The Worst Amongst Us
The visitation room at Raleigh Central Prison is small, dark and oppressive. It is divided in half by a thick glass sheet encased in a rusted steel frame. The tiny space is stiflingly hot. If I stretch my arms, I can touch both concrete walls at the same time. The glare from the overhead light makes it difficult to see through the glass, while the constant screeching and clanging of metal doors outside the room makes it hard to hear anything at all. A small grate at the bottom of the glass sheet requires you to crane your neck to speak to the person on the other side.
The purpose of all the security is to prevent any physical contact between an incarcerated person and their visitor. Despite numerous reports that have exposed the prisons in North Carolina as being grossly underfunded, it was clear that the state spared no expense in securing the visitation rooms for death row inmates.
In June 2018, I came to Durham, North Carolina as a summer intern for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. The Center has been a leading force in dramatically reducing the number of executions in the state. I had worked with incarcerated people before, but never with men and women who were condemned to death. For most people the death penalty is merely an abstract intellectual fascination, something to be debated in introductory philosophy classes or amongst friends and family whenever a particularly gruesome story made it onto the news. While I have never truly believed that there are people amongst us who are so evil, and so irredeemable, that they must be scrubbed from the earth as expeditiously as possible, I took this job, in part, because I wanted see for myself who these people were. I was interested in getting to know the men and women on death row as well as the lawyers who worked everyday to protect them from execution.
On this particular morning, I came to meet two death row inmates that the Center had been working with for years, named Rico and Jason. Both men were incarcerated in their 20’s and had already served over a decade on death row. I took a seat on the metal stool in my side of the room, took out my new legal pad and began writing some notes.
After a few minutes of waiting, Rico entered the visitation room in a dark red jumpsuit. He is a large man, at least 6 feet tall and 220 lbs. He greets me with a warm smile and apologizes for making me wait. I feel at ease immediately. After discussing his case for a few minutes, Rico starts to tell me about the Raleigh Central Death Row Annual Basketball Tournament.
The tournament was started 15 years ago by an inmate who has since been executed. The men compete each year as a way to break up the monotony of life on death row and to honour their deceased compatriot. North Carolina’s death row is one of the few, if not the only, death rows in the country that allows inmates to play in an organized basketball tournament. Rico describes the tournament as a small mercy. Even when he is unwell or not particularly interested in playing, he would never even consider sitting out. He feels it would be wrong not to play since death row inmates all across the country would relish the opportunity to play an organized sport.
The tournament consists of a regular season, followed by knock-out elimination games until only one team remains. The prize is a bottle of body wash — a luxury worth competing for.
Rico tells me about his most recent game. His team starts out playing very well. They are tenacious on defense and are moving the ball well on offence. Spectators, the other death row inmates, begin predicting an easy victory for Rico’s team. Then the opposing team makes a game-shifting substitution. Eddie-B steps onto the court. Eddie-B is 65 years-old, he is the oldest man in the tournament, and has competed every single year that the tournament has been running.
For some men, the tournament is the most important event of the year. This is perhaps no truer than for Eddie-B, who talks about the tournament all year long- visualizing and practicing his mid-range jump-shot. The other inmates know how much this game means to Eddie-B. He can’t jump or run like the other guys, his vision is fading and he has nagging knee and back pain. He moves gingerly up and down the court. But what Eddie-B does have is a picture perfect jump-shot.
The moment he steps on the court, the crowd of inmate spectators explodes into chants of EDDIE-B, EDDIE-B, EDDIE-B. The tone of the game has changed drastically. The score no longer matters, what is important is that Eddie-B gets the ball. After a few trips up the court, the point guard runs a play for Eddie-B. Using a screen and roll, Eddie-B gets free and receives a perfectly-timed chest pass. He squares up to shoot. His defender feigns a legitimate effort at blocking the shot while purposefully giving Eddie-B just enough room to get off an uncontested jump-shot. The ball leaves Eddie-B’s hands and lands perfectly into the bottom of the net. The crowd explodes. The crowd bangs on the bleachers with their hands, they yell, and jump up and down in excitement as Eddie-B jogs back on defence, a cool smile on his face.
They continue to let him shoot and score, masking their excitement with devastation when each shot goes in. Eddie-B continues to hit shot after shot and Rico and his team go on to lose the game and are eliminated from the tournament.
The death row unit of the prison will spend the next few weeks listening to Eddie-B breakdown every shot he hit. He will tell them every trivial detail of his thought-process during the game, about how the defense was running towards him but he did not hesitate, kept his composure, and scored. They won’t interrupt him or brush him off. They let him tell his story over and over again. The basketball game is spiritual for him. Some guys have religion, others read and write poetry, but for Eddie-B, this is his salvation. No one would dare take this away from him. They will let him live in his moment of glory even as he talks during their favourite television program, or as they read their books. They let Eddie-B leave death row and reimagine himself as an athlete and a superstar.
We get a knock on the door followed by a guard yelling that time is up. We say our goodbyes. Rico puts his hand up against the glass and I press my own hand up against his on the opposite side of the glass. He is escorted away by the guards.
Alone in the room, I realize that I was so enraptured by Rico’s story that I forgot that I was in a hot, rusty, death row visitation room. I gather my notes and pack my bag. I have an hour to wait before my next meeting with my next client, Jason.
I spend the hour in my car before heading back to the visitation room to meet with Jason. He is already waiting for me on the other side of the glass. Jason has a long beard and big brown eyes. He is extremely soft spoken, and disarmingly endearing. He speaks as if he is choosing every word carefully. I can tell he is excited to meet me and really wants to make a positive first impression. I share this sentiment. We exchange pleasantries and I give him a few updates about his case. Then Jason steers the conversation towards the man in the cell next to his.
