We learned about the secret machinations at Clinton Correctional. More recently, we were at the new film "The Stanford Prison Experiment." That depicted how even a simulated prison setting can transform relatively normal beings into monsters and emotional slaves.
So, Rev. Earl Smith's book about being a chaplain for 23 years at San Quentin arrived at the ideal time. Published last May, "Death Row Chaplain" covers a lot more pain and redemption than just took place among just those with a death penalty.
In the process Smith gives his take on the charisma of Charlie Mason, how Black Panthers Geronimo Pratt and Huey Newton wound up helping each other, and how he himself wound up forgiving inmate Steven Moore who had shot him six times. Of course, the death row stories are the most moving, though.
Smith, for example, recounts how thug Robert Alton Harris found peace before he was executed in the gas chamber. I bet I wasn't alone crying when Harris sent letters asking the families of those he murdered for forgiveness. One, Marilyn Clark, refused. She came to witness the execution. Through Smith, Harris again asked her forgiveness in the visitors' area. Again she refused. After his death, she sobbed. She hadn't gotten any relief from that. She told Smith how much she regretted not forgiving.
Smith's story is typical of those who become healers. Not loved or liked by his mother, he found trouble. It wasn't until he almost died from the six bullets that he decided to turn his life around. The mechanism for that was Christianity. No surprise, he pushed the envelop and became a minister.
His approach in prison to connect was indirect. He played chess regularly with inmates. He organized a baseball team and a choir. He hosted a banquet which included friends and family inmates could invite from the outside. But, mostly, he listened. He heard a world of hurt.
Here's Smith's reflection:
"I taught the inmates that nearly everyone has been hurt by someone's actions or words during his or her life, but if we don't practice forgiveness, we might be the ones who end up paying dearly ... The acts or words that hurt or offended us might always be part of us, but forgiveness can lessen its grip ..."
Smith's own epiphany came soon after he was assigned to San Quentin. As we was going from cell to cell trying to introduce himself, he came to Moore's. Instantly, he knew he had to let go of the rage. Instantly he began weeping and couldn't stop. He had to release the whatever had built up in him over the years. His heart did not harden again. Not even after Moore wrote to the warden that Smith was going to get a contract out to murder him.
Perhaps the takeaway from this book is to dump the rage before it somehow gets us into prison or even on death row. There are still weeks of summer left to read this amazing true story of how one reformed punk helped heal so many others in so much pain.