Charles Manson’s Prison Chaplain, Reverend Earl Smith, Talks About Justice, America’s Correctional System and His New Book

The longtime chaplain at San Quentin was Charles Manson’s chess partner. – Image courtesy of Earl Smith
The longtime chaplain at San Quentin was Charles Manson’s chess partner. – Image courtesy of Earl Smith

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 are considering a bill to ban the death penalty there, which would make 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 Mansion, 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?

ES: After each conversation I had with Charles Manson, I went away in awe of his ability to capture a moment and claim it as his. Charles Manson was exactly what he sought to be. Charles wanted people to see him, hear his name and fear him. The problem is that Charles is a little person who sees his height in terms of emotional and psychological dominance. Psychological warfare was his means of survival. He once told me, “this is my world, and I decide when you do what you do. The trees, the stars, the grass they all belong to me”. Charles was interested in the manipulation of people for the sole purpose of seeing if he could manipulate them.

RNS: You witnessed 12 executions. Describe briefly what it feels like to see that kind of thing?

ES: To see a man strapped into a chair or on a gurney is actually a small part of the execution process. After the condemned man dies, the process of the execution lingers. The staff that walks the inmate into the chamber, the official witnesses, the victim’s family members and the inmate’s family members all are assembled in the same room. The administrative staff member assigned to the task of implementing the protocol has to disassociate themselves from the notion of death. The focus is turned to a person who is asked if he has any last words. People have asked me if lethal injection is more humane. My answer is capital punishment, via hanging, gas, firing squad, electrocution, guillotine all get the same result … death. Seeing an execution is seeing death. You can never forget what you see.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
Jonathan Merritt

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