The day I walked onto death row, I felt like an alien, my mind a haze of confusion and disbelief I’d never felt before. I wore sadness on my shoulders and disaster behind my eyes. The thud in my chest was of condemnation.
With leaden steps, I walked into a warped capsule that was desolate, though filled with men. Men with empty gazes and dejected postures, like forgotten relics tarnished by the cruelties of incarceration. I had never seen a walking dead man before, I was now cast amongst the lot of them. I dragged what was left of my mother’s son and my state-issued property into a dim 6×10 single cell, collapsed onto the folds of a mattress, and cried. As sleep reached up to cradle me, I prayed that I would not wake up again.
The next morning was better than expected. Some guys woke me to see if I wanted breakfast. A part of me viewed the gesture as thoughtful, another part, suspicious. I arose, stiff and exhausted, yet feeling more like myself. My survival instincts kicked in, I had to get it together. I studied the cell which was to become my permanent residence. Along the back wall was a vertical window of thick Plexiglas, shielded by a steel plate. Each wall, scarred with graffiti and chipped paint, with globs of toilet paper plastered over a cooling vent, and a toilet that was crude, steel, and indecent. Worst of all was the place upon where I was to lay each night, a thin metal slab bolted to the wall beneath a tatty mattress darkened with stains. I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs with the putrid smell of my reality, and found acceptance.
Later that day, I was informed by staff to pack up my property, and move to another block. There were two co-defendants expected to arrive and they had to be housed separately. I walked onto another pod, identical to the one I’d left, except this one seemed smaller and cramped. Metal-framed bunks furnished a day room area that resembled a military barracks more than a prison block. Stashed away in the far reaches of a darkened corner was a tiny cavity – the shower. Single-man cells spanned an upper and lower tier as inmates meandered from room to room. Some inmates loitered around the day room tables, while others sat wide-eyed before a blurred TV screen. There was one particular table designated as the gambling spot, where several men smoked stogies and drank coffee over a card game. The entire dorm was veiled in clouds of tobacco smoke, the air stale and suffocating.
I received several glances, though no one paid me much attention. They carried on as if to make me feel less uncomfortable. A tall, lanky guy sauntered over and indicated which bunk was mine. His accent was West Indian. I felt obliged though I couldn’t help but wonder what he was up to. We made brief introductions as I put my things away. He said that we’d chat later when I was done.
Suddenly, a balding, middle-aged white guy launched himself up from the card game, his face twisted and steaming. He slammed his palm down on the table, puffed his chest, and roared, “This muthafucka ain’t got a god damn thang! He’s just calling to be calling! I’ll tell ya what… call me one more time, sum-bitch, I’mma give you sumptin to call about!”
The threat permeated throughout the room in search of its victim. I froze. The West Indian guy assured me that everything was fine, and that the uproar was deliberate and quite common. I asked what were they playing and he answered, “Penny poker.” Penny poker? I had never seen anyone make such a ruckus over pennies. Apparently, neither had the pudgy blond-haired guy who was being yelled at. With his fingers interlaced and shoulders scrunched, his eyes roamed as low as the floor would allow. I felt sorry for him. I made a promise to myself not to gamble.
Several minutes passed before another guy approached me and introduced himself. His face was mostly hidden under the bill of a cap and tinted shade, and he grinned as though he knew something no one else did. I was immediately suspicious, and nervous. His upper teeth were crowned with gold fronts and he talked with the exaggerated swagger of an old-school pimp. He was strange and mysterious; the type of guy that whispers for no reason. In no time at all he was whispering to me.
“Aye, yo. I’ve gotta way outta here. You wanna get outta here, don’t cha?” Hell yeah, I wanted out of there, more than anything. A longing for my family erupted inside me and bubbled over like fizzled cola. I didn’t know the guy, nor trust him, but if he had a way to break out of death row, I wasn’t going to pass it up. He turned and headed for his room as I followed closely on his heels, cautious yet optimistic. The guy entered first. I checked behind me to be sure no one followed. From the doorway, I observed a room that was well kept, with books lined neatly inside a wall locker and cosmetics situated atop a steel countertop. In the middle of the floor was an Islamic prayer rug. I was scared as shit when I entered.
The guy reached for a book, opened it, and began speaking to me about something he called the Pan African movement. He said that we needed to elevate the conscience of black people to break loose the mental shackles of our oppressors. What the hell? I kept waiting for him to peel back the prayer rug to reveal an underground passage, one that he had tunneled out with a spoon. He didn’t. I was disappointed to learn that there would be no path back to my family. I began feeling smothered under the dense layers of captivity.
Later that night, while most inmates were locked in their cells, there were a few of us assigned to the day room bunks due to overcrowding. I considered this a privilege since we were allowed to move around after lights out, stay up all night and talk. The arrangement was similar to the county jail, so the transition was smoother than I imagined. Around midnight, the door to the pod squealed open and in walked a clean-cut baby face young’un. There were tattoos on his arms and a bob in his step, yet his eyes held a certain unexpectedness. I was laid back on the bunk thumbing through an African book for my freedom. The young guy put his things away, turned, and offered me a cigarette. His courtesy compelled me to open up to him. He and I talked the remainder of the night about nothing.
One day, young’un was upset with a mutual friend of ours, and wanted me to decide between the two. When I didn’t, young’un was upset with me. The situation carried on for weeks, in which time we both learned things about each other that we didn’t like – young’un was stubborn, and I was frustrated. Our friendship became strenuous after that.
A few years would pass, and I hardly recognized young’un. He grew troubled in a way that even his smile seemed to ache. I know why he was hurting, the same as I. It was the difficulty of living without his family. I reached out to the young’un several times, but he shut me out. The shadows of his transgressions were upon him and there would be no defeating his inner demons. On August 5th 2007, young’un hung himself with a bed sheet. He was 28.
Afterwards, death row changed for me. Before, I had hoped for a reversal and acquittal. Suddenly, the chaos was real; the likelihood that I would not leave death row alive. An anger inside me stirred for the executions past. I thought about my legacy and how I’d be remembered. I didn’t want the pain that I’d caused to be the end of my chapter. I didn’t want my voice stifled away in a pine box. I didn’t want my children to wonder the kind of father I would’ve been, nor my accusers to determine the man I was. I didn’t want my life to be a blemish on history.
What I wanted was to have a say in how I am remembered. I wanted the people I loved to know that I tried to be a better man. I’d seen how regrets could consume a man’s spirit, I wanted my regrets to be a tool for a change. And if it should be that I would perish on death row, then I wanted nothing more than to be at peace with myself. That is why I write.