Four California Bishops visited San Quentin Prison last week, hearing confessions and speaking with the general population and death row inmates about their unexpected trials, spiritual conversions, and faith life while incarcerated.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone (San Francisco), Bishop Michael Barber (Oakland), Bishop Oscar Cantú (San Jose), and Bishop Jaime Soto (Sacramento) spent Tuesday at the prison. They were mandated to wear bulletproof vests and whistles while visiting Death Row or the ‘East Block,’ which Governor Newsom has promised to dismantle following his moratorium on executions in the state.

“The visit to death row was especially heart-wrenching, but even there I saw a desire for a deeper spiritual life,” said Archbishop Cordileone. “One of the condemned is even a Benedictine oblate, who renews his vows annually with the prison chaplain! And all this despite the very oppressive conditions: a cell about 5’ x 15’, with a sink, a toilet, and a table that doubles as a bed.  They are confined in that space most of the time.  And yet, the ones we spoke with were happy to see us and very conversant.”

The bishops heard private confessions from the inmates in the general population. At the outset, the number of inmates seeking confession started at two, but that number quickly grew to around 40 and lasted an hour and a half.

“Each conversation with the men in East Block was unique and personal,” said Bishop Soto. “Of course, this was because so were they. There was little reference to the awkward circumstances of speaking through bars. Worries about their family, questions about scripture, curiosities about the world outside, and interesting books filled our conversations.”

Deacon John Storm, Restorative Justice Director for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, also visited the prison with the delegation and remarked that he was moved by an inmate’s testimony who “described a personal encounter with Christ engendered by his participation in programs sponsored by the Catholic Chapel. That encounter led him to drop out of the gang culture, where he was previously a leader or ‘shot-caller,’ and to seek a new life of discipleship to others.”

The faith lives of many of the inmates are flourishing, with the chapel at San Quentin being governed much like any other parish. There is a parish council composed of incarcerated men and a very active choir with a band that uses donated instruments. Two inmates have painted a wall-wide mural in the chapel that depicts their interpretation of scripture in Revelations.

“The visit confirmed my experience of celebrating Mass there over the last several years: there is a deep spiritual thirst and a desire of the men to grow in their knowledge of the Catholic faith.  They would like to see more programming in the chapel but emphasized the need for support in order to make that happen,” said Archbishop Cordileone.

Many men commented that their faith and religious activities are important keys to rehabilitation. They asked for religious books, rosaries, and scapulars.

“The San Quentin chapel is one place where the men can feel as though they are leaving the prison and entering a different place—a church,” said CCC Executive Director Kathleen Domingo, who joined the delegation on the visit. “One man told me that he tries to make a Holy Hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament every day, just sitting in silent prayer or meditating.  The chapel is a sacred place that provides great comfort to the men.”

Bishop Barber, who has said Mass at San Quentin for over 20 years and whose brother, Fr. Steve Barber, SJ, who previously served as Chaplain, echoed the same sentiments.

The “California Department of Corrections” recently changed its name to the “California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.”  How does the state think it can rehabilitate these men while downplaying the role of faith in their lives?” said Bishop Barber. “I believe the State of California could benefit from studying how spiritual resiliency contributes to the rehabilitation of inmates.”

Before the visit, Bishop Cantú told the Catholic News Agency that the bishops were visiting the prison “simply to be a reminder of God’s presence and of compassion and a reminder that Jesus had interactions with two criminals on the cross: one who derided Jesus, the other who asked for compassion and forgiveness.”

“As I told them, I often tell people ‘on the outside,’ who have no knowledge of what it is like in a prison, that ‘Jesus is alive and well behind bars,’” said Archbishop Cordileone.