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Death Row Chaplain

Unbelievable True Stories from America's Most Notorious Prison

About The Book

From a former criminal and now chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors, comes a riveting, behind-the-bars look at one of America’s most feared prisons: San Quentin. Reverend Earl Smith shares the most important lessons he’s learned from years of helping inmates discover God’s plan for them.

In 1983, twenty-seven-year-old Earl Smith arrived at San Quentin just like everyone thought he would. Labeled as a gang member and criminal from a young age, Smith was expected to do some time, but after a brush with death during a botched drug deal, Smith’s soul was saved and his life path was altered forever.

From that moment on, Smith knew God had an unusual mission for him, and he became the minister to the lost souls sitting on death row. For twenty-three years, Smith played chess with Charles Manson, witnessed twelve executions, and negotiated truces between rival gangs. But most importantly, Smith helped the prisoners of San Quentin find redemption, hope, and understand that it is still possible to find God’s grace and mercy from behind bars.

Edgy, insightful, and thought provoking, Death Row Chaplain teaches us that God’s grace can reach anyone—even the most desperate and lost—and that it’s never too late to turn our lives around.


Death Row Chaplain 1 Fighting for Acceptance
LOOKING BACK, I REALIZE NOW that a career in prison ministry probably appealed to me because I wasn’t much different from the inmates. In many ways, I was very much like the men and women whom society has cast aside for their crimes and mistakes. When I was younger, I wanted only what many of them are seeking: acceptance, attention, and love.

I came into the world fighting for acceptance, really from the day my parents brought me home from the hospital after my birth on January 29, 1956. I grew up on the east side of Stockton, California. We had a small house on Scotts Street, where I lived with my parents, Addie and Curtis Smith, and my sisters, Betty Jo and Sylvia, and brother, Curtis. My mother was a very peculiar person, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that she didn’t love me. I figured out that the best thing I could do was stay out of her sight.

When I was four years old, I was sitting in our living room with my mother and some of her friends. A newborn baby was sitting on one of the women’s laps. I realized the bottle was empty. “That baby ain’t got no milk,” I said.

All of a sudden, my mother turned and slapped me across the face. “Shut up, fool!” she shouted.

I was a little kid, so I didn’t know that babies sometimes suck on the nipples of empty bottles to pacify them. I was only trying to help, but my mother embarrassed me in front of her friends. Unfortunately, it is one of the most indelible memories of my childhood. It seemed like every time I tried to get close to my mother, something happened to push me away.
A Great Friend: Ossie
I realized when I was very young that my mother was always going to give the love and affection I so desired to someone else. Fortunately, my parents had hired an older woman, Ossie Pittsfield, to care for me when I was a baby. On the day my parents brought me home from the hospital, my mother handed me over to Ossie. She knew that I needed love, and she gave me every ounce of affection she had. She was one of the most influential people in my life, because she taught me how to love others. In many ways, Ossie rescued me from what would have been an otherwise miserable childhood.

Ossie lived in our house. I slept in a bedroom with her, she fed and bathed me, and spent more time with me than my mother ever did. On special occasions, I rode the bus with Ossie to visit her brother Roy, who worked as a porter on a train that came through town a couple of times a year. She packed Roy a big lunch, and we spent a few hours with him at the train station until he left for another adventure.

When I was six or seven years old, I came home from school and Ossie wasn’t there. My mother told me she had sent her packing. I was devastated and so angry. I went door to door in our neighborhood, frantically searching for Ossie, even though my mother had warned me not to do so. I found her living at a friend’s house a couple of blocks away; she’d rented a room there so she would be close enough to check on me. When my mother found out I’d been looking for Ossie, she spanked me for disobeying her. It didn’t stop me from going back to Ossie’s house the next day and many days thereafter.

In many ways, it was at this point in my life at which I stopped caring. If my mother was determined to take away the person who mattered most to me, I didn’t think there was much in the world worth living for. From that point forward, I took a turn for the worse and rebelled against my parents and any other authority figures.

As I grew older, though, I began to realize that my mother was incapable of loving me. I’ve learned over the years that, if people know better, they typically do better. I don’t think my mother had the capacity to raise me. When I was older, I learned that my mother had been married to another man when she was very young; he had been physically abusive. My mother ran away from him and his family and fled from Texas to California with her mother. My mom wasn’t even sixteen years old at the time.

