Views And Reviews

Death in Texas

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 22 January 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:278
  1. V Nathanson

    Holidays are a time of escape from the routine of home and workplace, a time to relax and recharge the batteries, to become enthused again for the nitty gritty of everyday life. So visiting a prisoner on Death Row in America is not everyone's idea of a perfect holiday.

    In 1987 a Panorama programme, Fourteen Days in May that followed the last 14 days in the life of an inmate in Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi, aroused such sympathy in one viewer that he began to write to other inmates who had been interviewed and were awaiting execution. From simple beginnings, Lifelines has expanded so that today several thousand people write to penpals, mainly prisoners on Death Row in the United States, but also in the West Indies and some serving life sentences in British prisons.

    Lifelines does not campaign and seeks little publicity for its work. It provides a link to the normal world for prisoners and shows that they are valued as people by at least one other person. Those who become penpals do so for many reasons, but principally because they want to show that they do not reject anyone as unworthy of or unfit for human kindness and compassion. The exchange is not unequal; most penpals get an enormous amount out of the correspondence, often coming to care deeply for this friend.

    Sadly, all too many penpals are now sharing the reality that executions are becoming increasingly common in many American states. In Texas there was more than one execution every two weeks last year, although even this has hardly dented the total number of inmates in the Ellis One unit of Huntsville prison.

    Many penpals visit to offer support and encouragement when real execution dates are issued, or even to speak at a clemency hearing. For some this may be their only meeting with their penpal; for others, if a stay of execution is achieved, it can be the first of several meetings.

    I visited Huntsville recently as moral support for a friend who has been a Lifelines penpal for nearly two years. We were lucky enough to be visiting as an opportunity arose rather than because of an imminent date. The experience was enlightening; the system horrifying.

    All visitors have to be on the prisoner's approved visiting list - and a maximum of 10 names can be on that at any one time. Our prisoner had been in Huntsville for five and a half years and had had only three previous visits - and two of those while awaiting an execution date which was later stayed. Having reached the prison - 12 miles out of town on a country road, with no access by public transport - the visitor stands at the foot of the guard tower and shouts up the name and number of the prisoner to be visited. The guard then lowers a white plastic bucket on a piece of washing line, and passports are placed inside.

    The visitors wait inside a shelter, reading the prison visiting rules - helpfully they remind you that women must wear knickers, and that teeshirts and shorts are not acceptable. When the guard has summoned you back to recover your documents you proceed through two sets of gates into the building and eventually into the visiting area. This is a screened area with rows of seats on either side of the metal mesh and security glass. Prisoners are escorted into one side and visitors sit outside. There are also six small cages into which prisoners on segregation - over 200 of Huntsville's 300 or more inmates - must be locked. Lawyers working for the prisoners' appeals visit at the same time and in the same circumstances.

    As our prisoner was not on segregation we had to wait only a few minutes for his arrival. Others waiting for a cage to become free could wait for hours, or even be turned away on busy visiting days. Normal rules allow visits up to two hours long, but those visiting from further than 400 miles away can arrange to stay for up to four hours. As well as talking, visitors can buy sodas and chips (soft drinks and crisps) from vending machines and ask for these to be passed through the grill. This is one of the main pleasures of the visit during summer months as it is the only access prisoners have to cold drinks.

    There are limits on the numbers of sodas and chips that can be consumed in a four hour visit, but the conversation can be limitless. Many of the men on Death Row are in a stable environment for the first time in their lives. Some use that stability to educate themselves, and a few become very involved in campaigning for human rights for prisoners. All too many stay on segregation because they refuse to cooperate with the prison system and to work in the prison factory, and they often show little if any interest in anything other than their own case.

    Talking to the prisoner is a salutary experience - he is often humorous and informed about the system, while the first time visitor sits in shock about the process and the place. But descriptions of the prison, of its structure, of its system, of the effect this has on the men inside are frightening in the realisation of the simplicity of brutalisation. The state invests little in this prison because the inmates are not going to survive their stay. No rehabilitation is attempted, for the same reason.

    As we left the prison...we were more aware than ever of the joy of the simplest of freedoms.

    For many of the men visiting privileges have been increased because they have a date - an execution date has been set. This is sometimes the third or fourth such date, and although stays of execution are likely early sometimes the third or fourth such date, and although stays of execution are likely early on, an increasing number are reaching the stage at which the date is real.

    While we visited, two close friends of our prisoner were pointed out to us - both enjoying visits. These men were executed two and three days after we visited. Few prisoners claim innocence of their crime; most claim bad representation, and almost all have grown up in appalling social circumstances that were not taken into account by the court.

    As we left the prison, after a spectacular thunderstorm and to the sight of a dramatic sunset, we were more aware than ever of the joy of the simplest of freedoms and of the more complex reassurance of living within a system that was unlikely to treat us as brutally as another system was treating a man who was now our friend. There was also great pleasure in realising that the simple act of caring for another can be valued so highly, and we had each learned a lesson in tolerance and humour in the face of adversity.

    Will our friend be executed? It seems likely, simply because the system is so heavily weighted against him. But he is not resigned to that fate; he works to improve the lot of others in a way we can only praise. Like many other members of Lifelines we may yet face the devastation of losing this friend, but we can rejoice in what he had achieved in prison against all the odds.

    The holiday may not have been white sand, waving palm trees, and azure blue ocean, but it gave us a renewed joy in being free, and a new friend.

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