Father George Williams Speaks Of His San Quentin Experiences
By Gino Sevacos
Journalism Guild Writer
The following was originally published as a two-part interview with Father George Williams, the Catholic Chaplain for San Quentin. The article in its entirety is present here:
How did you come to work at San Quentin?
I had visited here a few times when Father Barber was the chaplain. At the time of those visits, I had no idea I’d ever be working here.
I came out here to talk with him about his programs here–to get some ideas to bring back to Massachusetts. I was impressed with the chapels here and the programs available.
I remember thinking how much I would like to work here. Then out of the blue in the summer of 2010, a Jesuit friend of mine in Los Angeles called and asked me if I would be interested in coming to San Quentin as a chaplain since Father Barber had by then decided to move on.
My immediate reaction was, “Of course!” And I joked with my community (who tend to be academics) that it was like getting a call from Harvard asking if I wanted a tenured position there. So it was really like an offer for the best job ever for me–and I jumped at the chance.
The reaction back East was, “Oh, wow. San Quentin!” My parent’s reaction was simple: “Are you insane?” They didn’t like the idea of their only son moving all the way out to California only to get shanked on his first day on the job (they watched too many “Lockdown” episodes).
So I was pretty excited and happy at the prospect of coming here – and a bit apprehensive of working on Death Row – not sure why. I guess I had visions of Hannibal Lecter or something.
But the reality has been that I really enjoy working with the guys on Death Row and no one there is like Hannibal Lecter!
It wasn’t like anyone had to twist my arm to move to the Bay Area either–it is beautiful here, and as much as I love the city of Boston, I haven’t missed the weather back there. And I get back a few times a year to see people and spend time in Boston, so I don’t get homesick.
Actually after four years now, this area is beginning to feel more and more like home. San Quentin certainly does.
I decided to drive out here when I moved–to really make it a kind of spiritual pilgrimage–driving across the country slowly, over a few weeks, staying with friends along the way–including a week at a monastery in Colorado–a place I really love.
So it was a grace-filled and smooth transition from East to West, and I haven’t regretted it for a second. My hope is that I can now do 25-to-life here at San Quentin.
I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than work here and I’m incredibly grateful that God has given me this opportunity to do so. My four years here so far have truly been the best years of my life, so far … And that’s in no small part to the men in blue here who make working here such a joy.
What was your vision?
I don’t know if I had a clear vision about coming to San Quentin.
I had been working in prison ministry for about 20 years. I started at Boston City Jail and slowly worked my way up to the state prison system as a chaplain in Massachusetts. While I have a deep love for this work, I found Massachusetts a pretty horrible system to work in as a chaplain.
There was little in the way of rehabilitative programming in the state prisons. They were and are pretty bleak places.
I think my mental image of San Quentin was like most people on the East Coast have–a famous prison–Death Row, violent past, Johnny Cash and so on. It has a scary cache about it.
My vision for the Catholic Chapel here is that it be truly a house of God that people of all faiths (or no faith) can come to be spiritually fed, whatever their path.
How has being a Jesuit influenced ministry here?
One of the things that attracted me to the Jesuits (the official title of the order is “The Society of Jesus”) is that its members tend to be really smart men who have open minds and never stop learning.
Another thing that attracted me to the Jesuits was their emphasis on working with the poor and marginalized.
A quote that caught my attention early on was a statement they made about our faith: “The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.
For reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another.”
Looking back, I see how God has guided my choices–and led me to this work. The Christian churches haven’t always responded enough to prison ministry–the work has to be an expression of the Gospel–to go where the church is not, to serve those who society has neglected or rejected.
It just so happened that as I began my life as a Jesuit, the U.S. was already beginning a tragic move toward mass incarceration.
At no time have there ever been so many Americans locked up in jails and prisons–and the churches for the most part haven’t mobilized to meet the needs of prisoners or those who work in prisons.
Would you share your view of the various faiths represented here at San Quentin?
One of my ancestors was a Puritan pastor named Roger Williams.
