MINISTER of Death Row

I always thought of myself as being a bad kid. When I was young, I had to work hard at it. But with drugs, being bad came natural … . It’s a true miracle that I can function today as a responsible person,” said the Reverend Al Paquette, as he lounged in the serene splendor of his fortified compound in an undisclosed location. As the founder and shepherd of a local prison ministry that provides redemption and benedictions at more than 50 prisons throughout the country, you can’t be too careful. But, despite his saintly convictions, Paquette has a sordid history involving more than 30 years of gang violence, larceny, grand theft auto, drug use, and general hooliganism. In his youth, his activities consisted of manic, senseless marauding, fraught with antisocial behavior and gross criminality.  

grew up in South Swansea, Massachusetts,” said Paquette. “At the time, it wasn’t the best place to grow up. Basically, if you didn’t want to be messed with, you had to join a gang. So some friends and I formed a gang called ‘Pure Hell,’ and when I was 16 years old, I became the leader. Mostly because I had all the ‘good’ ideas.”

As their leader, Paquette was responsible for organizing the group’s various civic activities, including but not limited to pilfering food, stealing cars, breaking-and-entering, looting police cruisers, and, most memorably, buying, selling and consuming wholesale quantities of just about every illicit substance known in the Western Hemisphere.

This drug-addled chaos lasted another three years, until, at 19 years old, Paquette joined the National Guard.

Though Paquette was able to extricate himself from a life of crime, over the next 11 years, drugs and alcohol remained a formidable fixture of his daily regimen. “I was drinking as much as I could and getting as high as possible every night. For 11 years, my family watched me drown myself in liquor night after night; I was retching constantly,” Paquette said solemnly.

Finally, in September 1985, Paquette’s life took a dramatic turn. “I went out riding that night with a good friend who spoke to me about God. It was also the first time that someone had actually described hell to me. It was terrifying,” said Paquette. “ … But I didn’t get on my knees and ask forgiveness or anything like that. I just smoked another joint and went to bed.”

“The next morning, I was brought out of a dead sleep with this deep, intense pain in my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack,” said Paquette. “It took me two days to figure out what had happened.”

Paquette believes the pain was God working within him. This powerful and transformative experience gave him the drive to get his GED, and then attend Valencia Community College, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies.

“Going to college was a trip,” said Paquette. “Here I am, 35 years old, going to class with a bunch of kids. I was working 50 hours a week at the time, so I took night classes twice a week. It took me four years to get my associate’s degree, and another 11 years to receive my bachelor’s. I guess you could say I was pretty busy for those 15 years.”

In December 1999, Paquette says, he finally divined his true purpose, which led him to launch the humble beginnings of his prison ministry. Since then, for the past 16 years, Paquette has been slowly building his ministry, crusading from one cellblock to the next.

He has since travelled throughout the contiguous United States, as well as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, doing the Lord’s work at every prison, jail and correctional facility he can. “I go to these prisons because I see myself in a lot of these guys,” said Paquette. “I should be behind those bars, but for whatever reason, God had a different plan for me.”

Paquette also makes monthly visits to Death Row at Union Correctional Institution in Starke, which houses some of Northeast Florida’s most notorious convicted killers.

“I go to Death Row once a month,” said Paquette. “This is where I do what God has called me to do. It’s about 160 miles from my house and I blast up there on my bike, making sure to take the long way back so I can unwind. There are 14 doors you have to go through to get all the way back to Death Row, 12 of which require you to be buzzed in by armed guards in a control room … The first thing that hits you is the heat and stink of the place.”

“ … Many guys have been there for over 25 years, just sitting in their 6-foot-by-9-foot cell with a locker, toilet, sink, bunk, a TV and a little fan. That’s it. That is their life. They will never touch a blade of grass again. They’ll always be surrounded by concrete.

“They’ll never see a puppy dog. They’ll never again touch another human being. All their visits are through a glass panel with a phone.”

A peculiar facet of Paquette’s ministry is his passion for motorcycles and an almost compulsive desire to share that passion with others. This passion led to Paquette’s foray into building and designing a custom chopper he’s named the “Doin’ Time Chopper,” a chromed-out, big-wheeling 500-pound salute to all the men and women “doin’ time.”

“It has been my dream for over 40 years to build a radical chopper, and it has many authentic prison artifacts,” said Paquette.

For example, the bike’s Allen head bolt covers are bullet shells from a prison rifle range, the fender struts are peerless handcuffs and the black back fender is adorned with razor wire. The license plate bracket is a prison door handle, which is in turn bolted to a “bean flap,” which was used to serve food to prisoners.

The horn is made from a prison tattoo gun and the front break caliper is actually an artifact from the Ohio State Reformatory where the 1994 Academy Award-winning movie, The Shawshank Redemption, was filmed.

For Paquette, this bike doubles as a metaphor for allowing God into your life. “I took raw steel and built this bike into a thing of beauty,” said Paquette. “God can take you, as you are, and rebuild your life into something beautiful, too.”

Part of Paquette’s annual crusade involves accompanying R.O.O.T. — Motorcycle Prison Ministry, another Floridian ministry, on its annual excursion to Marion Correctional Institution in Ocala.

R.O.O.T., an acronym for “Runnin’ Out Of Time,” was founded in 2007 by Tom and Debbie Whisenant. On its website, the nonprofit states, “We take the gospel of Jesus Christ on our motorcycles behind the wire of prisons all over the state of Florida.”

