As men and women alike await the ultimate punishment for the crimes alleged against them, days turn into months, months into years and years into decades. Most of America’s condemned are securely locked away in one state’s or another maximum – security prison. These peole condemned by society, dreadfully face unthinkable consequences for the unthinkable crimes he or she may be accused of. This is not a debate of any individual’s guilt or innocence; rather it is but a mere glimpse into a day in the life of the condemned.
Contrary to the mainstream media hype, today’s prisons, especially maximum security facilities are far from being country clubs; but remain as some of the most outdated, rundown and dilapidated dungeons that might well shock the good conscious of any decent, compassionate individual.
Time seems to lose all significance, and the extended periods of confinement are a challenge to the most stable of souls. Very often the solitude and combined degradation take its toll on the frail human psyche; each day a semi carbon copy of the last, with no change expectedin the future. The many people I’ve met on death row have hopes, dreams, and a strong will to contend with the predicament of being sentenced to die. Still, there are a few who are sadly resigned to surrender to the government that seeks to steal, kill, or destroy in the name of justice. For the indigent, the illiterate, and the incompetent there is virtually no reason to expect anything but certain death. The truth of the matter is, many of America’s condemned have already died in spirit; to be left alone in a foreign world of the capital crimes justice system, abandoned by loved ones) is a terribly difficult challenge. Probably because of the natural human instincts, many of today’s condemned hope to be spared the ultimate experience of suffering their demise at the hands of America’s justice system.
At the death row facility where I am housed, prisoners are confined to one-man cells 24 hours a day, thats all day every day unless the prisoner has a lawyer visit or occasionally recieves a visit from a family member or friend. The cell is a 7×9 cubical comprised of three solid concrete walls and the traditionalsteel-bar grill serving as the front wall, providing an open view of the cell to all passerby’s. Accomodations in each cell include a steel bunk with a flat cotton mattress, a locker for personal possessions, a black and white 12″ tv, and a combination sink / toilet as well as a flourescent light. There are fourteen one-man cells on each cell block and there are 24 seperate wings. This facility was designed with close security interests in mind; its a technologically advanced structure with remote control locks, doors, etc. And throughout each day one can hear the seemingly incessant buzzing of doors, locks and the slamming of solid steel doors. There is no carpet or central heat or air conditioning , meals are delivered to the prisoner in his cell, each prisoner is fed three times daily, the regular but often very bland and scanty institutional meal served on a plastic tray. A diet hardly sufficient to satiante the average adult appetite. Prisoners who enjoy the financial support of family and friends can counter balance the poor diet with canteen items such as sandwiches, soups, candy bars, chips etc but all too often many prisoners face long hungry nights; its very unfortunate. Day to day activities include talking, playing chess, watching TV, listening to the radio (if a prisoner can afford to buy one) or writing letters to friends and family or to an overworked public defender, or a post defender, or a post conviction attorney whose equally overburdened.
Death row, not unlike any other part of the prison is tattered with all sorts of individuals, there is no single description that would describe every prisoner, and while there are some truly sick and evil prisoners may well be victims have been sentenced to die, this is the exception rather than the rule, as most death row prisoners may well be victims of circumstances themselves, or persons guilty of killing someone, but not guilty of the death penalty, but not being fortunate enough to have a qualified attorney representing them at trial, they were and are wrongly convicted of first degree murder and subsequently wrongly sentenced to death. From day to day one can lie back on his bunk and listen to one legal horror story after another, as fellow prisoners attempt to get the next to see his point.
A condemned prisoner can survey his whole “house” with one quick sweep of his eyes. It’s essentially a bathroom with a bunk where the tub would be. He spends so much time in his cell that he knows every crack and rusty paint chip. If its winter its extemely cold on the wing; if its summer its extremely hot. It stinks the same regardless of the season, the air thick with the odor of smoking, sweaty, dirt defecating men.
The staggering task that is every mans burden on the row is filling the hours until he can sleep again. The optionsarefew, there is talk, endless disembodied, mostly insane talk, the prisoner steps to the front of his cell and begins talking loudly and his voice echoes along the wing. No one can see him because all cells face the same way with thick wall between them. Talking this way is called “getting on the door” and some men will be on the door for hours, yammering about cars, politics, sex and every possible subject. They’ll bet whether it will rain by sunset; some men are insane and will rave about astro projection of screaming vaginas or men coming through the vent at them at night. Fourteen men live on eachwing so the conversations get stale, yet it continues month after month, year after year.
Reading passes more time, at least among the men who can read. Books, magazines, and newspapers make their way from cell to cell. After lunch, perhaps an hour can be killed by a nap, and then a literate prisoner has writing to do to his family, friends and lawyers. Bad poems, bad novels, journal entries spun from empty days, convuluted claims of innocence to be shipped off to journalists, legal briefs challenging prison conditions. We used to be able to paint, draw, or even crochet but prison officials put a stop to it under claims of security. And still all of these activities don’t begin to fill the time, not when there are 365 identical days of the year and the years pile up. A condemned man learns to make picture frames from aluminum foil. He plays chess with the man three or four cells away by shouting his moves.
Caged in a cell, even the most stable man belt on self destruction needs something more powerful than his own wits to get him through. That something is TV, it drives the hard liners in the legislature crazy to think that the death row prisoners have TVs in their cells. It would be hard to find a guard who opposes TV. TV is the only thing that makes death row manageable. Prison staff call the TVs the electronic tranquilizers, we call them idiot boxes. Once a law maker told a prison official he should take all the TVs from us vermin; the warden told him, you take them, this place could not exist without them.
The luxury that makes time barely endurable is the canteen. For each man, the prison maintains a sort of bank account where the inmate collects the money he gets from family and friends. He is allowed to spend $45 a week on canteen items. Since he can’t get out of his cell, the canteen comes to him. On Saturdays we fill orders (if the man has money in his account) and bring it on Mondays. Cigarettes, chips, sandwiches, soup, soap, pastries and various other items. People on the row can make nearly anything for any purpose. He uses a hand held mirror as a spook to look down the hall to see if a guard is coming or not. He learns to make a water bug, a crude wire heating element that can boil water for coffee and soups.
Twice a week, two wings go outside for recreation, there is just enough space for half a basketball court, a volleyball court and a little extra space to stand out of the way. More blacks than whites play basketball and more whites than blacks to play volleyball. A chain link fence seperates the death row inmates from the yard prison population. Some men don’t come outside at all for reasons of safety. Three times a week after dinner there are showers. A man strips down to his boxers, puts on his shower slides and walks with the guard down the hall to the shower which is the size of his cell, he is locked in to wash for 5 minutes then put back in his cell.
And being human, death row prisoners also have a sense of humor and spend many afternooks “kicking the bobo” tht is jocularly teasing and jesting one another. Over time, you can come to know, like, and even have genuine friendships with a fellow prisoner, sure in the back of one’s mind, he or she may never know whether their friend was once a murderer, but at the present time he or she is simply another human being that reciprocates ones friendship. There are bad days on death row, days full of stress, confusion inexplicable heartache, the heart of the condemned is not always callous and unfeeling. I’ve heard the news reporting on capital defendants who showed no remorse, but I’ve heard grown men cry into their pillows. Did anyone take the man seriously when he earnestly and sincerely apologized for an act the man himself still is hard pressed to comprehend?
The light goes out at 11 pm but only the cell light go out, the corridor lights always stay on. The TVs stay on 24 hours a day. The prison is never completely quiet, gates are always clanging, there’s the tread of guards feet, nightmare ravings of the insane, muffled sobs of despair. The night eases into morning and another day begins on death row.