George Williams, SJ, MSW ’97, is lucky enough to have found his dream job. His day-to-day, though, might not exactly correspond with the average person’s, or even the average social worker’s, vision of the sublime. Williams spends his days counseling some of the hardened 700 men on California’s death row, a place he calls “the darkest place I’ve worked”, and going cell to cell to visit with many of the 4,000 men in the general prison population, many of whom are convicted of violent crimes, such as murder, rape, or armed robbery.
As a Jesuit priest, Williams also offers religious services for the men on death row. This is his place of work.
“The ‘chapel’ in San Quentin State Prison’s Death Row is a windowless old shower room encased in a heavy metal cage,” he writes in an article for the Jesuit Post. “Inside it there are 6 wooden benches bolted to the floor upon which the members of my congregation sit. I stand, wearing both priestly vestments and a black stab-proof vest, inside my own cage, which is about twice the size of an old phone booth. As required by the department I have padlocked myself inside. All this makes me, to my knowledge, the only Jesuit in my community who regularly celebrates Mass in a Kevlar vest.”
This is San Quentin’s infamous “East Block.” It is also Williams’ calling.
In this conversation with Innovate@BCSocialWork, Father Williams discusses his ministry at San Quentin working with men who are truly living at the margins of society; how his social work training has informed this work; and his hopes for new life for his community, and a better criminal justice system for his country.
Thanks very much for spending part of your day off with us Father Williams. We’re honored to call you a BCSSW alumnus. What can you tell us about what your BC degree means to you?
George Williams: As a Jesuit, I’m of course partial to BC. I was very fortunate to be a part of a dual degree program they had in the 90s with the School of Social Work and the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. I specialized in forensic social work.
Prior to my time at BC, I worked as the Catholic Chaplain at the Nashua Street Jail and the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston. I was hopeful this program could help inform my ministry and, of course, it absolutely did. The interdisciplinary nature of the degree was important: each program helped to shed light on the other. The combination of Catholic values with practical theory has proven invaluable throughout my life’s work. Most prison chaplains don’t have the clinical skills that I learned as a student of social work, and I use these daily in counseling inmates and prison guards, coordinating programs, and supervising inmates who work for me in my office. I also work closely with our clinical staff who are providing services to the severely and chronically mentally ill on death row.
My faith, and role in my faith community, also began to grow during this time. When I entered BC I was a Jesuit brother, which is different than being ordained to the priesthood. But through my job at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility, which I started prior to BC and continued during my studies, I found that, as I ministered to the inmates, they asked me repeatedly if I could be their priest. I then asked to be ordained in order to serve them as they requested.
It sounds as if you were truly called for prison work.
GW: This is definitely a calling. I think that with prison work, you either love it, or you can’t get far enough away from it. Death row is definitely the darkest place I’ve ever been; it’s a place where men and women have been condemned by a system that is less than perfect. No matter what they’ve done, these are human beings, with scars. Perhaps they have deeper scars than many of us have, but they are scarred just the same, and many are seeking to be healed.
Just this past Easter, I was celebrating Mass for eight men on death row, each in separate cages the size of phone booths in front of me, all of whom have suffered through multiple suicide attempts. I’m talking with them about the reading, where Jesus appears to Thomas and invites the doubting Thomas to touch his wounds, and as I’m speaking with them I see physical scars on their arms and necks. I remember focusing on the massive cuts on one man, and thinking, these are the wounds of Christ. I asked myself, how can God enter into the reality of these men’s lives, to provide a sense of hope? It was a powerful moment, and I believe that’s my calling to, in some small measure, help these men to experience this hope.
It’s not easy, certainly not at first, to be able to connect with many of the men in San Quentin. You have to earn their trust; you’re working with people who don’t trust anyone, who have been left out time and time again. But once they let you in, I’ve found the experience to be overwhelmingly positive. I’ve heard pretty much everything, nothing could shock me at this point. But I believe that, no matter what we’ve done, how brutalized we are, nothing separates any of us from God’s love and mercy.
Prison is where the rubber hits the road theologically. I encounter Christ in the prisoners on a daily basis. They are victims of all kinds of exclusion; they have experienced neglect, abuse, and rejection. For me, the Gospel is about shining the light of hope in the darkest of places, and this is what I strive to do at San Quentin. To inspire hope in life after prison.
What kind of opportunity exists for the men who are locked up in San Quentin?
GW: Many, of course, will spend their lives here. For these men, I want for them to be able to experience in some way a life of happiness, joy and friendship. It’s a tragedy that our system imprisons people for so long. Most of the men who get out of San Quentin do well, in fact, the recidivism rate is less than one percent for those serving long sentences for murder. When many of these men came in, they were in their late teens or early twenties. They grow up, they mature. How many of us are the same people as we were in 1978?
San Quentin has some positive rehabilitative programs that have proved successful: yoga, meditation, programs geared toward accepting responsibility, addiction and recovery programs all offer a positive influence for certain prisoners. Outside agencies like the Insight Prison Project provide life-changing education and cognitive and behavioral support.
This emphasis on rehabilitation exists at San Quentin – it’s a humane quality that is lacking in other institutions in which I’ve worked. We need to move toward a more rehabilitative system of criminal justice on the whole in our country; the U.S. is among the most punitive of any nation in the world. We need to establish an ethos of helping guys to change themselves. I truly hope to see the abolishment of prisons in my lifetime; I believe imprisonment as it exists in America should go the way of slavery.
Your goals are of course ambitiously forward-thinking, and you are hard at work to make them become a reality. Not only do you serve San Quentin full-time, but you’re currently finishing up your PhD dissertation in criminology from Northeastern University. Tell us more about your focus, and also, where you see yourself in the future.
GW: For my dissertation, I’m writing about another population in our criminal justice system that is underserved – prison guards. My study surrounds exhaustion and resilience in this population; I’ve surveyed 150 correction guards and I’ve found that spirituality makes prison guards less likely to burn out in their work.
I believe this is research that is badly needed – people don’t often think about the people who work with inmates, many of whom are traumatized day in and day out by the violence and hopelessness that surrounds them. So many of these guards internalize so much – they are former military or police officers who are taught not to show weakness, so they don’t seek out support or services. They are under so much stress and don’t have outlets for this stress. Actually, my ulterior motive for doing this research is to convince San Quentin to hire a full-time chaplain for the guards.
As for the future, I always tell the guys here, ‘I’m hoping to do 25 to life in San Quentin.’ This is where I’m meant to be. I hope to continue to advocate against injustices that are prevalent in the world in which I serve, against solitary confinement and the inhumane treatment of prisoners. Perhaps with this PhD, I will have more of a platform to do this kind of work publicly.
To hear more about Father Williams’ calling in his own words, we encourage you to read the full Jesuit Post article.