After she married my father, I was the youngest of their four children and, by the time I was born, my mother apparently wasn’t interested in raising another child. I hated my mother then for not loving me, but she didn’t know any better. She gave whatever love she had to my older brother, which made me resent her even more and made me very envious of Curtis. At the age of fifteen, Curtis fathered a child, and I watched as my mother poured all of her love and affection on my nephew.
A Good Dad
I was much closer to my father, who loved me and was my protector. My father was the man of the house, and when he was home my mother tended to leave me alone. My father was born in Horatio, Arkansas, and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After being discharged from the Navy, he worked for twenty-eight years at the Sharpe Army Depot near Lathrop, California, which is a military distribution and storage facility. My father often had three jobs at once to make ends meet, as he also worked as a mechanic and at a local cannery. He was president of the local American Federation of Government Employees union, which gave him a tremendous amount of pride and power. Politicians would come to our house to talk with my father about getting votes. The majority whip in the U.S. Congress, John McFall, was one of his closest associates.

Even though my dad wasn’t home much, he still found time to serve as my Scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts and coach my Little League Baseball teams. He taught me how to fish and hunt. My dad was the superintendent of our Sunday school, and a choir director and trustee at our church. He instilled the importance of education in my siblings and me from an early age. My father was a high school graduate, took a lot of courses from the University of California–Berkeley, and even taught courses on labor relations. He made sure every one of his children did well in school and knew what was happening in the world. He made each of us read the newspaper and to have a report ready for him when he got home. Eventually, all of his children earned college degrees.

One of the most frightening episodes of my childhood was when my father was hospitalized for nearly a month. I was around twelve and too young to realize it at the time, but my father was an alcoholic. I had seen him drinking, but it grew progressively worse. My father had ulcers on his liver, and surgeons had to intervene. It seemed that his entire body was poisoned by alcohol. I was devastated that my dad wasn’t home. My mother wouldn’t take me to the hospital to see him, so I called him every night to make sure he was okay.

One day, I persuaded one of our neighbors, Mr. Holloway, whom the neighborhood kids called “Old Dude,” to take me to see my dad at the hospital. I brought along our family dog, Duke, an enormous German shepherd. My dad loved Duke and took him nearly everywhere he went. He often put Duke in the front seat of his car and put a hat on his head, so that all the kids in our neighborhood would see him.

When Mr. Holloway took Duke and me to the hospital to see my dad, I walked up to the window of his first-floor room. I put Duke’s paws on the windowsill and knocked on the glass. My dad saw us and started crying. I didn’t know it, but the doctors had told my dad he probably wasn’t going to live. When I later heard my mother talking to her friends about my dad’s condition, I took his gun and hid it under my bed. It was a pearl-handled Smith & Wesson .38 revolver. I figured if my dad died, I was going to kill myself. I knew there wouldn’t be anyone left to care for me. I also knew I needed a gun to protect myself if my father wasn’t around.

Thankfully, the doctors were able to save my father and he lived to be eighty-two years old.
Over Time, More Understanding
When I was twenty-six, my parents divorced. My parents believed that I would be happy they were splitting up, but I actually wished they’d remained married. I was really sad, because I wanted my children to see them intact. After all I’ve told you, you may wonder why. There’s more to the story.

My mother and I are not as close as I am sure both of us would like, for many reasons, what transpired during my childhood, and how I chose to live my life. But she’s my mom. Do I wish I had a better relationship with her? Of course.

My mother celebrated her eightieth birthday at the house in which I grew up. As I walked through the door, the videographer asked me, “Who are you, and what relationship do you have with Addie?” I told him I was her son. He said, “Yeah, a lot of people here are her kids, but I would like your name for the video.” I realized at that point how many people my mother had affected in a positive way. The people in our house were homeless mothers, women who had been in prison, and ministers. My mother had helped so many during her life and, as I walked through the house, I thought about my life up to that point, and wondered what I could have done differently.

My mother’s attitude toward me has not changed over the years. She still has few positive things to say about me, and chooses to spend time with nonfamily members rather than with my family or her grandchildren. That said, I still come away with the same conclusion: My mother just did not have the capacity to bond with and love me the way I wanted or needed. Of course, this hurt. I even thought that when I had children, she would somehow change and love them the way she didn’t love me. That hasn’t happened.

