Ledell Lee, Jack Jones, Marcel Williams and Kenneth Williams. To most, the names of the four death row inmates executed in a eight-day span in Arkansas during April were just names in the news cycle, understood most prominently by crimes they committed.
For Msgr. Jack Harris, who has worked in prison ministry for 43 years since his ordination, these were not men defined by their crimes about 20 years ago.
“You never execute the man you convict. You never execute the same man that you convict,” Msgr. Harris told a crowd of more than 30 May 11 at St. John Center in Little Rock. He was the guest speaker, sharing about his work in death row prison ministry and answering questions, during the monthly meeting for Pax Christi Little Rock, a chapter of the national Catholic social justice organization that promotes peace.
Msgr. Harris, pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Morrilton, works as a chaplain in the Varner Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction, south of Pine Bluff in Lincoln County. He is a crisis intervention specialist and has worked with youth in juvenile courts.
Msgr. Harris explained that Arkansas is both a death penalty state and supermax state.
“Supermax means you’re locked down 23 hours a day in a one-man cell, it’s a little concrete box, a lighted concrete box is what it is. You don’t control when the lights go on, off,” he said. “Some men spend literally years locked up in there. You think just a minute what that does to a person mentally. That type of isolation.”
Two days a week starting at 7 a.m., Msgr. Harris walks the six cell blocks, 78 cells on each block, three tiers high.
It takes about three hours to speak with the 468 men and that includes about 20 to 30 meaningful conversations with inmates.
Msgr. Harris pointed to the three reasons he has heard most often in support of the death penalty: a crime deterrent, protecting society and vengeance. In Arkansas alone there are roughly 2,100 men and women in prison convicted of murder, and only 30 of those are on death row.
“The men that I know, and I’m going to say 34 because I knew those four men who lost their lives the past two weeks, I knew them all. Those 34 were not deterred by the death penalty,” Msgr. Harris said. “Those 34 were men who acted in the moment; they didn’t think about ‘Gosh what is going to happen to me if I do this.’”
In terms of protecting society, for the past 20 or so years, these men have never been a threat. He said, “I know that we do not have the most vicious murders in that unit on death row. But they had something they could bargain with and got a reduced sentence,” Msgr. Harris said.
The only reason that “holds water is vengeance,” he said.
“I will never denigrate or minimize the pain that victims feel. The victim’s family, I don’t ever want to pretend like that’s not important,” he said. “… But I’m not quite sure the vengeance that comes from that should be what guides our policy as a state.”
Msgr. Harris said he has heard from many “high up state officials” that the victims’ families will receive “closure” by executing these men.
“There is no closure with this thing. We move to another level of it, but we continue to work with it. It’s a little unfair to use that language,” he said. “... Justice was served the day they were caught, convicted and sent to prison. What you do to them after they’re in prison, that’s vengeance.”
Much of death row ministry includes just merely talking to the men on the row, from complaining about the food to their favorite sporting events. But always on the horizon is the looming truth that they are destined to be put to death.
“A very privileged conversation to get to have with these guys is when they try to figure out how to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ And they will talk about that,” Msgr. Harris said. “They will get frustrated about it too because how do you go to someone whose loved one you murdered, very likely raped and kidnapped, and say you’re sorry. What they know is the words ‘I’m sorry’ mean nothing.”
Death row inmates also “talk about how should we carry ourselves the night they make us walk into that chamber.”
As his spiritual adviser, Msgr. Harris witnessed Marcel Williams’ execution April 24 and stayed with those on death row when the other executions occurred April 20 and 27. The executions, administered at the Cummins Unit, have changed the makeup of the row.
“We lost one of the strongest men on the row as far as bumping up against other people,” to correct bad behavior, Msgr. Harris said of Williams, who was Catholic. He added that he needs Jason McGehee, who was granted a stay of execution, “because the man has learned how to navigate the prison system. He mentors younger inmates; he’ll bump up against people that need to change their behavior. He’s not an angel. He does not deny what he did. But we need Jason McGehee inside this mega-carceral state.”
Msgr. Harris also pointed out that there was a subdued feeling for both the death row inmates and the staff. He praised ADC Director Wendy Kelley for bringing “sensitivity” to the row.
“I am a fan of the department. I’ve worked for them for years. They are not the cause of this; they just have to carry it out,” he said.
It is unlawful to execute death row inmates who are or have become mentally ill. Msgr. Harris said it would be wrong to execute someone immediately after receiving a death sentence, but after 20 years, if the opposite is true, a man changing from disturbed to “stronger and more spiritual,” there is no reason to execute.
“If you leave a man in prison for 20 years and he’s no longer the same man who committed the crime, do you really have a right to kill him?”
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