George Williams, S.J.

He Meets Inmates Where They Are

USF Jesuit brings grace to San Quentin State Prison

For Dwight Krizman, Sunday Mass at San Quentin is the only time he can escape.

“It’s when prison disappears for a moment,” he says. “It’s really a grace-filled, holy moment.”

Krizman, 64, a former Los Angeles film director, is in the first decade of serving 50 years to life for second-degree murder. He was convicted of killing his wife in 2002.

There are 3,500 inmates like Krizman at San Quentin State Prison, all ministered to by George Williams, S.J., of USF, the prison’s Catholic chaplain. He supports another 734 men on death row.

“As chaplain, I answer a need,” says Fr. Williams. “These prisoners experience a lot of loneliness and isolation.”

With fewer Catholic priests in prison ministry, Fr. Williams now trains lay people for the work. He records a monthly webinar at USF for the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, which he co-founded, and regularly has a worldwide audience of 400 or more.

“There’s a very steep learning curve with prison ministry,” says Fr. Williams, a prison chaplain in Boston for 20 years before moving to San Quentin. “You need experience, common sense, and good training. Often times people go in with good intentions but they don’t have the training.”

At San Quentin, he leads Sunday Mass for about 100 inmates. Working at San Quentin five days a week, he visits the death row inmates, meets with inmates who are struggling, and provides support for about 75 Catholic volunteers.

“When I look at the inmates, I think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’” says Brian Gagan, of San Francisco, a volunteer at San Quentin for three years.

Fr. Williams’ homilies are laced with practical advice for men who will likely spend the rest of their lives incarcerated. “God is not about punishment,” he says. “Prison is about punishment. God is about healing.”

The inmates, in blue shirts stamped with CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) on the back, offer prayers during the Prayer of the Faithful. “I ask for a blessing for my family,” says one. “Bless me as I go before the [probation] board,” says another.

At the Sign of Peace, the pews empty as the inmates move around the chapel murmuring “Peace be with you” and shaking hands. All join in to sing with a band of musicians, including Krizman on drums.

“Fr. George is gracious enough to give us enough time to work as musicians and come to this moment at Mass,” Krizman says. “The Mass is the highlight of our week.”

By Mary McInerney, USF News

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