When I think of what things I could have done differently, first, I could have fought to develop a true relationship with her. I knew how to fight for everything else I wanted, but I didn’t try to have a permanent place in her life. Second, had my actions, the things she heard about me, the people I harmed, and the way I lived my life as a young man been different, perhaps she would have found it easier to display some level of love toward me.

Shortly after I took a job as the chaplain at San Quentin Prison, my father decided he was finally ready to stop drinking. He said he was going to a Veterans Affairs hospital to seek treatment. When we arrived at a facility in Martinez, California, I admitted my father, and Betty Jo, Sylvia, and I attended family therapy with him for the next several weeks. Eventually, my dad became very involved in my children’s lives, taking them to school some days, and attending their sporting events. My children always played their best games when my dad was in attendance. I guess they liked showing off for him.

Each of my parents eventually remarried, and my dad moved back to Arkansas. He became the pastor of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in his hometown of Horatio. Shortly before my dad died on August 21, 2009, my wife and I took our kids to see him. My children went fishing with him and our family had our last fish fry together. It was a good way for my children to remember him.
When my father wasn’t around during my childhood, my sister Betty Jo was my protector. She loved me and treated me as if I was her child. Betty Jo looked after me, made me study, and always made me feel special. I protected Betty Jo, too. I can remember standing in the parking lot of our church when I was probably only eight or nine years old. One of our friends—we called him “Rabbit”—was picking on Betty Jo and pulling her hair. I ran up behind him and tackled him in front of everyone. My dad must have been proud of what I’d done, because he actually took me to get ice cream after church, and I’m pretty sure Rabbit never messed with my sister again.

When we were much older, I learned that Betty Jo and her husband had gotten into a physical altercation. I was attending college in Dallas at the time, and I jumped on the first plane to Modesto, California. A friend picked me up at the airport, and I found Betty Jo’s husband and beat him up. Then I got back on a plane to Dallas and got the heck out of Modesto. Looking back, it was a foolish thing; I had claimed my life was changed, and was studying for a degree in religion at the time. But I’m always going to protect my sisters. They were there to protect me when I needed them most.

By the time Betty Jo was in high school, she was very good at concealing my delinquent behavior from my mother. She took an unbelievable amount of verbal abuse from my mom. I don’t think my mother wanted me to be close to anyone. Betty Jo was student body president of her high school, graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average, and received a full scholarship to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Betty Jo wasn’t far from home, but I was heartbroken when she left. She managed to come home a couple of times a month, bringing me books to read and making sure I was getting by.

In a lot of ways, my sister Sylvia was my soul mate. Whenever I was sick, Sylvia was sick. When I was ten, I had the mumps at the same time that Sylvia did.Even when I was away at college, Sylvia and I always seemed to be ill at the same time.

As I said earlier, my brother, Curtis, was my mother’s favorite son. They were always doing things together. I never understood why my mother liked spending so much time with my brother and not me. It was partly my fault, because I wouldn’t have wanted to associate with the kind of person I became when I was older. Curtis was a really good athlete, and he probably could have played college baseball, if not in the Major Leagues. He didn’t like to do the things I liked to do, which were hunting and fishing with my dad and running the streets.
My First Brush with an Execution
Curtis and I shared the same bedroom until he left for the Air Force after graduating from high school. We spent many nights talking about life, the way kids do. We had a transistor radio that we hid under our bed from our parents. On the morning of January 17, 1962, Curtis and I listened to news reports as the state of California prepared to execute Elbert Carter in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison. Carter was the son of a Stockton minister and, years later, I would attend college with his brother. I was only five years old at the time, so I didn’t have a complete understanding of what was happening. I certainly didn’t comprehend the moral and political issues surrounding an execution, but I still have vivid memories of that morning.

Carter was executed for killing a police officer. On the morning of April 22, 1960, a Stockton police officer, George Woehrle, had attempted to arrest Carter at his parents’ home. Carter, who was twenty-three at the time, had been searching for work. He was on the eligibility list for employment as a psychiatric technician at the Stockton State Hospital, and had even taken examinations to become a probationary patrolman with the Stockton police department. A good life seemed to be ahead of him. However, Carter had been romantically involved with a younger woman who had given birth to their child, and an arrest warrant was issued for him on charges of statutory rape.

