No one is beyond the salvation of God, not even Herbert “Pee Wee” Perkins, a mentally-ill man sentenced to life in the nation’s most locked-down prison in Colorado.
The 37-year-old, who was imprisoned for armed robbery at the Supermax prison in Florence, was recognized at the Capuchin friars’ annual Brown Robe Benefit at the Grand Hyatt Denver Hotel in October.
“This prisoner has undergone a remarkable transformation,” said his attorney Ed Aro of Arnold and Porter LLP, in a video about the friar’s prison ministry.
Perkins’ penciled depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which he asked to be used to help the poor, was auctioned off for $3,000 at the gala.
“No one ever trained him. It’s a beautiful work of art he gave us,” said Father Cyrus Gallagher, O.F.M., Cap.
The Denver friar began ministering to Perkins when he entered prison at 15 years old.
The inmate, born into a family entrenched in the gang culture in New Mexico, was given drugs by his parents, including cocaine, at a young age.
“His father and uncles and everyone in his neighborhood were members of a Hispanic street gang,” Aro said in the video. “As a child, that was the life he was almost inevitably drawn into.”
His father reportedly shot himself in the head when talking to Perkins on the phone. Since then, Perkins has been diagnosed with major depression, antisocial personality disorder, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a lawsuit filed in 2012.
He attempted suicide twice after entering the Supermax prison in 2008. Officials denied him medication for his depression.
The Capuchin Franciscans visit prisoners, including the poor and sick, like Perkins at Supermax, the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood and youth detention centers.
“(These are) human beings that have made big mistakes, but no one is beyond the salvation and redemption of the Lord,” said fellow Capuchin Franciscan, Father Barnabas Eichor, O.F.M., Cap.
When Father Gallagher visited Perkins, he talked about God’s desire to forgive. He said the prisoner’s heart began to open up.
A transformation began for Perkins inside his 12-by-7-foot cell.
Using the talents he once used for gang graffiti, Perkins drew an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in blue, orange, pink and green.
He gave the image to the friar who had it framed. Father Gallagher shared with Perkins how the original artwork was auctioned off during their annual gala.
With tears, he reportedly told the friar, “This is the first time anyone ever affirmed me for anything good I ever tried to do.”
Father Gallagher said in the gala video, “I, too, got teary-eyed because under the circumstances this was a major thing.”
Aro later represented Perkins and other inmates in a June 2012 lawsuit alleging the Bureau of Prisons transferred mentally-ill prisoners to Supermax in violation of its policy against housing such inmates there.
Some prisoners in the suit reportedly swallowed razor blades, mutilated themselves, suffered hallucinations and attempted suicide.
Perkins was recently transferred to a prison in Atlanta where he’ll receive mental health care.
The Capuchin Franciscans of Mid-America are members of a religious order that together minister to the underserved in more than 100 countries worldwide. They follow the example of St. Francis of Assisi to surrender their worldly possessions and commit their lives to those in greatest need.
Aro likened the friar’s prison ministry to “going to visit the lepers who no one else wants to touch.”