Meeting Bob on the row by Kristina
"Huntsville - the execution town!? What ya goin´ there for? Ya goin´ to jail or somethin´? " Our taxi driver smiles as we drive fast along the highway from the airport to downdown Huntsville. Her small talk suddenly gets more eager, especially when I answer her question confirmingly. We´ll go to Ellis Unit 1 and finally - finally I´ll meet Bob, after writing letters for three and a half years.
Huntsville isn´t exactly the center of the world. A small town about an hour´s drive north of Houston, that seems like a sleepy place with not much to show other than prisons. There are a lot of them, eight (8), with different kinds of security arrangements according to what kind of crimes the inmates have been sentenced for. Ellis Unit 1 is a "Maximum Security" prison. That´s where Bob is.
A tourist attraction
This nasty reality has become a big industry. Approximately 70-80 % of the inhabitants of Huntsville works or have relatives that work in the prison industry. And for tourists it is arranged "Prison Driving Tours" to the different prison areas. It is also built a "Hospitality House", a small Baptist-driven hostal where visitors for the inmates may spend the night and eat canned food for free! Perfect for low-budget travellers like Kristoffer and myself. Sweet old volunteer ladies that trip around twittering "Hello darling!" tells us that the house was built in one single day because there were so many volunteers helping out. Now there is almost always someone staying there, someone that is visiting a son, brother, father, friend or boyfriend - or even girlfriend, but most of the inmates are men.
The old ladies sighs and shake their heads in sympathy when I tell them that my penpal is on death row, accused of having murdered his whole family, something he - according to what he says - did not do at all. They obviously don´t give him much hope, but they think it is "wonderful!" that I have come from so far away to visit him. And I think it´s wonderful myself, that I finally have got a chance to go and visit Bob.
During the three and a half years that we have been writing to each other we´ve become really good friends. I no longer think of him as "a death row inmate from the USA", like I did when I received his first letter, through Amnesty International. Neither is it only me giving him encouragement and support, that really goes both ways. Bob has given me advice about several love-problems, and it is he that writes "smile!!" to me at the end of every letter. But even though one can get to know each other well through letters, it will never be the same as meeting face to face - even if there has to be a thick glass window between us. And now there´s not much time left untill we´ll meet.
Our taxi driver out to Ellis 1 has obviously brought a lot of people like me - european girls visiting their penpal - and she knows the rules. "Hmm, see-through blouse, that could be a problem!" she says and nods towards my blouse, that isn´t very transparent at all! Like I wasn´t nervous enough as it was. Bob has in his last letters told me carefully about the rules about visiting hours, the list of visitors you have to be on to get permission to enter, what you cannot bring into the prison (most things, actually), and that you cannot wear shorts, tank tops etc. Still I managed to take on the wrong blouse, and I have to borrow Kristoffer´s t-shirt, since he is going to wait out for me during the visit.
Contact through a window
A long gravel road leads from a "park" to the prison building. I´m quite nervous now, and it doesn´t really calm me down to see three layers of solid metal fences with kilometers of barbed wire on top, towers with uniformed guards high up there - trying to sort out the problems I create because I brought my travelling checkes. I have to leave them out there with the guards. Not feeling too comfortable I follow a small family on their way in to visit their husband and Dad. They obviously come here often, because they are carrying special visitor-IDs. On both our sides, behind the fences, some inmates are working out. Others are just sitting there, staring at us. I don´t know where to look, feeling really insecure. Inside at the "reception" I get the number of the place where I´ll be sitting along the "visiting-wall". There are no body searches or guards following me in - obviously it´s not as strict as on the outside.
The five-ten minutes I have to wait before Bob comes down my entire body is really tense. And suddenly he comes. I sit down on chair nr.32. It feels a bit strange that it is actually Bob sitting there on the other side of the window that has metal "wires" above and below making it possible to hear each other talk. "Hi" we both say - and then it´s not strange anymore.
Bob is just an ordinary, nice guy. His eyes are kind and his face gets lively when he starts telling about the lousy trial he got that day four years ago, with a lawyer that didn´t do his job at all. "Of course it is frustrating to think of - my life is on the line here, you know!" he says, shrugging his shoulders. "I thought a lot about it the first year, but not anymore. I will rather fight to prove that it was not me who killed my family! And you know what - now we have some really strong evidences that proves that I was cheated during my trial. If I only get a new trial." He gets eager when he talks about these things. He talks earnestly and explains judicial terms to make sure I get it all clear. "What a huge, money-ruled, rotten system of law you´re fighting against" I think.
Now and then I look around me at the other visitors. It must be terrible to have your dad, husband or boyfriend on death row! It´s weird to think about that the other guys over on Bob´s side, looking quite nice, joking with the guard that from time to time comes to offer them a soda or a snack, probably have killed someone! Here they walk around in white shirts and trousers, work some hours a day at the uniform-factory if they´re interested in getting some more freedom, or are handcuffed and followed by a guard if they refuse to work - all of them are waiting to be executed!
Prefers to be executed
"What a sick country!" I think to myself. Outloud I say: "I´m SO against death penalty!". Bob nods thoughtfully. "Well, yeah..but if it turns out that I don´t get a new trial and I can´t get out of here, but for example get offered a Lifetime sentence instead..then I would rather be executed" he says, straight forward. "I mean, this is no life. I can´t stand living like this for several years more - I don´t want to get old in here!"
I do get a little surprised, of course. This isn´t what I expected to hear from a person that is fighting with all he has for his life. But then again, Bob´s situation is that he is innocent, and that is what he wants to prove in a new trial if he gets one. I choose to believe him. I do, even if my task neither is to condemn or to acquit, but just to be a friend. And that is easy with such a sympathetic person like Bob. The hard part is leaving, when my four hours of visiting are over. It feels awful to walk out to freedom while Bob has to stay in there, and maybe never get out again alive. But I don´t want to think about that. I just want to keep on doing what I can to make this friendship last for many, many years to come. And maybe it will be like Bob wrote to me some days after I had been there: "Hopefully I´ll be able to give you a hug myself one of these days! In the mean time, give yourself a big hug from me, my dear friend.