R.O.O.T. is a 400-strong traveling band of Visigoth-like preachers and ministers who run their iron horses fast and loud across the Florida highways and back roads, from one prison to the next. On Nov. 5, the group visited Marion C.I., a medium-security prison with a maximum population of just over 1,300.

“We are soldiers; our battle is in the back yard of the enemy,” says the R.O.O.T. website.

It was seven in the morning when the 20 or so motorcycle Huns roared into the Marion C.I. parking lot.

The sun had yet to rise, but you could see the prison fences looming ominously in the predawn black. Faint outlines of spiraling razor wire girded the tops and sprawled outward to the surrounding fields like hell-born vines.

“That stuff is computer-designed,” explained Paquette. “As you move through it, it only cuts deeper. Before you know it, you’re wrapped in the stuff.”

Most of the members had arrived by 7:30 a.m. and were congregating around their bikes. Most have felony or other convictions and transgressions and have since renounced their ne’er-do-well ways and devoted themselves to helping others find forgiveness and salvation through Christ.

To name a few, there’s Rockin’ Rob, the bedraggled minstrel of the group, who did seven years and seven months behind bars. There’s Joseph Suggs, or just Suggs, who sat in prison for more than 15 years, and then there’s John Teixeira, or Big Tex, a swarthy pillar of flesh and muscle who previously had stacked sentences of 30 years, 60 years, plus a life sentence for a lifetime of crime and debauchery before mysteriously having all charges dropped.

“I should never have gotten out,” said Big Tex. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be where I am today. It was only by the grace of God that I got out. You know, I worked with Pablo Escobar and one of the largest drug cartels that ever came out of Colombia. I owned Siberian tigers, penthouses and exotic luxuries that you will likely never know.

“But I don’t want any of that. I want to serve God, and help others find salvation through Him, so that He can give them a second chance like He gave me.”

Before entering through the towering electric gate, the marauding ministers have a custom of taking a few laps around the prison’s perimeter, for a proper public wake-up call. The thundering, fuel-injected reveille shook the sleep from the morning air as the 20 dynamos rumbled in unison.

The R.O.O.T. volunteers call it “The Jericho,” after the battle of Jericho in which the Israelite army leveled the walls of the city after marching around the perimeter — blowing their trumpets of war.

Once inside, we were directed to the recreation field, an impressive open space complete with a basketball court, football field, soccer field, baseball diamond, and even a bocce ball court. The ministry set up on the basketball court, the bikes lined up in a halo, while rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop blared from a makeshift tent as they waited for the influx of prisoners to the field.

By 10 a.m., the ministry was well underway, each member giving their own testimony, speaking of their nefarious pasts, as well as their salvation. Here we met Matt Williams, a scrawny, pale-faced man of middle age and average height who has been at Marion C.I. since 2013. Williams has previously served more than 27 years at other prisons throughout the country. He’s now serving a life sentence on a first-degree murder conviction and has little to no chance of parole.

“R.O.O.T. offers classes here biweekly that I always try to attend,” said Williams. “There would probably be a lot more chaos here without these guys. Even when they leave, everybody seems to be a lot calmer and more forgiving. For me, R.O.O.T. just gives me so many opportunities to not only get out of my cell, but also to make a positive impact on my life and others’ [lives].

“They’ve just shown me so much care and compassion. They don’t care what I’ve done, they just accept me and love me for who I am now. It just really touches my heart, and I want to give that back to the others here.”

Jack York, one of the older and more laid-back of the inmates, is also serving a life sentence. He looks like a poorly drawn caricature of Ben Stein. York had previously lived in Duval County for a short time, but later moved, due to marital issues.

York freely expounded on the positive effect that the ministry has had on him.

“I’ll never be forgiven by those I hurt — nor forgive myself — for what I did,” said York. “But what’s done is done. I can’t change that. But what I can do is give myself to God, and try to live through Him and do right. I’ve known Paquette and R.O.O.T. for a while now, and they just really show people that despite what others may say or think about them, that God still loves them, no matter how bad things might seem or get. All you have to do is let Him into your life.”

Exhausted and hungry after eight hours of preaching, the ministry finally left the prison at 3:30 p.m. in a cavalcade of thunder and exhaust.

As they rolled out, one could see a sincere sense of joy and victory in their faces. Of course, they had reason beyond a good day’s work to rejoice: At the end of the day, they were able to leave the fortress of concrete and steel, say goodbye to the wholly regimented and stagnant existence of shit-food, ill-tempered guards and no immediate future.

The ministers and volunteers like Paquette and the members of R.O.O.T. do what they can, and hope, in the end, that their god will show the same mercy to others as he has shown to them. For Paquette, he must live with the uncertainty of who will be offered that second chance, and who will be condemned to perpetual confinement.

“The most rewarding experience is finding someone I’ve talked with inside prison who is now finding success outside of prison. Although it deeply saddens me when I have to see them go back,” said Paquette.

Up till now, Paquette’s life has been one of constant flux and flow. Bad trips and good trips; fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others. If nothing else, Paquette is a living testament to the extremes of the human experience; a visible proof that people can change for the better.

“Even if I never get through to some of them [the inmates], I still want to be there for them. They don’t have much else,” said Paquette.