World Day Against the Death Penalty – October 10: Call to action – What you can do

Pray for families of murder and other crime victims, those on death row and their families, for those accused who are on trial and face the mandatory

Oct 08, 2021

-- Read more in blogs and websites / watch videos about the death penalty. Find out more about why the Church wants all States to abolish it. 

-- Join in / organise Webinars, Zoom discussions, and other digital platforms to be more informed and create awareness. 

-- Join peaceful vigils against the death penalty. Join like-minded people in this cause. 

--Speak to your family members, office colleagues, neighbours, BECs and parish groups. 

--Write in to your MP to bring the issue to Parliament. Keep the issue constantly alive. 

--Pray for families of murder and other crime victims, those on death row and their families, for those accused who are on trial and face the mandatory death penalty, that they may have a fair trial.

-- Pray for a moratorium on all executions of the death penalty. 

--Pray for more humane conditions in prisons, especially for those on death row. 

--Pray for those in prison ministries, that they may bring Christ’s compassion to prisoners

                                                   They need hope and forgiveness

Some of our clergy are involved in the prison ministry and a few have made visits to death row inmates. Frs George Harrison, Andrew Kooi and Ravi Alexander, OFM Cap share their experience with us.

A joyful yet painful experience
I began my prison visits in Kuala Lumpur under the Archdiocesan Prison Ministry which was then under the purview of Fr George Harrison. At that time, we were only allowed to hear the confession of the inmates and to preach to and counsel them we were not permitted to celebrate Mass. It was much later that the authorities allowed priests to celebrate Mass in prison under strict supervision of the wardens. When I was transferred to the Sibu Diocese, I made a request to Bishop Joseph Hii that I wanted to continue doing the prison ministry which he gladly allowed. I eventually replaced Fr David Ho, the priest who was then doing the prison ministry.

The authorities at the Sibu Prison allows us to celebrate Mass and hear the confession of the inmates. About 30 to 45 inmates participated at the Mass. I am accompanied by lay people who are involved in the prison Ministry. The lay people teach the inmates hymns and I will listen to their confession in one corner. Practically, all of them will make their confession and receive both Sacraments.

Special permission was given by the authorities for me to visit the death row inmates. Most of the execution of the death row inmates are carried out in Kuching Sarawak.

There is no place on death row to celebrate Mass. They are not allowed out of their prison cells. I have asked the warden to allow them to participate at Mass in the conference room but sadly, this was rejected due to safety concerns. A few years ago a death row inmate almost killed a magistrate. Some of them can be very violent. There was one death row inmate with whom I was journeying closely. He had killed his wife and children by poisoning them — only one of his sons managed to escape the ordeal.

This individual had borrowed a lot of money from loan sharks to do business and could not pay them back. The loan sharks were constantly harassing him and threatening to harm him and his family. One day he took his family out for a good dinner and later poisoned them before attempting suicide. The murders took place in his home. The eldest son felt suspicious about his father’s actions and managed to escape to a neighbour’s house to seek help. The neighbour called the police and the father was arrested by the police on that very day. My visits with him mainly consist of counselling and giving assurance that God loves him because until my last visit he has never spoken of the incident that led him to this place.

I have not visited the prison since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic as visits are not permitted.

It is joyful to do prison ministry but at the same time painful to feel that one those on death row will be executed. Many of them seem to have accepted their fate, however, and I often see joy etched on their faces and not fear. Perhaps it is the joy in knowing that ours is a forgiving God and that their sins have been forgiven

I pray that those serving jail sentences will repent and return home to take care of their family members. I also pray that Almighty God will show His mercy and compassion to the death row inmates. — Fr Ravi Alexander, OFM Cap

God had touched them
Some prison chaplains in Italy went to meet the Holy Father Pope Francis, for words of advice for prisoners, the Pope simply said “Tell them, God has forgiven them …”.

It was at Kajang prison that I met the death row inmates for the first time. In a week to be executed, they wanted to see a priest, all they wanted was to hear and know that God has forgiven them. Though they spoke a Latin American language, they made good confessions and were in tears begging God’s forgiveness. They left the room that day with great news of compassion and love of God. God had touched them. It was truly the most touching moment of my priestly life, and since that time I have been committed to regular prison visitation and have promoted this ministry to many other priests and lay volunteers as well.

There were many on death row in places like Sg Buloh and other states, wanting to see a priest or a chaplain, waiting to hear the words of the Gospel announcing God’s healing touch and forgiveness. Give them HOPE, that’s all they want.

Some of them are very fortunate when a clemency is given by the Clemency Board through the approval of the state Sultans. I remember three Mexican brothers, who after 10 years in prison, were helped by the Mexican embassy, the Holy See and the Pope himself who wrote to the Sultan of Johor asking for clemency. They were freed by the Johor Sultan in 2019. All praise and thanks to God. — Fr George Harrison

Many have lost the will to live
Going to the Death Row section of prison is quite an unforgettable experience. So far, I have been to the female death row section of a prison, together with a female lay volunteer.

Once we reached the building, we were asked to wait outside for a while, as the prison warden made inside checks on the prisoners on the ground floor. The prison warden accompanying us then beckons us to enter the building, and before we do so, she quips “Father … bila kamu jalan masuk, jangan tengok kiri atau kanan. Tengok ke depan sahaja. Takut nanti mata Father terbeliak.” At first I was puzzled as to why the warden said such things. Then the lay volunteer confided to me that the ground floor is usually filled with prisoners. Some of them have already lost the will to live and are not bothered about decency, and so would remain naked in their cells. As such it would be embarrassing for us to see them in that situation.

Once we reached the end of the building, we had to climb two flights of stairs to meet with the female death row inmates who are locked behind high security bars. Many of them are Catholics or Christians from the other denominations.

For such visits, we are only allowed to meet with them from a safe distance, with thick bars in between us. I would then share a passage from the Gospel with them. Some of them looked quite cheerful, in spite of their situation, while others looked a little forlorn as they missed their family and friends back home. The ones I met were from other countries.

Listening to their plight, I felt pity for them, since not all seemed fully responsible for the crimes committed. Some were in the process of appeal, hoping to get their sentencing quashed, and they were still in prison due to the long and arduous process of the court system.

After giving some words of encouragement to them, the volunteer and I took our leave as we uttered a prayer that these prisoners would be cared for and strengthened by our loving Lord, as they endured their incarceration.

Since then I have made periodic visits and will celebrate Mass twice a year – at Christmas and Easter.
Fr Andrew Kooi

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