Death Row part 1
This institution is the location of Death Row in my state. That sentence is an attention-getter but I found out when I visited at that time Death Row was integrated into the rest of the prison. It was not segregated, so to speak.
You mean the guys who are on death row are in your, uh, living area? I asked the inmate sitting across from me in the visiting room. I didn’t have the correct language.
Yeah, the next guy to go is right below me. I saw him this morning. As a matter of fact, he was just outside the door there. He refused a visit this morning.
He refused a visit? Why?
I don’t know. Just now.
Maybe it was his lawyer.
I walked in with a lawyer, he had a carrying case and a rolling file box full of documents and I offered to help him (he was older than me) but he told me he could bench press more than these bags and he does this all the time. In the hallway later as we were walking in together he opened with an irrelevant story about coming into the institution once with [horse] riding boots and how difficult it was to take them off, etc., I suppose his way of trying to roll off the rudeness with which he rejected my offer.
How many on death row would you say? I asked the fellow I was visiting. This was the first time I had met him and the first time I was given entry inside this institution.
About twenty eight, I think. It’s about one a month.
We were well into our conversation when death row came up, and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, etc., was all wrong. Frequently I am all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison.
No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them are of calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I read them through their eyes.
Later I looked it up. There was a challenge to the death penalty in my state in 2006, on the grounds that the lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because the instructions, the protocols around lethal injection were too vague, and were not administered by a qualified anesthesiologist.
The attorney general then, who later became governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and it does seem that the frequency approximated one a month. I don’t know if this was deliberate but it was mentioned by the man I was visiting as if it was.
I could see that executions happened with more frequency than under the previous two governors, but with even more frequency three and four governors ago, during the last decade of the twentieth century. The last decade of the twentieth century: more frequency of executions, anyone could see this with a simple search.
I didn’t want to dwell on the death row aspect of the institution, I had talked to this man several times on the phone but this was our first meeting. He had a lot to say.
He launched into his story though I don’t ask about their stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen, if it doesn’t I’m fine with that too. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit to this particular institution and I wasn’t approved for a class here, I could bring no materials with me. He had plenty to talk about and I listened and we talked a few things through, about the complexity of identities that he was working through, about what goes on inside himself and the institution, what it’s like for him, what he was looking to in the future, there were no silences as we sat head to head for several hours.
The details were rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice, but it is his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it is his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way.
On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains, I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of NO so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep coming back? I run into obstacles of no here and there and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? What sustains?
I was telling someone I know who has been in prison this story and he interpreted it for me. In prison you live in a reduced world, he said, it’s a small space and you came into it sat and listened to someone who gave over his expertise. It’s what he knows about. You listened.