Maria Telesco on the left at the Fresno Center for Nonviolence “Way of Peace” Award banquet on June 18, 2016. Image by Mike Rhodes.

Maria Telesco, Prison Volunteer and Advocate Against the Death Penalty: An Interview with Father Jim

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from an interview that was originally published in Central Valley Catholic Voice, Vol. 18, N. 4, February 2016. It is republished with permission.

Fr. Jim: Maria, there was an article recently in the Fresno Bee about the death penalty. What is your feeling about that article?

Maria: The article is great. Though there is not enough in it, what it said is absolutely right on. At San Quintin’s Death Row, there are about 750 men waiting to die of old age, or to be killed by “We the People,” whichever happens first. Also 21 women in the woman’s condemned facility at Chowchilla.

There has not been an execution in California for over 10 years, since January 2006. Yet judges, juries, and lawyers keep sending people to Death Row, presumably to be killed to make California safe from crime. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Some people have been on Death Row for more than 30 years, waiting to die. It is considered by many legal experts to be unconstitutional—torture—to have people sitting there just waiting to be killed.

Fr. Jim: How and why is it so expensive?

Maria: It is complicated. Laws say that people who have been convicted of murder and sent to Death Row must be held in an isolation, individually or as a group, with extra security, extra staff because they are supposedly so terribly dangerous. Statistics show that in both Death Row and in the General Population (GP), only about 5 percent of prisoners are likely to be dangerously violent. In General Population, that 5 percent mingles with others unless they actually do something harmful to anyone.

But the public and politicians claim that all people convicted of homicide are dangerous—they call them monsters—and say they would run wildly up and down all over the prison, slaughtering dozens if they could. That’s a ridiculous, flat out lie! You’ve never heard of it happening, have you? I have worked as a teacher volunteer in several prisons, and I have never seen or heard of any such violence, except in horrible movies.

A prisoner in General Population can walk to the shower, the medical clinic, the chapel, and other places permitted, without an officer as a chaperone. Condemned prisoners in Death Row are required to be taken every place beyond their cell escorted by two officers. At a Death Row facility as huge as San Quintin’s, how many work days are required to take care of the needs of 750 men, at two a piece? No, each man does not have his own private posse of officers, but many more are assigned there, far more than for the GP. That costs more.

Fr. Jim: I understand that there is a lot of money involved in permitting the inmates of Death Row to appeal their sentences. Right?

Maria: Yes. The State by law must apply lawyers, free of charge, for death penalty appeals. Not for GP prisoners, though. Only on the row. You can’t choose whatever lawyer you want. Those lawyers have to be trained properly for the work and there are not many qualified for it. Even if you had the money, you couldn’t hire your own lawyer, they have to be these specialists. And there are no rich people on Death Row anyhow.

So, after you go to Death Row, it may be 10 years before the government gets around to providing you with a lawyer so you can try to start the appeal process. Then the lawyer may be so busy it might be another five years before he or she can actually get to start your case. And for all those years those prisoners are on Death Row, slowly dying, waiting for—for what?! And all those extra officers are being paid. That’s just a small part of why the death penalty is so expensive.

Fr. Jim: You sound as if you are really involved with Death Row. Have you been involved with it for some time?

Maria: Yes, I have been involved with the Death Penalty since high school, in New York, in the early 1950’s when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried in 1951 and executed in Sing Sing prison in 1953. They were killed, but there was no evidence that they had committed a crime or that they had “given away the secrets of the atomic bomb to the Russians,” which is what they were accused of. In reality, they were simply “guilty” of being Communists. That was during the Cold War. The so-called “evidence” was a scribble on match paper. Scientists said it would have taken 900 pages to write out that atomic bomb “secret.”

I remember seeing an article in a newspaper showing their two little children, ages seven and five brought to their parents to say goodbye on the night of the executions. And I also recall people in my neighborhood—we lived about 20 miles from the prison—who were good people, and they were running around yelling “Fry the Commies!” It made me sick to see even some of my teachers yelling that. I was stunned to realize that in the country I grew up in there were people who wanted to kill “criminals” who really didn’t do anything wrong. They were accused of something, but there was no proof of it.

Fr. Jim: So, what did you do?

Maria: I happened to come to California at that time because of a job change. When I got here I was overwhelmed by the knowledge of the death penalty and how it works. I joined several organizations: Amnesty International, Death Penalty Focus, the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, and California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty. I went to demonstrations opposing the death penalty. Then I had the opportunity through some lawyers I knew, to visit some prisoners on Death Row. Both men and women, at some point.

I learned so much about a government that kills people. Yes, most of the people we kill committed a crime, some are innocent but innocent or guilty, what gives us the right to slaughter? Especially now that it is known to the public that the legal methods of government killings are horrible, painful, and torture. It broke my heart—still does—to see the men and women on Death Row. Yes, many committed bad crimes, but in our state and throughout the nation, lawyers have said that as many as 25 percent of the people on Death Row are not guilty. They are factually innocent! Because a great deal of corruption exists in the judicial system.

For example, say two people are together and one of them kills someone and then decides to tell the police that his (or her) companion committed the crime. Without further investigation, the killer may go home or get a short sentence, but the innocent companion gets the needle on the gurney. Yes, I know that sounds impossible, but it happens. Just go and look up cases.

Because of my experience as a volunteer teaching at prisons for many, many years, I have come to know a lot of people in the prison GP and on Death Row. I see the majority of them as good, ordinary people who did something terrible once. But the general public, people who have never seen a prison or a prisoner, have been brainwashed to believe people in prisons are monsters. Beasts so dangerous you had better stay away from them because they are all like the horrible ones in a movie. Just not true.

They have made a serious mistake in their lives. It may have been murder, robbing a bank, or stealing a car, but they’re not monsters. Ninety percent of them display strong feelings of remorse. Some prisoners have told me that perhaps less than two or three percent of the people they with are, in their opinion, so evil that they themselves would be afraid to stay in a room alone with these guys. They are very aware of what they have done, but they are not dangerous. They have done one bad thing and it has cost them their lives.

The article you mention in the Fresno Bee said that the Death Row building is really old, some forty, fifty, sixty years old. And it’s falling apart. Just because of leaking roofs and broken water pipes, the place is wet all the time. This means that it smells and you can become ill from inhaling the odors. It’s never been cleaned, so you never get clean air to breathe and the moisture covers it. When I say it’s not cleaned, let me make it clear. The prisoners are required, to the best that they can, to clean their cells. But they don’t have the capability to fix broken water pipes. It’s also true that a unit becomes incredibly cold in the winter and incredibly hot in the summer. These are not acceptable ways to treat human beings.

*****

Maria Telesco urges our readers on November 8, 2016, to vote Yes on Proposition 62 and No on Proposition 66.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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