On April 13, 2000, I was convicted of capital murder. Despite endless pleas of innocence, fallacious testimony of witnesses, and a substantial amount of physical evidence supporting my acquittal, a body of jury members determined that my humanity was beyond repair and sentenced me to death. Hours later, I walked onto Death Row, a fragment of the aspiring young son that my mother raised. I prayed that every door that clanged shut behind me was a pinch that would rouse me from the ghastly nightmare. I was numb, and with the best part of me eroded, there really wasn’t anything left to be executed. I was deemed worthless and unfit, forfeited to venomous IV drips and decades of incessant mental anguish. That man’s life expired the day the world gave up on me.
Since then, I have ascended beyond the threshold of Death Row twice. Once in 2010 for a court session where I was treated like a leper by citizens who held me at the leashed end of their opinions, and again today, December 16, 2016, when I was scheduled to see a dermatologist for possible acne.
The sting of ostracism was immediate as myself and two other Death Row inmates were escorted to an area in the prison known as ‘Receiving’. Officers from different units shuffled to and fro, as though we were unnoticeable. Some sported faint smiles, while their eyes held glints of familiarity. Their seniority was somewhat validated by their capacity to fraternize with Central Prison’s most notorious. Corralled in a holding cell that reeked of stale urine, we were put on display through dense Plexiglas like weapons grade cargo on a showroom floor. Inmates from various statewide facilities scrutinized us, as though our red jumpsuits uncovered some penal myth. A few nodded nervously, ceding to a hierarchy of status, while others held stares of sympathy. I wanted to say, “Don’t feel sorry for me. We’re having our first ever talent show on Death Row today and a pizza party, later, to celebrate our accomplishments. With drama class, chess club, and journalism, we are changing the narrative,” but I didn’t. Instead, I sat there, guarded, while their gazes pricked holes in my dignity.
Soon, a jangled sound filled the air announcing the arrival of chains and shackles. Our waists were girdled in iron, while a steel box and padlock outfitted our wrists. After the other two Death Row inmates departed, I felt sullen and degraded. My eagerness to see the world waned in the confined loneliness. Finally, I was retrieved and ushered to a vehicle while my escorts discussed travel details. In proximity, I was no more than toxic merchandise to be handled with care, but once secured, they paid little attention to me. Artillery joined our convoy as guns were collected at the gates. My despair deepened as I realized their potential should I become overwhelmed by the desire for liberation.
As the big gates folded outward and we departed, I checked for vantage points. I hoped to disconnect from the unsettling notion that these men were an incident away from destroying me. They seated me behind the driver, which proved to be a visual hindrance, but then, the strangest thing grabbed my attention – a traffic light. It was suspended high above the earth like some sustainable relic from a past millennium, its illuminated orbs unbiased in providing safety for travelers. With the advancement in everything else electronic, I imagined that even traffic lights had gotten smarter. The familiar sight comforted me.
I also noticed the assortment of parked cars stacked like dominoes in their lots, and other things, like the brittle grass, and withered leaves. It put me in a place of wonderment that made fretting over small displeasures seem trivial. The vast blue sky vaguely resembled the same outside my cell’s window. Patches of trees along the highway took me back to when I was a kid taking refuge in the woods, where I would scale the colossal monuments with as much vigor as my inquisition could muster. Seeing these everyday sights through the window, the feeling of confinement gradually dissolved, and I decided that any point from which to view life’s splendor would be fortunate. I sat back to enjoy 18 years of societal evolution unfold.
The first person of whom I took careful notice was a pedestrian woman of Asian descent. She was saddled in a trench coat and scarf, while the silky strands of her hair danced in the morning breeze. The young woman walked with a determined pace as the steps of her sneakers pounded to a drum of freedom in my head. I guessed that she was an intelligent college student, who was running late for class. Then, I thought how stereotypical I was being to think that all Asians were intelligent. It could be that she hated school, and was on her way to work or anywhere. I realized the pitfalls we create for ourselves, and others, when we judge people on sight alone. I quickly put my assessments in check, given the circumstances. People would be judging me soon enough, yet with the chains and shackles, it was unlikely that their opinions would waiver.
As the young woman faded from view, another pedestrian snagged my attention. He was a Caucasian male with cropped brown hair and an unsuspecting face. He wore baggie jeans and a hoodie, and walked leisurely as if having no particular destination. I was moved. How nice it must be to have the liberty to head nowhere.
Other daily norms stood out – a guy pumping gas into a brown Chevy, a caravan of drivers spilling through a fast food lane, and a gorgeous blond sitting at a bus stop reading a book. These simple acts of living filled me with inspiration and envy. As we passed shabby, destitute homes, I imagined the warmth and comfort of finding rest inside. I saw lakes and rivers with depths that held mysteries. I observed drivers along the freeway who kept pace with our detail – some I admired for their boldness to steal glances, others I despised for their obliviousness. There were roadway signs and billboards I read with the meticulousness of a good novel. Some strip malls and hotel chains I saw were like oasis’s of renewed hope. My head ping-ponged from side to side as I was engrossed from every perspective.
