The coronavirus outbreak has put unique strains upon jails and prisons, and upon the chaplains who minister in those settings. Vision editor David Lewellen recently spoke by phone with Fr. George Williams, SJ, a chaplain at San Quentin State Prison in California. Fr. Williams also spoke at the NACC conference in 2019 at Mundelein, IL.
Q. What was your job like before COVID-19?
A. I’ve been a prison chaplain for 27 years and at San Quentin for 10 years. It’s mostly a ministry of presence, being available to talk to the men. In that way it’s like a hospital position.
Q. What about staff?
A. Prisons are very tribal. If the prisoners see me being friendly with the corrections officers, they won’t trust me. I have to walk a very fine line. It took me several years to develop trust with the officers, but I’ve done baptisms and weddings for them on the outside. They need pastoral care just as much as the prisoners do.
Q. And what has it been like the last two months?
A. Busier than normal. The Bay Area has done a good job of flattening the curve, and so far there have not been any cases of COVID in the prison. But once it does, it’s going to be like a forest fire. (Note: Since this interview in May, coronavirus has hit the prison hard, with more than 2,000 cases and 19 deaths as of late July.) There are so many elderly prisoners who are not a threat to the community and should be released. But even right now, a lot of their family members are getting it, and it falls on me to deliver the news. They’re mostly low-income and people of color, and they’re living on the edge anyway.
Usually the men are free to move about, but now they get only three hours outside their cell every other day. I circulate in the yard, and on the tiers, if people want to talk. They can’t come to me in the chapel anymore.
Q. Is that unusual?
A. It’s very unusual to be in a lockdown situation for this long. People who say that because of quarantine they know what it’s like to be in prison – no, you don’t. If you want to know what it’s like, then lock yourself in your bathroom with a stranger for 24 hours.
Prisoners also aren’t working, so they have no income at all. It wasn’t much, but if they had $30 a month, that was what they used to buy essentials. They’ve also suspended all visits.
Q. Is there any place for telechaplaincy in prisons?
A. It doesn’t work. Prisoners don’t have access to tablets, and they don’t have much access to phones. That’s one of the many areas where the analogy between hospitals and prisons breaks down. But I’m willing to go in, because as a priest, I don’t have immediate family, so I don’t have to worry about infecting my wife or my children.
Q. How are you quarantining?
A. I’m lucky. I’m staying at my community’s retreat house in Marin County. If one person in my community of 30 people in San Francisco tested positive, we’d all be locked down. As it is, it’s a shorter commute, and it’s been like being on retreat for the last eight weeks.
Q. What is the prisoners’ mood about COVID?
A. They’re better informed than I am, because they watch TV. At the beginning they were very anxious and worried. Now there’s less anxiety, but the concern is still there, especially with the guys who are 65 and over. They say, “I’m up for parole in a year, why not let me out now?” And I agree with them. What can I say? They tend to be more concerned about their family members than themselves. It’s probably safer in here than outside – until it gets in, and then watch out.