Few things mean more to any prisoner, especially those of us who have been locked away in solitary confinement under a sentence of death, then getting a visit from a special friend. Even as much as the letters mean, being able to see the person and hear their voices, and even touch them so that we know they are for real, means more than any words can begin to describe.
I know how truly blessed I am as I have a very special friend I’ve known for years and about once a year I get to meet her in person. At great expense she travels half way around the world, then puts up with the hassles of coming through the security checkpoints and into the depths of the prison all the way to the death row visiting park
How can you even begin to describe a friend who is willing to do that? But what makes it so truly special is that here in my world we very seldom see any semblance of compassion. Each day, every day we live in a world filled with hate and malice, treated as something even less than an animal. Sometimes the hostility in this environment becomes overwhelming – but inescapable. At every level our existence here is described not by the humanity, but the inhumanity of this hell that we must exist within.
Like a dog that has been beaten down his whole life, kindness from a stranger can often be met with fear of reluctance. So many that live around here have long given up on the hope of finding kindness in the smile of a stranger willing to reach into our world and become a friend. With over 300 condemned men here on death row, only a very small percentage gets regular visits. Long ago isolated from and abandoned by that world “out there” they are like that dog, their faith in the humanity of others now non-existent.
The past weekend I had my visit with my friend. For months, then weeks, then days I anxiously awaited her arrival. Because she was traveling from Europe, she was entitled to have an extra day, and then with Monday being a regular visiting day due to Memorial Day holiday, that meant we had 3 consecutive days of visits.
In the weeks leading up to this visit we heard rumors that the death row visiting area would be filled beyond its capacity, and many visitors might not be able to get in. To make it even worse, we heard that once the visiting area did fill to capacity, they would start terminating visits early so others could get in too. Like my friend, many of these visitors were traveling from Europe and other faraway places, just to visit a condemned man that they too have come to know. So we all were very anxious.
Finally Saturday (May 24) came and they called my name for the visiting park. I had already spent hours getting perfectly groomed, as anxious as if I was preparing for a prom date. The guards escorted me to the visiting park and I was “dressed” out in the clothes we are required to wear during visits, then I checked my hair (or what’s left of it anyways :)) one last time and pushed the door leading into the visiting park open, quickly scanning the room for my friend-and then there she was and we both smiled from across the room.
Not a moment later I was at our assigned table and she stepped to me and without reservation embraced me in a hug that silently spoke of how genuine her affection for me was. Not only had she journeyed halfway around the world just to bring a glimpse of humanity and compassion into my life, but her open arms welcomed me with an equally open heart.
The hours passed much too quickly. The visiting park quickly filled. And to our surprise the warden himself had decided to work the entire holiday, personally supervising the visiting areas to ensure that the visits went smoothly. Nobody was denied a visit and no visits were terminated early and we all owe one big thanks to the warden for that.
But the three days quickly passed and all too soon it was time to say goodbye. That saddened both of us. The moment came when the visiting park sergeant announced that the visiting hours were over and instructed all visitors to come to the front so they could be escorted out. We slowly walked towards the front door – knowing only too well that I could only so far – and then we embraced one last time and said our goodbyes. For a few more minutes she stood just inside the door as other visitors gathered, then the guard opened the door and let them out and they were gone. One last smile and a quick wave and she disappeared out of sight and once again I returned to my cell and back into my world so deliberately devoid of compassion, still marveling at the miracle that that compassion can be nurtured in a complete stranger on the other side of the world and no matter how bad of a day I may be having or how overwhelming my circumstances may become, I can so easily see that smile and that itself makes me smile too.
Until next year we will once again be limited only to communicate by letters, unable to hear her voice or see her in person. But already I am counting the months, weeks and days until she comes to visit again, just as many others here do too. But I also say a silent prayer for the many more who never receive any visits or even a simple letter from someone – anyone who might reach out in compassion and show but a moment of kindness to a condemned man, to whom it would mean so much.