His neighbour’s name is Richard, he is 40 years-old and has been on death row for 20 years. Jason tells me that Richard is very mentally ill. Richard often doesn’t know where he is or what he should be doing. In the past few years he has gained a tremendous amount of weight and has swollen to 300 pounds — he is almost unrecognizable to when he first entered the prison. His mental health has been deteriorating steadfastly. It is not uncommon for Richard to defecate himself or urinate all over the floor of his cell. Often, he doesn’t leave his cell for days or get out of bed for more than a few hours at a time. He has no friends and no contacts outside of prison. Jason does what he can to make Richard’s life easier; he cleans his cell, encourages him to exercise, engages him in conversation and speaks to the staff about Richard’s welfare. Jason insists that Richard should not be on death row, but in some kind of facility where he can get his needs met.
He asks me if I know anyone who would be willing to correspond with Richard, preferably someone who knows how to communicate effectively with someone with a significant illness. Since Richard cannot read or write, Jason offers to read the letter to Richard and help him draft a response. I tell him that I will see if I can find someone. Jason insists that it would not be a very serious commitment, but just enough so that Richard could have some sort of healthy relationship and allow him to feel that he has a friend. Again, I assure Jason that I will try to find someone willing to correspond with Richard. Jason seems relieved, and thanks me several times.
While an inmates’ sentence begins with the loss of virtually all of their liberties, rights, and independence, it then becomes something much more nefarious. Men and women and death row are in a constant existential struggle not to be forgotten. While everyone else’s life moves forward, creating memories and experiencing life, they remain incarcerated. Stuck in a cell, day after day after day. They have to fight against feeling worthless, and try to preserve their belief that their lives have value. Jason is worried that Richard will feel forgotten and lose his desire to live. By cleaning up after Richard and looking out for him, Jason tries to show Richard that his life has meaning, and that his wellbeing matters to at least one person.
Men and women in state and federal prisons, especially those on death row, have an endless list of problems. Many of these issues involve being mistreated by guards, being denied proper nutrition, or the inability to get medical care. Whenever I have visited a client in prison, without fail, the entire hour is spent trying to resolve some of these problems. It is not uncommon for me or one of my colleagues to spend the entire legal visit working out the best way for the client to resolve seemingly minute problems like getting a pair of toenail clippers so that they can trim their toenails which have grown so long that they have become intolerably painful. This was the first meeting with an inmate where they focused nearly the whole visit trying to get me to help someone else, let alone another inmate.
But these visits are more than just an opportunity for inmates to get legal help; they are also the only opportunity for them to see a fresh face, and hear new ideas and perspectives. Speaking with visitors offers inmates a glimpse of what world is like on the outside. Visitation hours are invaluable to men and women on death row.
This was likely to be the only contact Jason would have with someone outside of prison for weeks. With this hour, Jason tried his best to persuade me to find a pen-pal for Richard so that Richard might feel less lonely.
Almost as soon as we finish speaking about Richard, the correctional officers come and whisk him away. Jason puts his palm against the glass, and I place my palm opposite his on the other side. Once again I sit alone in the visitation room.
Society at large has spent the last two decades telling Jason and Rico that they are not worthy of life, let alone comfort, kindness, or basic decency. They have been denied adequate food, any physical contact with their families or loved ones, and proper medical care. Yet they have refused to let the consistent, unending apathy and disregard for their wellbeing stop them from trying to be kind to others. They will not condemn their peers despite being condemned themselves. Whatever it is within us that makes us want to protect and help each other has not been extinguished in Jason and Rico.
These stories do not form an argument that because people do nice things, that they should be absolved of their wrongdoings. They are instead a glimpse into the complexity of humanity, and they inspire the idea that no one can be reduced to one identity, one thing, one moment, or one act. As these stories show, sentencing people to death ensures that in our effort to wipe out evil from the world, we invariably wipe out beauty as well. These stories are profound because they remind us that kindness and humanity exist even in the darkest places in our society, including a death row unit in a state prison. They show us that even the “worst amongst us” can still represent the best amongst us.
I doubt that Jason and Rico even remember telling me these stories and I am certain that that they would never imagine that they would be interesting enough to write down. But these stories are impactful, not because they are heroic or because they are unimaginable acts of kindness, but because they disrupt the narratives that we hold about people on death row — the same narratives that cause us to spend millions of dollars to build fantastic prisons and to secure visitation rooms with steel beams and concrete, and to justify spending millions more in legal fees to see that these people are killed at the hands of the state.
The death penalty has never been exclusively used against the worst offenders. In an effort to achieve justice through state executions we have killed innocent people, mentally ill people and abused and broken people. There is no reason to believe that we will ever be able to build a system where only those who “deserve” to die are executed. As long as humans judge guilt and innocence, irreversible errors will be made. But even if we could perfect the death penalty, should that even be our goal?
I believe that instead of trying to create a just society, we should instead be working to create a merciful society. Mercy stands on a higher moral grounding than justice. While the death penalty rejects a belief in redemption and restoration, mercy preserves it. Mercy creates room for people to perform small acts of kindness like giving another incarcerated person the chance to feel like a basketball star or assuring their neighbouring cellmate that their life has value. Where justice under the death penalty promises more death, pain and suffering- mercy offers a chance that something good can be salvaged from the wreckage. It is through mercy that we can save others, and in doing so, hopefully, save ourselves.
After my meetings with Jason and Rico I leave the visitation room for the day and walk out of the prison. The fresh air and the warm sun feel intense. As I drive back to the Center, I think of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s quote:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
I hope you’ll consider support the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, who are doing really great work to defend innocent, abused and broken people across North Carolina. Here’s a link: http://www.cdpl.org