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San Quentin's Death Row Chaplain

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Author, Death Row Chaplain, (2015)

Graduate: Bishop Home Mission Society College, Dallas, TX

Chaplain, San Quentin Prison, 1983 – 2006

Chaplain, NFL San Francisco 49ers and NBA San Francisco Golden State Warriors

National Correctional Chaplain of the Year, 2000

Wife: Angel

Children: Ebony, Earl, Jr., Tamara and Franklin

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Earl was born and raised in Stockton, California.  He was a troublemaker as a kid and by the time he was 12, Earl started his way down a path of drugs, greed and violence.  In 1975, a man who owed Earl money shot him 6 times, leaving him for dead.  As Earl lay on the hospital bed, the Lord spoke to him.  “You’re not going to die.  You have things to do.  You’re going to be the chaplain at San Quentin Prison.”  It was Earl’s first experience with God’s grace, and for the first time, Earl felt God working in his life.  “I knew that He might actually have something in mind for me besides crime and prison,” says Earl. “But I had to choose it.”  Doctors removed four of the bullets; two are still in Earl’s body, including one next to his heart.

A few weeks later, one of Earl’s friends found the guy who shot him and wanted to kill him.  “After my experience with the Lord in the hospital, I knew I couldn’t kill him,” says Earl.  The man who shot Earl eventually was arrested, and Earl watched in the courtroom as the judge sentenced him to prison.
           
DUNGEON OF DOOM

Earl started working for the Boy Scouts of America in San Francisco after college but knew he would be contradicting what God said if he settled for any position.  In 1983, he applied and was hired by the State of California as the Chaplain for San Quentin Prison.  He was the youngest person, then 27, ever hired for that position and embarked on what would be a 23-year tenure as the prison chaplain.  When he first walked in the gates of San Quentin, Earl says he had no idea what he had gotten himself into.  The prison had a reputation as being one of the most dangerous places in the world.  At various times, San Quentin has been home to more than 700 condemned inmates, making its death row the most populated in the country.  For many months, the prison was in full emergency lockdown where inmates spent 24 hours a day in their cells. 

Earl looked for ways to reach the inmates; only a handful attended his chapel services.  He had limited contact with the prisoners, but knew some of them because they grew up on the streets together.  One day while passing out Christmas cards to inmates, Earl came face to face with Stephen, the man who shot him 6 times.  His heart was racing and his blood pressure rose.  Earl tried to muster the courage to forgive him.  At that moment, Earl wanted Stephen dead.  As a Christian, he knew he had to forgive him.  Earl spoke the hardest words he had ever spoken.  He said, “Hey, I want to thank you for shooting me.  God used you to get to me.”  Earl went back to his office and sobbed.  “I hadn’t known how much pain I had been carrying and how many people I had hurt carrying that pain,” says Earl.

Eventually Earl started working with 6 or 7 inmates more closely.  They became the first ushers at his chapel.  They were hardened men with violent backgrounds, but they all worked together to bring more men to the Lord.  After months of meeting with the guys, Earl offered a plan.  If the entire prison could go 3 months where no one was stabbed or killed, the prisoners could have a big banquet.  Every convict would be able to invite 2 people from the outside.  Much to his surprise, the inmates held their end of the bargain.  At the event, Earl says they had 200 people in the chapel.

Earl started hosting dominoes games in his office to help him interact with prisoners. Ten years later, Earl was still searching for ways to connect with the men.  He decided to reintroduce baseball to the prison.  It took 9 months to build the field because they couldn’t use power equipment.  They had tryouts in the summer 1994.  If a player received a disciplinary report, he was off the team.  In October 1994, the San Quentin Pirates played an outside team, a San Francisco Giants fantasy team made up of white-collar professionals including lawyers, engineers, accountants, etc. The inmates played exceptionally well and held on to a 9-8 win. Some of Earl’s baseball players were released from prison over the years and have since become productive citizens.   “As I look back, I think reintroducing baseball to San Quentin Prison was one of the crowning achievements of my career,” says Earl.     

When Earl was young, his sister Betty Jo had a friend teach him to play chess to occupy his time and keep him off the streets.  Earl was hooked.  While he was chaplain, Earl heard about how the inmates played chess.  Each inmate would make a board and chess pieces from paper.  They drew numbers on the paper, corresponding to the squares on the chessboard.  Each inmate would call their moves to the other, such as “Number C to twenty.”  Earl started playing chess with the inmates.  If he won, they came to chapel.  While he played chess, Earl never brought his Bible.  “I believe in emulating Christ, not just talking about Him.” 

One day, Charles Manson, who was the mastermind behind the killing of 7 people including actress Sharon Tate and her husband, Hollywood director Roman Polanski in 1969, asked Earl to play chess. “Charlie is an average chess player,” says Earl.  “But his ability to keep his train of thought was incredible.”  If their game ended in the middle of a conversation, Charlie would pick up the conversation exactly where they left it off, even if it was weeks later.

REHABILITATION

Earl assembled a choir at San Quentin.  “I’ve always believed that part of the church experience must involve music,” says Earl.  Shortly after he arrived at the prison, Earl found a handful of singers and musicians to help spread God’s Word within the walls of San Quentin.  The chapel choir helped a lot of the inmates turn their lives around. 

During his tenure at San Quentin, Earl says he learned a lot about forgiveness.  “The refusal to forgive and the thirst for vengeance can lead people to make terrible decisions that ruin their lives,” says Earl.  He reminds us that forgiveness is the gift that rewards the giver.  Once we put down the burden of our own guilt, we can move down the path of righteousness. 

In the early 1990s, Earl mirrored the Promise Keeper’s male accountability program and called it Project IMPACT (Incarcerated Men Putting Away Childish Things).  It was clear that principles were lacking in the inmate population that would prevent ex-cons from thriving in the outside world when they were released.  Project IMPACT was conceived and written by incarcerated men as a self-help program for other inmates, including topics such as the definition of a son, a man, a husband and father. Later, Earl took the program into communities outside the prison Lessons include violence prevention, substance abuse and other addictions, relationships, ethics, etc.  They launched a similar program for women (WISE: Women Incarcerated Still Enduring) and one for children of inmates (AVARY: Alternative Ventures for At Risk Youth) since many children of incarcerated men also become incarcerated. 

Tank Parrish was an inmate at San Quentin.  He wanted to be in the choir, but no one wanted to be near him because he smelled.  (Tank didn’t know anything about hygiene.)  After Tank became a part of the group, he started showering and shaving.  He finally had a reason to live.  In October 2004, Tank was on the way to the bathroom and Earl heard him scream for help.  Earl caught Tank as he fell to the floor.  Many thought Tank was on drugs, but he had suffered an aneurysm.  After two days on life support, he died in Earl’s arms.  Tank’s death affected Earl more than any other, even more than the executions he had seen.  “I had witnessed his transformation and the joy he felt in serving the Lord.”  His death was a tragedy that caused Earl to retire in 2006.  “As I look back on my career at San Quentin, it’s clear that God’s hand was guiding me,” says Earl.  “I grew from being an angry kid…to being someone who heard God speak to him on a hospital gurney.  Each day I went to work, I expected to be a part of a miracle.  I expected God to do something special.”

In 1990, Earl began working as the team chaplain for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and MLB’s San Francisco Giants.

Guest Name / Person Interviewed or Featured in Article or Video: 
Earl Smith
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