Frozen in time - a chat with Damien Echols on rejoining the world

You run across all kinds of people as a journalist. Scoundrels, raconteurs, common men and businessmen – after a while, just different faces on a body and a story you’ve seen a million times before.

Every now and then you get a taste of something different.

Today, I met Damien Echols, of the West Memphis Three. Which is to say, I met someone who’d been frozen in time – locked away for murder – and who didn’t leave death row for another two decades.

Damien was in Memphis today to speak at a startup conference. He gave everybody a taste of what it’s like to go from 1986 – the first time he saw a computer, when he regarded it as “a glorified typewriter for rich people” – to living with nothing but a scratchy AM/FM radio and a TV with basic cable and a signal that came and went with the weather. And then, in 2011, to finally rejoining the world of iPhones, laptops and social media.

In the mid-1990s, he and two others were convicted of murder and got collectively tagged as the West Memphis Three. Echols spent 18 years in prison and almost a decade in solitary confinement.

It sounded a little odd to some people that Echols would get a prime spot at a big tech conference. FedEx, as a matter of fact, pulled its sponsorship over his appearance.

It was a fireside chat without the fire, though, unless you count the unseen baggage Damien brought with him. He’s got as much to say about technology as anybody. Interestingly, Damien is also a lot like other demographics that time forget – older people, for example, who still crave phone calls and books with pages that turn.

That may be a function of what life is like behind bars.

“There’s no momentum in prison,” Echols said. “Nothing changes. Noon, 1 o’clock – they’re the same as midnight. The Fourth of July is the same as Christmas.” At one point, his wife (who married him in prison) was coming to see him for three hours every Friday. It was one of his few links to the outside world and to what was changing – the introduction of mp3 players, of downloading, of social media, of other tech wizardry.

“She would try to explain things to me, but I’d really have no idea what she’s talking about,” he said. In Damien’s telling, the TV in prison is a bit like Linus’ security blanket. There’s a lot of screaming, a lot of noise, and the constant drone of the TV helps to shut it off, make it tolerable. So much so that the TV is “like your friend,” one you wait to show up for later in the week with your favorite show, anything to pass the time. Damien’s show wasn’t a show, per se, but the news. He and the other members of the West Memphis Three were released in late 2011 after agreeing to make so-called Alford Pleas. From there, Damien’s life went from zero to 60 in a matter of days. He moved from solitary confinement to New York City. His early release was a period of extreme stress and trauma, so much so that he needed constant companionship. “Everything there is a million times faster than it is anywhere else in the world,” he said. “Everything was so amazing.” He’d tell himself he’d rest after he’d explored and seen everything in a certain part of the city – a bargain that’s difficult to keep in New York. Right now, he’s working on a new book, one that he’s writing long-hand. “The Kindle feels empty to me,” Echols said of Amazon’s e-reader tablet. “It doesn’t give you that great feel when you hold a book.” He’s given iPhone games a try – “Angry Birds was interesting for a while” – and he “hates talking on a phone more than anything in the world.” And he loves Twitter, which his book editor encouraged him to sign up for to help promote himself. “Twitter feels like poetry,” he said, referencing the limitation of haiku that also is found on Twitter. “You have to count out everything you’re doing, every letter, make it all count.” Hollywood director Peter Jackson brought him to New Zealand not long after he was released. Echols joked about how the director was in a hurry to help Echols make up for all the time he’d missed. Echols went paragliding in New Zealand and ate lunch with Jackson at a volcano.

He didn’t mention it, but earlier that same morning during the Memphis conference the New York Times included an article about technology being both limitless and a kind of prison as well (written by someone now enslaved by an unanswerable list of hundreds of daily email messages).

Damien hasn’t touched Facebook. He’s got almost 30,000 followers on Twitter. Physically, he gives the impression of being still not yet at home in the world. But even without saying it, he leaves anyone who hears him with the notion that he shrugs his shoulders at advancements, okay with getting surprised now that he’s hopped off the treadmill of living life by marking time.