is a continuing erosion of fundamental rights justified under the guise of “security”, or as Jeff pointed out: tyranny in the shape of public safety. Of course a sip of watered wine has nothing to do with safe prisons, but the programs themselves do. Maybe, rather than doing everything in our power to weaken and curtail rehabilitative programs the chaplaincy and prison administration could improve volunteer-based programs and facilitate Catholic prison ministry. Anything has to be better than ignoring the very problems that led to violence in NC prisons in 2017, then covering it up with the concern for better staffing and security. Try some better policies.