Woehrle picked up Carter at his parents’ home and they left in the police officer’s unmarked station wagon. At some point, a struggle ensued inside the car and it stopped about three miles from Carter’s home. During the criminal trial, witnesses testified they saw Woehrle and Carter fighting, and that Carter shot Woehrle multiple times with a .22 revolver he’d hidden. Carter tried to escape in the station wagon, but three California Highway Patrol officers shot one of the car’s tires during a high-speed chase. Carter ran into a nearby home, where he fired at officers before surrendering. A jury convicted him of murder and other crimes, and he was sentenced to death.

A couple of days later, I accompanied my mother to San Joaquin Memorial Mortuary in Stockton to attend Carter’s viewing. I cannot say why my mother took me to see the body. My father knew his father, a minister, through the church. It may have just been curiosity; the mortuary was in our neighborhood, and we may have been passing by, and she decided to stop and view the body.

I still remember how dark his skin looked from his dying in the gas chamber. Nobody in my family ever talked about the incident again, and I certainly never brought the subject up with his brother. For whatever reason, it was a huge moment in my life. No one ever talked about it, but I never forgot.

I couldn’t have known that it wouldn’t be the last time that I would see a condemned man’s face.

About The Authors

Photograph © Kym Fortino

Rev. Earl Smith became the youngest chaplain ever hired by the California Department of Corrections when he was asked to become the chaplain at San Quentin in 1983. In 2000, Earl was named National Correctional Chaplain of the Year. He currently serves as chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors. He has appeared on HBO, CNN, The 700 Club, Trinity Broadcasting and the Discovery Channel, and has been featured in Newsweek and Time. He was born and raised in Stockton, California, where he lives today with his wife, Angel, and their children Ebony, Earl Jr., Tamara, and Franklin.

Photograph by The Washington Post

Mark Schlabach is the coauthor of the New York Times bestselling books, Happy, Happy, Happy, Si-cology 1, and The Duck Commander Family. He is one of the most respected and popular college football columnists in the country. He and his wife live in Madison, Georgia, with their three children.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Howard Books (April 19, 2016)
  • Length: 264 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476777788

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Raves and Reviews

"With the eloquence of a gifted sage, Earl A. Smith delivers a kind of visceral imagery that can only be acquired by firsthand knowledge of a life lived on both sides of the bars. He is uniquely qualified to bring the untold tales of faith, endurance, and perseverance from inside one of the world’s most notorious prisons."

– Bishop T.D. Jakes

“This book shows how one man’s life was changed not by iron bars, but by a leather book. That book allowed him to open his heart towards the love that God had for him, which changed his life, changed his household, and ultimately changed the trajectory of the future generations of his family.”

– Mike Singletary, coach and NFL Hall of Famer

“A riveting, clear-eyed but supremely compassionate journey, through one of the darkest corners of the American judicial system. Death Row Chaplain compels the reader to a renewed assessment and appreciation of the human potential for constructive, even inspired, change.”

– Harry Edwards, Ph.D., professor emeritus of sociology, U.C. Berkeley and consultant for the San Francisco Forty Niners, the NFL, and the NBA

“Chaplain Earl Smith is a man of real integrity and unusually effective in dealing with inmates in prison. He also has enjoyed great ability in communicating as a chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors. He is highly socially mobile being able to deal with the elite athletes in the world and the most notorious criminals. There are very few ministers that have this range of communication abilities, but Earl certainly does.”

– Bill Glass, founder of the largest prison ministry in America, Beyond the Walls

“Earl Smith traces his remarkable journey from a crime-filled youth, including a near-death experience at the wrong end of a gun, to his ministries to the most hardened of criminals at San Quentin. It is a tale of redemption that has lessons for us all, including the emancipating power of forgiveness over the coercive reflex of revenge.”

– Thomas D. Gardner, former president of Reader’s Digest U.S. Books and Home Entertainment

“The stories of triumph and the stories of adversity are the stories that allow us to evolve. I hope you read this book and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. You will be truly inspired.”

– Ronnie Lott, NFL Hall of Famer

"Rev. Earl Smith's book takes us into San Quentin, an unforgiving and forgotten dark place where the light of God is powerfully at work. The inspirational stories from behind the bars remind us that grace and mercy is for all people—a message for everyone."

– Rev. Dr. Pablo R. Diaz, Vice President of Ministries, Guideposts

"Smith's stories reveal the power of redemption in the lives of those whom society thinks are unsalvageable."

– Publishers Weekly

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