Home. A box of experiences to intense that throughout my stay here my mind has boggled, for permeating the air are the shadows of every imaginable horror, both physical and psychological. Death affects every life eventually, its random touch lifting from our midst those we know and love, those with whom we are acquainted but of whom we are not particularly fond, and those we know only in passing. I've wondered how many people one loses throughout the course of a life lasting eighty years, how many loved ones, how many friends, and concluded that, though some lose more, some less, the number is around eight or ten. People in whose honor flowered funerals are held, tearful wakes, and for whose survivors sympathy abounds and food dishes are in an atmosphere of concerned sentimentality offered. Rituals performed pursuant to the worst but most reliable tragedy, ageless manifestations of caring in light of an inexplicable plague that takes away our fellow human beings.
Home. No eight or ten deaths taking light and love from my existence, rather over 200 cold, calculated exterminations sanctioned by a legislated piece of paper indicative of the letter of the law. Administered by sycophants who remain not emotionally detached, but, like the World War II Nazi elite, take pride in their appointed task, refusing to balk even when faced with killing a mental deficient or one possibly innocent. Pausing because the process of execution has become antiquated, its inhumanity shining like a beacon at the rest of the civilized world, would be laudable, but the narcotic effect of killing without consequence -- nay, for the thrill and societal praise of doing so -- is an addiction which has thus far been too attractive to overcome. Hence liturgical sacrifices to appease the god of power go forward. Those sentenced to die are labeled as sociopaths, psychopaths, and perverts, and some may be, but to concede this we must also recognize that some of the perpetrators and administrators -- from the politicians to the prison killing team -- of executions are of the same psychological ilk. Under the guise of punishing offenders laws to kill and speed killings are passed, but the death penalty has nothing to do with punishment; only vengeance and the sense of dominion its application provides those who carry it out. In this technological age when prisons are built to isolate and demoralize and sentences are lengthier, all arguments in favor of capital punishment fail.
What makes a person choose a job whose nature mandates an affection for the attentions of elitist superiority and requires him to shed his conscience and morality and adopt an attitude of glee while warehousing, controlling, and killing other human beings? Only something rising from the darkest recess of an injured soul could perform such a feat. A vicious but subtle Monster who gnaws at the heart and lades the spirit excessively. The one who in our childhood crept up and said "Boo!" as we slept, causing us to start awake and cringe until the pace of our heartbeat subsided. Perhaps he was planted by parents, teachers, peer pressure, or a combination of these, and his influence drained our self-confidence, causing us to acquire a small inferiority complex that as we grew expanded in direct proportion. It is said that we are what we eat, but a better truism would be that we are what we hide; exercise and diet can dissolve the excess pounds on our body, but the pounds of the mind are immune to the burn of a good run or weightlifting session. They arise on their own, usually in a torrent that, while emotionally cathartic, is outwardly fierce and scary, sometimes violent. If left unchecked at the early stages the sufferer grows into a person who may become a prison inmate or prison employee.
Home. The existence is tense. Grating. Its serrated blade saws on us and screams with rusty enthusiasm, but (Remember the faraway strains of "Big boys don't cry! Only sissies cry!") our eye does not so much twitch, nor our lip quiver. Off in their own worlds and perhaps dealing with Monsters of their own, others do not notice the conflagration by which we are attacked, and by now we are grateful they don't. The Prison is surrounded by fences, gun pickets, and razor wire, but its security, compared to the vault in which is stored the memory of our every ache and betrayal, is lax. So overtures of concern would be met with cynicism, suspicion, and, worse, denial. Easier to feint and parry a person's intrusions for a hundred years than to slide into the Monster's lair for a day. He is like a Titan imprisoned by Zeus and we are Zeus, keeping the Monster chained beneath a mountain or in the distant corridors of the ocean, but ever wary that his bindings may break and set him free. The death row existence is almost as bad, sometimes is, leaving one to walk a line so thin that by comparison the average Band-Aid would seem like a four-lane highway. The Monster and its attendant crucifixions on one side of the road, the prison and its psychological and physical debasement on the other, each grinning and snarling across the way, competing for the person caught between.