When our vehicle slowed and veered onto an adjoining roadway, I barely noticed. The sign read ‘Medical Facility’, which showed our arrival. Other transports from around the state departed, each with an inmate in back whose eyes held envy of freedom. There was an edginess that crept over me as I mentally prepared for the stigmatizing treatment to come. I made presumptions of a scripted encounter, where I would be objectified in a way that found many of the questions bouncing up off of the floor at me. I remembered a guy on Death Row who once wrote about his experience with the outside hospital. The focus of his composition was social ostracism. That message now resonated with me, strongly. He spoke of a particular moment when he felt eager to return to Death Row. I dared to feel the same way.
I was peeled from my place of refuge by armed guards and escorted to an area marked ‘Outpatient’. There, an orderly awaited. She was a petite woman with auburn hair and a tailored smile. The orderly greeted us (or rather, the officers were greeted since she barely looked my way), then led us inside. Admittedly, there was a politeness and professionalism in her disregard for me that did not seem spiteful. It was then that I realized that my lesson in being dehumanized had already taken effect. As we moved about the corridors, watchful eyes landed on my crimson jumpsuit with cautiousness and curiosity. I was overcome with shame. The contemptuous stares and unsteady demeanors of others made me reject myself. I wasn’t quite ready to go back to Death Row yet, but the idea seemed plausible.
We were shown to a waiting room and held up there for some time. The officers from Central Prison, along with those from other facilities, flung chatter over my head at one another, as though my cuffed hands prevented my grasp for understanding. Eventually, their attention turned my way. It began when the Sergeant who oversaw my transport detail asked, “So, when is Death Row going to perform another play?” Another officer asked, “What was the rehearsal process like?” While another officer asked, “Did Death Row really host a Story Slam?”
I felt grateful to be in the position of being somewhat of a spokesperson. I replied that our performance of the play, “12 Angry Men,” in front of guests from the Vera Institute for Justice, was a turning point, and that our Drama Club was excited about the potential projects to come. The rehearsal process was a grueling experience at times, but humbling in that it formed bonds among many Death Row inmates and staff. And the Story Slam was a competition in which Death Row writers performed short stories before guests and judges.
Afterwards, the questions from the officers poured in, while each response unraveled the fallacy of a woven stigma. Before long, we were engaged in stimulating conversation about life, politics, and other recent events. The officers seemed genuinely interested in the many productive ways in which we were reshaping the Death Row image. I recounted some of the other programs, such a Social Psychology, Houses of Healing, Speech / Debate, and Yoga. They could hardly believe it. I guess some of my own generalizations were beginning to unravel. I still didn’t doubt their course of action should I have tried to escape, I just concluded that it likely wouldn’t be malicious.
A while later, a nurse came who seemed accustomed to working with inmates, even those from Death Row. Her cordialness was refreshing, her eye contact, relaxing. I almost forgot that I was an inmate or that she wasn’t in a prison. Her interactions with me were not what I had expected. I thought the distance she kept would be obvious, but it wasn’t. I thought she would refer to me rather than speak with me, but she didn’t. There was a kindness and consideration about the nurse that was pleasant, it reminded me of a time I once knew.
The entire process took an hour or so, then, afterwards, we were back on the road to damnation. As I sat in the backseat on the drive back to prison, I bid goodbye to all of life’s liberties that I may never see again. I thought about all of the chaos in the world – the 49 civilians gunned down in a nightclub in Orlando, FL, for no other reason than their personal lifestyle, the nine church members in Charleston, SC, executed while attending service, for the capital offense of being black, the spectators bombed at the annual Boston Marathon, and the tiny bodies of innocent children that littered the hallways of Sandy Hook Elementary.
I thought about the heightened gang activity plaguing our urban communities and the politicians who pass laws that arm the mentally unstable. I thought of the victims of sexual violence and the random lives cut short by inebriated drivers. I wondered at the people who did not appreciate their liberties. Why, just being able to walk around, headed nowhere, was not enough to stay the hand of violence. Just the other day, someone killed four people in my own hometown. I wondered would their lives have been spared had the perpetrator known the trials and hardships of incarceration. How an inmate is devoid of all liberties, the decades of having lost friends to the cruelty of lethal concoctions, the segregation from a world that has moved on without you. And yet, you develop such a profound appreciation for all things that even trees and traffic lights can inspire.
Death Row isn’t a place that lacks humanity. It’s where humanity is rediscovered and restored. Death Row is where the meaningfulness of life tremendously exceeds the inevitability of death. We are all human beings, and as such we are genetically prone to make mistakes, but for many Death Row inmates we are simply paradigms of the great fall before triumph. Our humanities are not beyond repair, and any judicial system that conceptualizes such nonsense is flawed. To give up on a person’s humanity says a lot about our own, for we can never fully share in the humanity of others until we have recognized and repaired our own tendencies towards cruelty and unconscious bias. This means forgiveness, accountability, faith, and in many cases, a second chance. No matter what our personal or collective opinions are, no one will ever deserve to die.