by G. Wilford Hathorn
© 2001. All Rights Reserved
Daylight and dark chase each other’s tails on their primeval schedule, but in the Texas death row cell one is indistinguishable from the other. It is a cycle without meaning, alterations of the rhythms of the air defining each one’s arrival and departure, their only import being that on some level of the mind the realization that another day has passed clicks home. There is tedium, sen-sory starvation, and in its unending quest for stimulation the mind avails itself of fantasy-spawned dances and shows, for beyond these lie tunnels of nothingness whose walls are spiked with grief, non-existence in being, silence in noise. Memories, should one be blessed with fond ones, provide some escape from the reality of the Texas death culture, but they are manipulated by time and eventually resemble fantasies, assuming they don’t yield to forgetfulness and fade to obsolescence. There is no line of demarcation between the recalled real and the imagined unreal.
More tangible distractions are the sounds of madness. Men who have forgone the strug-gle for sanity scream and pound steel doors, in guttural or tearful language demanding acknowledgment of what they deem their needs to be. Sometimes I listen to the pleas, often in-congruous and nonsensical, and watch through the slit on my door as picket officers lie atop an instrument panel to sleep or amuse themselves by making fun of the crazy person’s noise. It is a source of mirth for them, a story wretchedly embellished to be told to friends and paramours in bars or bedrooms, a threat, like tales of the bogeyman, to encourage children to obey.
I have been on death row for 16 years and it has always been bad, but never this bad. I have watched nearly 250 men and 2 women go to their death, which is sad enough for one at-tempting to understand the passion Americans have for state-sanctioned killing, but equally sad is the erosion of the humanitarian attitudes that, at least outwardly, once prevailed among the prison guards and administrators. Americans are tired of what they see as the coddling of crimi-nals and have demanded that amenities once afforded prisoners, particularly those on death row, be stopped. Via the bully pulpit zealots control the electoral purse strings, consequently prison officials have adopted the current hard line. Due to the knee-jerk passage of laws the appeal process has been accelerated and its avenues of redress curtailed, and the corresponding trend is to impose on death row prisoners maximum misery as the clock of their lives winds down. The sentiments induced in people living under these conditions cannot be fathomed, but from many conversations I have divined a hint as to their nature.
The man in the cell next to me is young. He was 17 at the time of his crime and is 24 now. He has been on death row for 6 years and Americans are prepared to sacrifice him to strengthen their belief in the utility of capital punishment. Even children are not safe from the illusion, propagandized by politicians and faux puritans, that killing criminals makes society safer or provides victim’s survivors an endgame to their pain. To help each other conquer the monotony I and this lad often talk, accomplished with a degree of privacy by speaking around a bolt in the wall. Recently he allowed that he became so bored with staring at the ceiling that he petitioned the dental department to extract a healthy tooth. Shocked, I asked why he would make this unusual request. He replied that it was an excuse to leave the cell, plus once the anesthetic wore off he wanted to feel the ache of his denuded gum. I asked if he is into pain and he, think-ing the question attended by a sexual connotation, averred that he isn’t “like that” but enjoys the adrenaline rush when he scrapes a knee, gets punched in the nose, or has a tooth pulled. This son of two heroin addicts, one of whom, his mother (with whom he confessed he shot heroin before his incarceration), is presently confined in the Texas women’s prison, is so psychologically flawed that pain validates his existence. The more our keepers abase us the more this boy wants to hurt, as physical pain is his method of frustrating the encroachment of emotional anguish. The guards, secure in the knowledge that whatever they do is sanctioned by a majority of the public, could not care less. To them the boy and his mother are garbage to be disposed of at the earliest convenience, an attitude reminiscent of the darkest periods in our world’s history.
Insanity adopts many forms. One man, fearing that someone has poisoned his food, throws his property and prison-issue clothes and bedding onto the run, then stands naked in his cell holding forth in the voice of a proselytizer about the non-existence of death and his certainty that everyone is God. Others are self-mutilators who in the slice of a sharp object seek escape from their duress; some use their teeth to rip open their stitches after being sewn up and drink their own blood or eat their own flesh. Which underscores the warping nature of our existence, for some of these men once participated in the now discontinued death row work program, where, because of mental stimulation, social interaction, and a sense of self-worth, they func-tioned normally. In a few short months our maltreatment and its attendant perceptual distortions, inversion of minds, and a sense of the walls closing in has destroyed these men, turned them into self-consuming cannibals. The seams of their stability have burst and their shamans are not equal to the task of integrating into society’s madhouse the frail and fallen.
