I kept to myself for the first week. But even on death row, the burden’s a little lighter when it’s shared. I knew I needed to make some friends if I wanted to survive.
“Look out 3 row 10 cell,” a voice called out.
“What’s up? I said. I was surprised and a little worried. Why would another inmate need to talk to me? The voice was coming from a cell below mine on the second tier. I was above him on the third tier. Someone had recently busted out the TV in front of my cell, and I could see, in the broken glass of the screen, a shadowy reflection of his cell. He introduced himself as Andre. That was unusual; most of the other guys I’d later meet went by nicknames or initials. I met plenty of AJs, DWs, Chili Bricks, and Chi-Towns. I had grown suspicious of friendly prisoners in the lead-up to my trial. But death row was different. The state didn’t have anything to gain. I wanted to trust Andre.
“Say, Graves, why don’t you come out to the rec with us tomorrow?”
I had been turning down rec time in favor of sitting around with my headphones. Andre seemed to be looking out for me. He knew that an hour outside of the cage could push back against the creeping insanity that charged toward so many like a beach-seeking tidal wave. I told him I’d come. He kept talking.
“The trustee gone bring you a bag down there later on,” he said. What the hell will they put in this bag, I thought to myself. But death row inmates were a hospitable sort, I’d come to find. They had exclusive knowledge of the terror I’d be facing in those first few weeks. The inmates would often send bags to newcomers, a collective housewarming gift of sorts. It was a tradition the inmates there took seriously. I wouldn’t have any money in my commissary account for a while, so I couldn’t buy pens, paper, soap, stamps, and those damn shower shoes. When the trustee stopped by my cell an hour later, I was sure I’d find those items in the brown bag he held. I was wrong. The trustee had brought a book gifted my way from whichever inmate lived in 2 row 10 cell. I didn’t have to wait long to meet my generous benefactor.
“My name’s Rudd,” he yelled up from the cell directly below. “They call me Young Lion. Check out that book and holler at me if you need anything.”
Human beings are linked by sub-sorts of pain. Addicts of all kinds draw strength from support meetings where they share stories of the tempting bottle and needle. Even fans of the Chicago Cubs shared an agonizing connection with baseball nuts in Boston until the Red Sox thwarted the curse. The death row inmates at Ellis One Unit were no different. They looked out for me in those early days because I was one of the few who could feel their pain.
I pulled the book from the bag and gave it a once over. The pages were crinkled. On the first page was a stain of some sort. I figured it was probably juice. I glanced at the cover, which was in good shape considering the book had lived its own life in a cage. A beautiful black woman with a proud afro stared past me from the blood red backdrop of the book’s cover art. The title suggested that it was the autobiography of Angela Davis. During my early days on death row, it took me some time before I was able to really engross myself in the book, but I soon came to understand why Rudd had sent it my way.
“We know the road to freedom is stalked by death,” she wrote.
I wasn’t quite sure if the words were comforting or haunting, but I surely identified with them. I had not yet started writing at this time, as I had just gotten there, and was still going through an adjustment period, trying to wrap my head around the fact that I had been sentenced to death. But I read when I could at the time.