Like the man who, prodded by the Monster, wakes in the humid, hot pre-dawn, dream still fresh, hanging about him like the garish props of a play; faces laughing (at him), hands clapping (applauding his helplessness), and murmurs of acclaim for the unseen Director who amid the dilapidated shanties of hope keeps the man's life in tatters. When he came to prison he had a wife and small daughter, both of whom he loved more than the most precious trinket, and in the dream he saw his daughter reach for him, arms outstretched and a whimper in her voice. Sharp, gas jet blue eyes, aglimmer with tears, looked beyond the freckles on her button nose and pleaded with him to take her, hug her to his chest, and protect her from the deceit of the world. But he could not; his strength sapped as if a catheter had been placed in his arm and drained his blood. He tried to reach her but his arms, nay, his entire body, was immobilized, so he could do nothing but watch her attempts to summon him to her. The dream changed and there she was at twelve, freckles gone but eyes still sharp and pristine. Her cottony blond hair had changed to the rich honey color of her mother's, and every mannerism presaged the lithe sensuality she would exude as a woman. But for now she was gangly and star-struck by the current teenyboppers in leather pants, but as beautiful as a ray of sunshine reflected off the iridescent wing of a moth. Then he saw her in graduation garb, fully a woman, pure grace and confidence, and he thought of the love they had been forbidden by Fate to share. His wife had moved on, taking their daughter with her, and in sorrow had buried him in the same tomb in which dwelled her Monster. It was a cruel irony that she was surrounded by men (Because of her beauty a foregone conclusion) whose affections allowed her distraction from the pain, but he was surrounded by men in a dank universe wherein intimacy could not be found, was in fact decried as weak.
The shakes experienced when one wakes from such a dream are hot, making one sweat as if he were in the boiler that provides Hell its scorching clime. He sweats, he shakes, he thinks, for there is no salve to sooth him back to dreamless sleep. He is caught, a fly looking into the multifaceted eyes of the spider if his past, the tales therefrom holding him in thrall, consuming him down to his jellied bones. He sees himself in high school, well like enough to be voted vice-president of his junior class, president of his senior, and, to provide some inane statement to be placed by his picture in the yearbook, "Most likely to succeed". Boy, he had done them proud on that one, had he not? "Step right up folks and hear the success story of our day! Here we have a man who was his senior class president and voted most likely to succeed! On a rainy night in 1985, when he could have been home with his family, he took a gun and killed someone, then (Drum roll and the release from overhead of thousands of colored balloons) went to death row! Now (Adopting the voice of Robin Leach of "Lifetimes Of The Rich And Famous") he spends his days enjoying the luxury of three hots and a cot and stuffing himself on the prison's four-star cuisine!" His classmates had seen something good in him and he loved them for that, but had they been privy to what lay beneath his mask he doubted they would have noticed the goodness. No matter how clean and white a sheet, throw a turd against it and no one will ever again wish to sleep thereon, regardless of how many launderings it receives. On the outside, because he was adept at keeping his turds in the cesspool of his psyche where they belonged, he was one of the gang, accepted and liked, but no one looked past the facade, no one understood that he walked in a vacuum of segregation, that beyond the giggles, passionate gropes, and scored baskets of adolescent life was a lone sentinel guarding the gifts given by those who should have been his role models. Their method of escapism was to bequeath him their accumulated offal while he in turn, due to the law of action and reaction, created his own. That is a lot of shit to carry around, and an act of unfathomable strength to do so with a straight face. Sometimes he thinks that if all the people in the world were to explode at once nothing would be left but a big ball of crap, then a cosmic dung beetle would happen along and roll it away. Or the hand of God would pull the flush lever and render His abysmally failed experiment to the moors of nonexistence, never to be tried again. The man had felt that way before, dwelling in the citadel of anger, consternation, and abuse in which he was raised. He'd had periodic urges to burn it all down and begin anew, but could never muster the courage. Of course his classmates were unaware of his cowardice, otherwise someone else would have been beknighted as "Most Likely To Succeed". Nor were they aware of certain of his moments alone, when he used the lit cigarette, the hunting knife, or the loaded gun at his temple (Due to his cowardice, unfired) to self-inflict pain. He needed a poultice with which to dress the agony that like an abscessed tooth throbbed throughout him, to assuage the demands of the tornado that sucked away every promising sentiment to rise and test the waters of Fate.
