My death row experience: watching men waiting to die

HuntsvilleUnitHuntsvilleTXI was three weeks into life on death row when a killing came calling. Over the course of my twelve years there, I’d eventually see the state kill more than three hundred and fifty men. The first was Warren Bridge, known then as inmate number 668. Warren was white, and tipped the scales at less than 140 pounds. He was only nineteen when he robbed a convenience store and killed the clerk. At thirty-two he’d exhausted his appeals and had an execution date looming. Warren’s execution offered a chance to consider the death penalty not in its abstract form, but in the reality laid painfully bare in front of me. Platitudes retreated at the sight of what was actually happening there on that day. The state was preparing to kill a man.

I didn’t know how I felt about the death penalty at the time. Most people don’t give much thought to capital punishment, and prior to my time on death row, I was among that lot. I never had time to consider the death penalty in its general sense. The moral and economic hang-ups were discussions to be had by policy makers and lawyers. I knew only that I didn’t support it in my case. Advocates suggest that the penalty of death is a deterrent to crime, but I can’t imagine that Warren thought much about the gurney when he decided to rob that store. As they strapped him in and carried him away, he uttered his last words: “I’ll see you.”  It was a painful reminder of the inadequacy of final statements for summarizing even the worst-lived human lives.

The soon-to-die were allowed inmate visitors in the hours before their execution. Over the years, a few men chose me as their visitor, based on relationships that I had developed during my time there. Maybe I was a good listener, because I never knew exactly what to say. It was a sort of rapid-fire hospice, counseling men in their last hours and just being a friend. I think my life experiences – having a child at an early age, and not having a father figure in my life, (despite living with both my parents) – equipped me for this odd role as counselor-to-the-condemned. I was twenty-nine years old when I entered death row. What I soon realized was that I had a lot of younger guys around me that the state had sentenced to death. I was quickly thrust into the role of giving this sort of advice because so many of them had come down there and had never heard nor had ever engaged in a positive and constructive conversation. Their whole world had been negative. My life experience of having to be the father figure for my siblings at a young age gave me some insight and confidence to take that role on. One man I met with oscillated between readiness and defiance in those final hours. I watched as he struggled with the reality of the day, knowing the precise moment he’d leave the earth. Some might say it was worse than cancer. Those with terminal illness have their own death sentence, but they can wake up each day pretending it’s not their last. There was no such option for my friend, as I watched his last hours tick away.

“You can’t control what they do to you,” I told him. “You can only control you.” Maybe I was talking to myself, offering a measly bit of self-assurance in the face of the unthinkable. When the jailers came to take him, his legs went weak and his body limp.

“They might kill me,” he said. “But I’m not walking to my death.” I’d never imagined that choosing not to walk could be an act of preserving humanity. Some men on death row give up their appeals. They’re called the “volunteers,” a misnomer that suggests they want to die. In truth, they just grow tired of fighting. Their minds retreat to some dark space where death seems better than another failed appeal. My friend wasn’t a volunteer. He fought the unwinnable fight to the end, never signaling to the state that his death was anything other than forced.

If my life on the outside was an exercise in trying to live right, to stay as far as possible from the thought of prison that swallowed so many black men from my part of Texas, then life on the inside was anything but. I thought about prison and execution 24/7 now. On the inside, men were killed routinely, one after another. Familiarity breeds opinions. Camaraderie took the block in the days and hours before an execution. We’d join in moments of silence. Some inmates participated in hunger strikes, breaking only when the state carried out its execution or when the Supreme Court granted a stay.

I’d figured out that the one thing I could control on death row was my thoughts. They could tell me they’d kill me, but they couldn’t make me believe it. I stayed alive by living in the present, in the moment. This mindset was revealed to me through my experience of living in a small confined space in a system designed to control you. I started to realize that they weren’t able to control my thoughts no matter what they did to me physically. And knowledge become wisdom. But the constant stream of executions challenged the strength of my convictions. As I watched the state kill all kinds of people – innocent, guilty, mentally incapacitated, and the like = I confronted in moments of weakness the possibility that I might be another number on the list. The state understood that the mind of a death row inmate was the only thing they couldn’t control, so the state did everything in its power to compromise independent thinking. Executions were dramatic by design. The trauma of those moments was every bit of real.

Staying in control of my thoughts was easy in the rare moments when death row was unencumbered by chaos. Too often, though, something stirred the halls. Men on death row were stripped of power and influence, which made them crave it that much more. The greatest challenges came when death row descended into induced insanity. I had been there a month when my neighbor gave me a courtesy warning, passing down a note to me. Notes could be passed several different ways, and one was just as common as another. Some officers would deliver letters for you as long as it didn’t contain any contraband. Trustees were also allowed to pass notes between inmates – they didn’t care if it was okay with the officers, they just did it and no one stopped them. And then there was the fishing line. This was a sheet that had been shredded and knotted into a makeshift rope. I’d tie something on the end that had a little weight, such as an empty toothpaste tube. Then I would crush up some state-issued soap, put it in the empty tube and flatten the tube so that it could slide underneath the bottom of the cell door and down the run to another cell. The inmate to or from whom I was sending or retrieving a note would take his stick—a piece of rolled up newspaper—and attach a dental flosser at the end to use as a hook. Once my line was in front of his cell he would slide out his stick and hook my line with the dental flosser and pull it into his cell, and retrieve the message or attach one to my line. Then I would reel my line back into my cell. We all got pretty good at these methods. We had time on our hands, and we were desperate for communication, any form of contact really. One night, a few weeks after my arrival, I received a note that read in big bold letters: IT’S GOING DOWN IN THE MORNING, PICK UP EVERYTHING OFF YOUR FLOOR. I was still relatively new, so I didn’t know what to make of it. I turned to Riddle in the next cell.

“I don’t quite understand, Riddle,” I said. “What’s this all about?”

“Just what it says, my man,” he said. “Pick up everything from the floor because they’re flooding the runs in the morning.”

“Why would they do that?”