He is a lawyer. She is a clinical psychologist. And together, they tend to the spiritual needs of the men on death row and their families. He is the Catholic correctional chaplain in the Florida State Prison, she is a volunteer minister to the families of the men executed for their crimes.
Dale and Susan Recinella and their five children were living a comfortable, upper-middle-class life in Florida, when Dale suffered a near-fatal illness in 1988. The experience led both of them to question what was important to them, and what they could do to make a difference in people’s lives. They began working with the homeless, and the HIV and AIDS population, and in 1998, Dale was asked by his church to provide spiritual counseling to the nearly 400 men on death row, and the two thousand men in solitary confinement.
Each is filling a need, one providing comfort to the men facing the last minutes of their lives, and the other to the family and friends of those being executed.
“In Florida, there is no witness room for the family and friends of the condemned. They have to leave after they say goodbye in the morning, and never see that person again. As the spiritual advisor, I remain in the death house until it’s time to prepare [the inmate] for the gurney. I’m present in the witness room, and I sit in the front row, where he can see me. He knows he can look at me when the time comes,” explains Dale, who is called Brother Dale by the inmates he counsels.
When Susan learned that the families of the condemned, many of whom had traveled from far away to say goodbye, had nowhere to go after leaving the prison, and would spend the next few hours watching television for news of whether the execution had taken place, she talked with her parish priest, who opened the doors of the church to them. There they could be with others waiting to find out if the execution had been stayed or not, could express their feelings, feel less alone, feel supported.
“I would never have dreamed that I would be doing this, never thought of or planned it, but when you get up one day and you see there are suffering people and they are put right in front of you . . . . It was very simple at the time, very clear. I’m going to meet with the family and see what I can do to help,” she explains.
Sitting with the family while their son, or father, brother or uncle is being executed is to experience “the same kind of horror when you are sitting with any family that has just had a traumatic event happen,” says Susan. “Just sitting with a mother as her son is being executed is actually a very simple thing to do. It’s painful, but I would certainly want someone with their arm around me if I was going through it.”
For Dale, bearing witness to an execution is “excruciating.” But the pain is for the victims’ families, as well as the inmates.
“On the one hand, I have tremendous compassion for the loss the [victim’s] family has experienced . . . but there is also tremendous angst that they are going to find out that this [the execution] doesn’t do anything to bring them any healing, or closure. I know when they go home the hole in their heart is still going to be there. This didn’t fill it. And that is the agony I feel for them,” he says.
Like so many closely involved with the execution system, Dale also worries about the toll taking the life of a human being has on prison staff.
“The reason that I’m there is to find and foster and nurture the humanity that’s in every single person in those cells and very important, the humanity that’s in the staff that work there. I consider the staff to also be victims of this process. We’re not made to kill a healthy human being at 5 o’clock and go home and feel good about it. So I have watched what this process does to good people whose job we — the taxpayers — feel is to kill somebody for us. They’re victims too.”
Dale points out that in Florida, the death certificate of the executed inmate indicates that the cause of death was “homicide,” which he says is appropriate. “Legally the definition of homicide is the killing of a human being by another human being and that’s what an execution is. It may be legal, but it’s homicide.”
About a year ago, Dale scaled back his work at the prison, and trained a deacon to take over his cell-to-cell ministry (“making rounds”), while he continues one-on-one pastoral counseling and serving as spiritual advisor for inmates during the execution process. Susan continues to volunteer when she can, but she is now employed as Director of Intern Training in the counseling center at Florida State University, and her availability is limited.
But both remain committed to the work and to the cause of abolishing the death penalty.
“Witnessing the execution of a man that I absolutely believe is innocent, that keeps me up at night. Watching a botched execution, that keeps me up. Imagining the 400 men whom I know by name strapped to the gurney, that keeps me up at night. We are too civilized to be involved in the state killing its citizens. [Capital punishment] has outlived any justifiable purpose it might have had. It will be abolished in our lifetime. I absolutely believe it. That makes it possible to go to sleep at night,” Dale says.
“We have tried to learn to look at the world with a question,” Susan says. “Where are the people who are suffering? Is that suffering relievable? Even if my actions are simple, I want to try to relieve that suffering. I want to do whatever is in my control.”