Stars, seen through a barred window. Tiny flickers of primordial light that from against the black satin of infinity mesmerized the onlooker, initiating more dreams, or, more accurately, memories, the cornerstones of one's conscience. Would that men were like animals, oblivious to the past save for the survival instincts of the limbic brain. But like the image left by a camera flash one's memories hover about, often without invitation insinuating themselves into one's day. Memories and dreams, phantasmagoria that place a protective canopy, psychological sunblock, between the defeated man and reality. The corners of his mouth are downturned where once they had every reason to smile, for the joy and gaiety of life was so palpable. (Cursed be the beauty of life viewed in reverse, but it is folly, because destiny is uncertain, to attempt to view it futuristically) His grandmother caressing him with hands showing signs of palsy, her earthy, wholesome smells of cinnamon, fruit, and gardening embracing him like a down blanket, a refuge from the discomfort imposed by other people, a temporary harbor in which to seek shelter from fists of flesh and blood. The warm smile he received from a teacher for answering a problem correctly. The affectionate cold-noses his dog gave him while they wrestled and bonded in the midst of playing Frisbee. Even in sadness there is sometimes light and melancholy joy. In the archives of his mind he saw the dog, old and terminally ill, on the veterinarian's table after the decision to put it out of its misery had been made. The old hound, its rheumy, bloodshot eyes weeping, looked at him and whined, remembering the scratched bellies and treats earned for being a good doggie. Its hot, sandy tongue snaked out to lick its master's trembling hand, and in that lick was an undercurrent of gratitude that the dog's suffering would soon be ended. Unlike the boy, there was no insurrection or turmoil in the hound's inner being, for to be lovingly released after a full life was conducive to peace and acceptance. The rememberer wonders of condemned men, while strapped to the gurney, in the chair, facing rifles, or standing on a scaffold convey such gratitude to their killers? Just a sigh of relief that at last their trek is over? He doubted it. An expression of remorse to the victim's family and a pronounced love for God (A last minute entreaty in hopes of attaining a place in an unverified Heaven) maybe, but absent any love or respect on the part of the killers he couldn't see the condemned being thankful to them. But who knows? At the moment of death the mind, to rationalize and mitigate the terror, may play any number of tricks, even convincing one that the taking of his life, pre-meditated and orchestrated by faux upholders of the law, is best seen as a form of benevolent favor, thereby underscoring the appropriateness, indeed the "rightness", attributed by society to the ceremony.
What a malevolent ceremony it is, from the signing by the governor of the death warrant to the people who prior to his execution oversee the condemned. A mother comes to visit her son on his last day of life but because of a typographical error which misspelled her name on the computer she is not allowed into the prison, though the previous day she had been; prison bureaucracy and disparate rules at their finest. On ponders how the person who denied this mother permission to see her son a final time would feel if his child was within hours of death in a hospital, and because of a clerical error he was forbidden to see her? Would he accept the decision stoically, as did the man who was executed, or beg and plead, as did the mother? Or perhaps become violent? The person may counter that because he has a clean record he has earned the right to be with his family during traumatic times, whereas the death-sentenced man has relinquished such rights, but at no point in any process, criminal or otherwise, does one at the time of death lose the right to humanity, dignity, and compassion. The word "compassion" is an abomination to those whose power over others is absolute. So vulnerable to the venality of political machinations is our system that the material matters of justice, reason, and mercy in the legal amphitheater are but nuggets of feel-good propaganda, uttered with great gravity at the campaign podium but forgotten when the stroke of a pen puts officialdom to the edict to take a person's life. If there is a Hell it should be reserved for those who use their station to flagrantly inflict suffering and death on another, even an alleged killer, for regardless of what he has done his family members -- the victims' survivors the politicians and press are loathe to acknowledge -- should not be arbitrarily assaulted with the poison-tipped darts that will remain imbedded in their hearts forever. Not only do the politicians forsake the prisoner by extinguishing his life, but forsake his family by selling temperance in matters of justice for the absurdly low price of a few tough-on-crime sound bites. The irony is that Victim's Rights Groups, well-schooled in vitriol, demand a covenant of blood from the condemned but offer no atonement for the suffering ultimately unleashed on his family, and this is too much influence for a small band of self-appointed arbiters of judgment to wield.
There is no one to whom prisoners and their families, allied in the quest for fairness and sensibility, can turn for redress. The prison hierarchy, because they are responsible for hiring the people who run the prisons, are out of the question. It follows that the overseers' ideology parallels that of the upper echelon administrators, otherwise they would never be hired. Prison Directors, intent on keeping the prisons under their own brand of control -- a symbolic peeing on a tree to mark their territory -- do not want subordinates who from a sense of fair play would upset the status quo, even for positive effect. Such individualism would be attacked by hate and death mongers as "coddling". If a mother, because of unique circumstances, is allowed a visit in contravention of the prison's rules, the public rebels. It wants not only the prisoner to suffer but also his loved ones. The belief is "The sins of the father shall be visited on his children . . . and his parents, siblings, and friends." This de facto ostracization is achieved by placing, overtly or implicitly, a stigma on those who love or support a prisoner. If a celebrity lends his voice to a death sentenced person's case, a clarion call to boycott his entertainment creations ensues. If a childhood friend lends support to the condemned, he is maligned as a traitor who betrayed law-abiding citizens. If a family member loves the condemned (And this is rarer than one might think), he is viewed with disgust and disdain, as if he is as guilty as the prisoner is; otherwise he could not stand by him in his time of need. Those who browbeat draconian law after draconian law -- while offering no viable suggestions for healing, reconciliation, and the reduction of crime -- out of politicians are turning our nation into one of misanthropes whose anger and fear is directed at our own people. Woe to the purveyors of hatred and subjugation, implemented via ill-advised laws like the Anti-Terrorism And Effective Death Penalty Act, when the chickens inevitably come home to roost.
