Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Charlie's Web

Although I am in solitary confinement, I’m not quite alone as I have a companion. It is my friend and I must be especially careful not to let the guards know that I’m sharing my cell with Charlie, as surely they would take him – or her (I really don’t know which) away, I would rather that Charlie be allowed to stay.

Charlie is my pet spider, although I suppose that if you asked him he might say that I’m his pet. I’ve had him awhile now, and this may surprise you, spiders really do make great companions. I decided to call him Charlie because of the classic book of “Charlotte‘s web”. I’ve known a few Charlotte’s through the years - my grand mothers name was Charlotte., and some Charlotte’s simply go by “Charlie” so it’s a name that could be male or female, fitting my companion quite perfectly.

When I first discovered Charlie sneaking in along the wall beneath my bunk he was just a tiny little thing with long skinny legs. We call these spiders “Daddy Long Legs”, which is appropriate. He was a spunky little thing and I had to chase him around my cell before I could capture him – careful not to hurt him. For weeks I had to keep him in a small plastic container and I would take him out several times a day to play with him. Slowly he became accustomed to my handling and didn’t try to run. But I don’t mind if he does run now and then as its fun to play chase with him. I think Charlie enjoys it too as when he does get away he just finds a corner and hides until I find him, then allows me to gently pick him up again. Sometimes I think he is smiling when I do, as if maybe he got over on me.

After a few weeks, I then moved him to a plastic bag that I taped to the wall between my toilet and the wall. After over 25 years in solitary confinement I knew that by doing this Charlie would build a web within the plastic bag and attach it to the wall. After a day or two I gently pull the plastic bag away leaving some of the web attached to the wall – and then Charlie would build a web in the newfound freedom.

Once Charlie built the new home I would catch small insects and flick them into his web. He really is picky about what he eats and I envy that as I’m forced to eat whatever they give me. But Charlie likes his food fresh so I must catch the tiny insect alive and carefully flick them into the web. Then I watch as they desperately struggle and Charlie moves in for the kill.

I must admit that there is something fascinating about watching a spider capture his prey. Some might argue that I must be sick to be fascinated by this, but why? The truth is that nature programs are very popular. I would venture to say that at one time or another we have all watched in fascination as a lion stalked its prey, then pounced upon it. And I watch Charlie.

Like a raccoon playing with its food, Charlie doesn’t move in for an immediate kill. He rather quickly approaches his prey, then, using his two back legs, he will entwine the prey in a cocoon of webs, spinning it until it has been completely wrapped and is rendered helpless. Sometimes Charlie will then move in for his meal, sucking the blood out of the insect before discarding the body from his nest. Other times Charlie will move his wrapped meal to another part of the web and consume it later, like a squirrel stashing his winter nuts.

I talk to Charlie too. He is really easy to get along with. We have never had an argument. Over time I have learned ways to tell Charlie’s mood. When he becomes agitated he will move his body up and down as if flexing his muscles at me or whatever else annoys him. I know to leave Charlie alone when he is agitated as he won’t stay in my hand when in that mood. Other times Charlie seems to want my company and will almost voluntarily walk into my open palm and then I will move to my bunk and we will watch TV together.

I’m not alone by any means. I’ve had many pets through the years, as have others around me. Some of the guys prefer to catch a small mouse; others will try to feed the birds outside the window by getting the runners to place bread outside the window. Then spend hours watching the birds feast – but never able to touch them or have them as a companion.

Perhaps that is why I prefer a spider. It comes into my cage on its own account thus I’m not imprisoning the little fellow against its will. And Charlie asks very little of me, while giving so much in return. Solitary confinement is about being alone, but I’m not alone as Charlie shares my cell with me.

But I know that one day I will awake and Charlie will be gone. I can only hope that when he does move on he will remember me in his own way as I will remember him. And when that time comes, I will then find a new Charlie that I can find companionship with and call my friend.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Florida Death Row Advocacy Group

Florida is known for its long hot summers. While most who live in the state easily find refuge from the oppressive heat in air conditioned buildings or cars such luxuries are not so easy to come by here in my world. On death row we live in concrete cages that become virtual ovens during the summer. I have endured 25 consecutive summers in these cages and each one seems to be worse than the last one. But then I can also remember that for the first 20 years or so we had no way to find any relief from the heat and humidity with at best minimal ventilation in our cells we would quite literally drip sweat all day and all through the night, awakening the next morning laying almost naked on a sweat soaked mattress.

During these summers we would try to find any form of relief we could. Most of us would spend many hours each day sitting or even standing naked over the toilet/sink combo each cell is equipped with, slowly pouring water over our head and body and savoring in that temporary relief. Other times we would try to obtain even small pieces of cardboard to use as a makeshift handheld fan, but then they decided that any form of cardboard was a “fire hazard” and the officers would come into our cells and take these cardboard fans. Anyone who dared to even so much as verbally protest or refuse to give up that piece of cardboard would find themselves on their way to lock-up for a month or so, where you have no means of escape from the heat.



Many years ago another inmate came up with an improvised turbine we would make out of cardboard then attach to the single small ventilation duct at the back of each cell. As the air was sucked through this vent it would turn the improvised turbine which in turn would be attached to a “pulley” made of old shoelaces or yarn or whatever we could find and that would turn a small paper fan mounted on an empty plastic sewing thread spool. It wasn’t much, but made all the difference to us and soon everyone had one. Then they came around and declared them contraband and confiscated them.

Part of being sentenced to death is being condemned to misery. Many who hold power over us sadistically invent ways to make us even more miserable, as if condemning us to death and confining us to years and even decades of solitary confinement isn’t itself enough to make us suffer. (please see: http://www.doinglifeondeathrow.com/) But a few years ago our pathetic existence became just a little bit better thanks to the commitment and perseverance of a small group of people who formed a group called “Florida Death Row Advocacy Group” (FDRAG for short) Most of the members had a family member or friend who was on death row and their objective was simple enough – to simply attempt to advocate for the human treatment of the condemned.

Through their selfless commitment and generosity about 4 years ago they made it possible that over 300 small electrical fans were purchased and suddenly the long hot summers didn’t seem quite as bad. As I sit at my steel table, that plastic fan is about two feet from me, directly blowing a breeze on me and when I think of all those long hot summers we endured a prayer of thanks goes out to those who made it possible for this little bit of relief that makes a world of difference.

In my world it’s only too easy to feel like the whole world is out to make us suffer. But even as difficult as it might be to endure the circumstances of my seemingly eternal solitary confinement, it’s that isolated act of compassion and kindness that makes the difference.

So in today’s entry I would like to salute those who have proven their commitment to reaching out in genuine compassion to those of us who are condemned and on behalf of all of us here I would like to thank them for what difference they’ve made.

It is only too easy to become one of the lynch mobs and throw stones at the condemned while wanting us to suffer as much misery as their cold hearts can invent. But for all the hate and malice that is piled upon us, it still remains that small act of compassion that truly touches our souls. So I salute those who reach out to us in compassion as they are the true hope for all of humanity. And I would encourage others to join them in their efforts by becoming a member of this wonderful group. http://fdrag.kk5.org/#