“The very first thing that struck me, my first experience was, ‘I can't believe we're still doing this in the 20th century,’” he recalled, noting that despite the Florida heat, the inmates were not given air conditioning.
Ministering to condemned criminals has not proven easy. Recinella recalls being assigned to a serial killer who had killed young women of a similar age to Recinella’s daughter.
He found the strength to do it through conversations with a trusted priest and through the sacraments, he said.
“I was not ready to handle the spiritual challenges of dealing with the level of human suffering that we've experienced in street ministry, AIDS ministry, prison, ministry, and death row ministry,” Recinella said.
“And that's what we've learned is: this is really meant to be done in ‘gangs’ if you will, by ‘gangs of Christians’ doing the gospel. And so we've had to make sure that we have a community of accountability that's calling us to be honest with ourselves, and for me with death row, that is to make sure I'm dealing with the suffering in the way our Church provides for us to do it.”
Once Recinella realized he had a heart for prison ministry, he quickly realized that he could not continue to minister in death row prisons as a practicing lawyer. So, although he kept his law license active, he gave up the practice of law to minister to the death row inmates.
In addition to spending several days a week visiting inmates himself, he has also trained other people to do prison ministry, and has acted as a witness for nearly two dozen executions so far.
Florida, especially the northern part and the panhandle, falls squarely in the Bible belt— which consists mostly of southern states, with Baptist majorities.
Since 1976, nearly 90% of all the executions in the United States have taken place in this region. In fact, Recinella found during his research that just 2% of US counties account for over half of all the executions in the US since 1976. In recent years counties in Texas, Missouri, and Florida have routinely topped the list.
The fact that support for capital punishment remains so strong, especially in parts of the country where it seemed to Recinella that nearly everyone was Christian, troubled him.
So several years ago, Recinella wrote a book identifying 44 requirements of the death penalty when it was the law of the land in Israel— such as a ban on circumstantial evidence, treating all offenders equally, establishing unquestionable guilt, et cetera.
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“I identified 44 absolute non-waivable requirements of the biblical death penalty that had to be met before it could even be considered,” Recinella said.
By contrast, he found that the death penalty, in Florida and the US, fulfilled none of those biblical requirements. Last year, Bishop Felipe Estevez of St. Augustine released a pastoral letter calling for an end to the death penalty, quoting extensively from Recinella’s work.
Recinella’s experience over the years has also shown him just how inequitable the death penalty can be— how it disproportionately affects people of minority races, and how those who are poor are less likely to be able to appeal their conviction.
For example, his research found that a prisoner is more than ten times more likely to be executed if it was a black defendant and a white victim, than if it were a white defendant and a black victim. In Florida, nearly 40% of the death row is black, out of a population that is 15% black.
“This is the real death penalty; it's not the thing that the death penalty supporters think it is,” Recinella commented.
“The real death penalty is a monstrosity, it's error prone, it's full of mistakes and human failings, and yes, we get it wrong.”