The prison administrators are sensitive to public perception and endeavor to keep these realities from the light of scrutiny. Because of the increase in psychotic behavior and suicide at-tempts among the prisoners, representatives of the unit psychological department are sent into the death row pods to attempt intervention before someone cuts himself open. They go from cell to cell and ask each occupant if he is having any problems and if so he should request an evaluation for “medication”, because zombification, as opposed to providing a milieu conducive to main-taining one’s sanity, is the prison’s method of dealing with someone whose faculties have eroded. One person was doped up for so long that because his body could not obtain the exercise or nutrition needed to combat infection he died of septic shock. After which he may have been cremated, which, as in the case of a man (also a mental patient) who died in the severe Texas heat after his fan was confiscated, the prison does to avoid questions about a suspicious death. Moreover, to keep the anti-prisoner fire well fanned, the guards, by writing false disciplinary re-ports and engaging in petty harassment, incite otherwise calm men to misbehave so the prison spin-doctors can justify to the public the regular use of oppression. It is ironic that American media will reserve available space to report on the execution of Timothy McVeigh but will not investigate the atrocities occurring on the nation’s killingest death row; the shepherd charged with ensuring the safety of the sheep has given wolves free reign over the flock. Meanwhile our world darkens, becomes incomprehensible, and, betrayed by humanity, we are deafened by inter-nal voices that drown out the external ones. We who remain lucid, to penetrate the consciousness of others, must remove the muffler from the motor of our minds and belch, spit, and backfire our way into the realm of attention, otherwise our lament plays in a citadel of the deaf while beyond the walls of our suffering superficiality clangs loudly. With the fervor of car-nival barkers Americans demand our suffering and upon being questioned about the abuses we suffer become supercilious. To distort the issue they cite our commission of a crime as grounds to sunder our rights, for if we have none they cannot be abused. With artifice and clever words we are diminished to a subclass, if not a subspecies, which, as was reflected in the treatment of erstwhile American slaves, divests us of the protections to which we would otherwise be entitled. Capital punishment is promoted here because those upon whom it is levied are fringe compo-nents of the ruling caste, hence are not viewed as people but vermin whose lives the elite feel justified in taking. America, particularly in the South where slavery thrived and most executions occur, is redolent of this mindset, for the residents of this romantic and secessive region feel it more preferable to kill those who are “not us” than to favor life and thereby confirm that we who commit crimes are similar to they, though governed by different fortunes.
The killing attitude ripples to our keepers and our vanquishment is mirrored in the cut of their eyes, the arbitrary destruction of our property, the denial of clippers with which to trim our nails, or any number of devices to aid in traducing our worth. We pace our cells and see derision oozing from the walls, hear it in the creak of stairs leading to another tier, and wonder why our brethren have so maligned us. To be sure we have erred, but are we the only ones? Or merely those who got caught? The keepers harrow us gladly, for our blood seeps not into the family room of any citizen, therefore it cannot assuage the malice that summons to us the mantle of de-fectiveness.
When death row inmates were allowed to hold prison jobs, before we moved to this more restrictive prison in 2000, my assignment was near the death watch cell, to where men with pend-ing executions were moved prior to their “date”. I said goodbye to many of these men and in them saw sadness, indeed fear, a futility born of resignation. The recognition of impotence, of pride stripped away, defeated, for there was nothing left worthy of pride, the price of survival in this well of torment having proved too high. I have heard in the earliest hours of the morning, when everyone should have been asleep, the sobbing of a man in agony, praying for someone, perhaps an angel, to touch his shoulder and say, “You are not fighting alone”, but knowing that the curtains of finality have dropped and brought with them the aloneness from which he fled. In these moments one thing is clarified: Suffering, by defining it, makes a life authentic, notwith-standing the humiliation enjoined by the blunt instrument of authority.
The Italian writer Dante Alighieri provided us a graphic rendition of hell, but my experi-ence of hell is reality. Imagine looking into the eyes of someone who will be dead in a few hours, someone you’ve known for years, and there is nothing you can do to help him. Imagine grasping for something to say and finding nothing while he relies on you to explain a system with not justice as its goal, but political fraternity. Imagine he and his family having their final visit, stomachs clenching with dread as the time for the guard to say, “Wrap it up!” draws near. Saying their last goodbyes, the children -- who may be sons or daughters, grandchildren, or nieces or nephews -- understand that they will never again see the man alive, but do not understand why. Their wails as adult relatives lead them away are ghastly. A possible rebuttal to these observa-tions would be that the condemned brought this on himself, but did his family? What transgression heralded their sorrow? The tragedy and loss inflicted by murder on the victim’s survivors is heartbreaking, but it is an act, because we are not in advance warned of its commis-sion, we cannot stop, hence cannot prevent the legacy of loved ones left behind. By way of contrast capital punishment is a process with which we are familiar, an execution being known by date, time, and the condemned’s identity, yet we do nothing to stop the creation of additional angry “survivors”. On occasion I have been told that I should stop complaining, that when a capital crime is committed the perpetrator forfeits all claims to human rights, but this is a myopic view. One does not cease being human no matter how repugnant his mistake and remains worthy of humanitarian protections; if we fail to extend them we risk becoming animalistic, which is the persona of violent crime we seek to transcend. If our child hits another in the head with a rock we don’t in turn strike our child, nor do we denigrate or stigmatize him, we punish firmly but with love, understanding, and compassion.
I’ve heard people say that no amount of hardship a death row inmate endures is enough, but overlooked is the fact that these people are not sentenced to years of torture and predation, but to die. It strikes an ominous chord when Americans, by endorsing the mistreatment of pris-oners, feel that a person being torn from his family and forced to continually consider his death before execution is not adequate punishment. Realistically speaking, Americans love flexing their muscle. Our ancestors decimated the Natives who held the land before us. For the purpose of profiteering they exploited and killed the slaves. Americans killed each other in a dispute called the Civil War. They killed, arguably for good reason, in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, and not for good reason in the Vietnam War. The killing nature permeates our country’s young heart and if there are no wars to fight other Americans -- provided they are not wealthy or influential -- are sufficient targets for society’s wrath.
Capital punishment has a deleterious effect on a free society. In many states efforts to address the problems caused by the death penalty are underway, but because they do not seek to abolish the system, only repair it, they are deceptions. A death penalty scheme whose supporters can claim is “fixed” is a humanitarian’s worst nightmare, because once the lie that there are no problems in the system is entrenched in the public’s mind, decades may pass before abolition momentum is resurrected.
I pray that the voices raised on foreign shores will continue the current renaissance in anti-death penalty thought and shame America into coming to its senses.
T H E E N D