He left the narrow and intolerant Puritan church in Boston (well, he was sort of kicked out of it) and moved to what is now Rhode Island (he founded the city of Providence) and created a place that welcomed people from other religious denominations and faiths.
He was way ahead of his time – Providence offered to provide sanctuary to Jews and Quakers, even Catholics, while back in Massachusetts they were hanging people for witchcraft in Salem. (Another one of my ancestors was accused of witchcraft but was found not guilty!)
Anyway, Roger Williams was a tolerant man with an open mind. I either inherited those genes or I am just inspired to follow his example in my life. I have always been interested in how other people view God – and I believe there is good and truth in every faith tradition.
I believe Jesus Christ is the savior of the world – but God can save people through him without necessarily adopting Christianity – in other words, God’s mercy extends to all people who live and follow their faith tradition with devotion. So for me, it’s not about needing to convert people to Catholicism, even though I think there is great beauty and wisdom in my faith tradition.
For me, it is more important to help men here come to know God as they understand God – and to deepen their spiritual connection with the Divine. I believe that God draws all of us closer to him and to the truth as long as our hearts are open to receive that love and truth.
So if a guy is Muslim, I would want him to be the best Muslim he can be, same for Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Hindus or whatever faith group you can imagine. The key is that the person needs to be willing to be open to the power of love in his life.
The danger to the spiritual life is any kind of excessive fundamentalism in any religion that ends up creating a god in our image – a.k.a. an idol.
People become like the God they worship, so if they worship an intolerant, punishing, judge-in-the-sky kind of god, then it is no wonder they end up being intolerant, vengeful and judgmental in their own lives. Fear of God isn’t about being afraid of God; it’s about honoring and respecting the power of God as something so much greater than our own power.
I think that is why I found the late Bo Lozoff such a good teacher. I knew Bo well and am still in contact with his wife, Sita. He modeled for me a love of God that respected all people’s spiritual path as something holy and good.
Not all paths are straight paths, but Bo taught, and I believe, that all paths, when lived with Catholicism – the word Catholic means “universal” – that doesn’t mean we believe any or everything that others believe, that is impossible – but it does mean that we see in humanity, a universal longing for union with God.
What’s good about San Quentin and what needs to be changed?
I have always been impressed with the number and quality of programs here – it makes the place much more humane than other prisons I worked in back East. But the best thing about San Quentin is the people in it – both those wearing blue and those wearing green.
I have found the staff here easy to work with and very professional. In Massachusetts, they looked at chaplains (and sometimes with good reason) with suspicion and distrust. Here I have felt welcome and have been treated as a colleague, not a nuisance.
The men in blue who I encounter most often are a pleasure to work with – there aren’t a lot of differences with the guys here and those I knew in Massachusetts, except of course no one here speaks with a wicked “Bastin” accent.
I have enjoyed working with men on Death Row too. That is a place of contrasts. There are deep and troubling shadows there – spiritually it is a dark place – but there is also light and humor and humanity there – and that outweighs the heaviness and darkness of the place.
In your opinion, what is good and bad about the criminal justice system?
I think we have to own up to the institutionalized racism in our criminal justice system. That’s the most obvious flaw I think and because of it many lives and communities have been disrupted and damaged.
I’m working on a Ph.D. now in criminal justice. I started in 2007, when I was in Boston, long before I knew I’d be out here. Our prisons could be more humane places than they generally are (San Quentin being an exception) – and it’s a serious problem that we imprison so many of our people – way more than any other advanced countries do.
My impression of corrections workers is that they do the best job they can – but the public seems uninformed and oblivious to many of the issues around prisons.
I think too that starting in the 1980s the U.S. went on a prison binge that was fueled by a cynical political “get tough on crime” mentality that has not served our society well. So fairly radical change has to happen – but I imagine it will take time for us as a society to figure a way out of it.
I see many hopeful signs though – such as the changes in the Three Strikes law and the way that a lot more lifers are getting a chance for parole, which wasn’t possible only a few years back.