American Christians were once strongly in favor of capital punishment, but now they find themselves increasingly conflicted. After a judge sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the Boston Marathon bombings, religious leaders in the city found themselves on both sides of the issue. Lawmakers in Nebraska just passed a bill to ban the death penalty there, which makes it the first conservative state to do so in four decades. And Christian leaders such as Jay Sekulow and Pat Robertson have provided support for movements like Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.
In such a moment, Reverend Earl Smith has decided to speak out. When Smith became chaplain of San Quentin in 1983, he was the youngest ever hired by the state of California. While there, he played chess with Charles Manson, negotiated truces between gangs, and witnessed many executions. In 2000, he was named National Correctional Chaplain of the Year and now serves as chaplain of the San Francisco 49ers and Golden State Warriors. Here we discuss his views on justice, America’s correctional system, and his new book, Death Row Chaplain: Unbelievable True Stories from America’s Most Notorious Prison.
RNS: Describe what day-to-day life is like for death row inmates at San Quentin. Would you consider it humane?
ES: Each day on death row is different, yet each day is the same. Your lunch is served with your breakfast. Most days are spent watching television, sleeping or reading. Exercise is an option on certain days. Religious services are offered once a week on a rotating basis. The only area that actually has a chapel is East Block, which accommodates 24 inmates. Communication from cell to cell is done through yelling or an inmate mail system called a “kite” on a “fish line”. In only one of the three areas in San Quentin housing condemned inmates, inmates are allowed some opportunities to mingle during various parts of the day.
RNS: Tell us about your relationship with Charles Manson? What was your assessment of his spiritual state?