Might one's elected officials lend a sympathetic ear to the plight of the prisoners and their families? No. Just as the prison Directors hire the people who further their agendas, the politicians hire the Directors, hence a certain mien in prison oversight is coveted from the top to bottom. Prisoner families attend community meetings on crime at which a legislator is present and sit quietly while hotheads spew their views on crime and punishment, usually something akin to "Try 'em today, fry 'em tomorrow!" and are treated respectfully, even fawningly, by the legislator. But when it comes their turn to speak the legislator looks at his watch, places unreasonable limits on the prisoners' families' time, and greets their concerns with hostility and sarcasm. Much to the delight of the snickering hotheads, because for the first time in their dysfunctional lives the important people notice them, lending authenticity to their existence. The justice system consists of a cadre of good ol' boys who with a wink and a nod scratch the itches on each other's respective backs. Absent a base of grass roots support to command the politicians' attention, they ignore the pleas of a segment of the population whose sorrows and legitimate concerns are like gnats around the politicians' ears; something of a bother but remedied by an imperious swat of the hand.
Seeking help from organized religion is no easier. Religious leaders listen with a pious attitude and promise to pray for divine intervention, but in the end their opinion is, well, the prisoner did sin and the Bible, or whatever screed outlines the precepts that guide their souls, does allow for punishment, even if it includes undue suffering. I know the politicians and prison administrators are acting unholy, but trust, my child, that God is watching and will someday make them pay every jot and tittle. Meanwhile they enjoy the trappings of their office -- at taxpayer expense -- while the prisoners' and their families' need for understanding and relief go unfulfilled. Telling about the role of organized religion in matters of law and justice, specifically with regard to capital punishment, is that between 70-80 percent of Americans profess a belief in a Supreme Being whose dictates they claim to at least marginally apply in their lives. Correspondingly, the number of people who claim support for the death penalty, save for the occasional fluctuation pursuant to a case like Karla Faye Tucker's, is between 70-80 percent. As the politicians go, so go the churches. As the churches go, so go the people. The only faction of organized religion which consistently decries capital punishment and supports a proscription thereof is the Catholics, whose Pope has been outspoken against the practice and was instrumental in having the death sentence of a Missouri man commuted to life in prison. But as popular as the Pope is, his flock, which includes two of the Supreme Court's most conservative justices, views their religion as one of convenience, resulting in a laissez-faire approach to the teachings. To wit, if it transgresses something I support, I reserve the right to ignore it and go my own way. Thus we have Catholics who in the name of life oppose abortion but support the death penalty. There are other religious factions whose leadership has denounced capital punishment, but, as with the Catholics, the message is not being delivered from the pulpit. The preachers in the churches, while perhaps agreeing with the leadership's stance, do not wish to offend the law-and-order members of the congregation, for one must be cognizant that an unpopular sermon may result in a reduction of tithe revenue. By extension these preachers are enshrouding the hallowed halls of worship in the rankest form of hypocrisy, i.e., rather than take a difficult, though morally right stand, they shun their job as "shepherds" charged with ensuring the Scriptures, as refined through church doctrine, are followed.
Home. Reality. Where the charismatic words once used to charm women have been replaced with the language needed to survive the con-games and disrespect by prisoners and guards. I look in the mirror and see a caricature of a young man full of dreams, hope, and love. The image fades to another, this one shadowed in every contour, its eyes hollow, recessed, and opaque, radiating a resigned wisdom. Time has eroded the luster of a worthwhile person and replaced it with the sallow appearance of the aged: frail with tremulous voice and teeth, after years of desperate grinding, worn and sore. There has been no weaning from the misery that thirsts for my core essence and imbibes it like ambrosia.
Author's Note: Any resemblance in this article to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright G. Wilford Hathorn, 1999