THE TERM DEATH ROW is both useful and problematic. Useful, for the purposes of this publication, because it is concise and because it contextualizes for the reader the writings that follow. Problematic for nearly identical reasons: it is overly terse, too narrow a confinement for a flesh and blood human being, too strict a label for any whole person to oblige. The human experience is never merely this nor merely that, but a rich experience filled by sorrow and joy and, as the poet John Ashbery put it, the desire to communicate/ something between breaths. This collection of writings is a testament to that experience.
A death sentence is, by definition, the planned and sanctioned homicide of an individual by the power of the state. However, the men and women who are sentenced to death in the United States live behind bars, on average, for nearly fifteen years after sentencing.* At the time of publication, the seven men whose writings appear on these pages have served a combined 175 years since sentencing, with two of the men having served over 30 years each. While the death sentence is, for them, entirely pervasive, so too has each lived a life on the inside.
In September 2012, I began facilitating a weekly creative writing group in Unit 2 of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, where I met each of the individuals who have contributed their work to this book. I have since had the privilege of getting to know these men, their stories, their hopes and their fears. Each has his own unique background, although there are some commonalities: early childhood abuse, histories of mental illness, serving in and/or growing up within the military, to name a few. What has shocked me most in my time as a facilitator is that these men don’t live up to the stereotypes we place on them from the outside. Instead of thugs, I have met men who care deeply about the wellbeing of their families, our culture and our society; men who think deeply about the social problems and pressures that might lead one to a life of crime and violence, and how we, together as a nation, might begin to close the pipelines to our prisons; men who have been defined by the single worst day of their lives, despite being much more than that, and who have been labeled, condemned, dehumanized, locked away and forgotten.
But every human being deserves a voice. Every person has been endowed with certain unalienable rights. Those whose most basic right (life) is stripped from them by the state are not the worst of the worst, but the poorest of the poor. For it is a dirty little secret of the American penal system, that our gallows favor the disenfranchised, not the unredeemable.
These men have led truly incredible lives, lives I shudder to imagine. Many of them are survivors—of war, domestic violence, cancer, attempted suicide and many other degradations of the mind and body. Some of them feel transformed from a former self, the self who was full of anguish and hatred, who committed what crimes of the past, into a peaceful self. Some merely yearn for a connection to the culture that has largely tried to throw them out with the trash.
What follows is collection of their writings. Through poetry and prose, through reading and sharing and discussion, together as a group we have begun to find a sense of community, a sense of purpose in the written word.
Before you read these pages, let your mind go empty. Imagine your brother, your father or your son in that room. Find the kernel of humanity running through these humble works.