Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Day in the Life Under Death

What a pathetic sight I must be as I attempt to squint here at the very edge of my steel bunk seemingly transfixed by the way the slivers if sunlight slowly steal their way across my cold concrete floor on a journey that will soon enough lead up to my evening ritual. With a cup of coffee in my one hand I sip at the bitter taste as I patiently wait for that moment when the distant descending sun will stretch these slivers of light their fullest length allowing me to then see the sun itself as there, so far beyond the three sets of bars that separate me from that narrow dusty window I can look outside across the barren field where the infamous “Raiford Rock” once stood for more years than anyone I know can even remember, but now an empty field where not even weeds will grow as if even the hope of life itself has long been abandoned.

At a distance beyond that condemned piece of ground I can see a row of tall Grandfather Oak trees running along a road that leads to the front gate of Union Correctional Institution on the main prison compound. Just beyond those stately trees stands the simple brick structure of the prison chapel with its traditional towering white steeples reaching towards the heavens.

Soon the sun will set beyond that distant horizon directly behind this chapel and that horizon will ever so very slowly explode into a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors of fiery reds, pastel oranges, and accents of yellow before slowly surrendering into darker groups as far as I can see in either direction and but for a brief second that fading light will perfectly silhouette that distant chapel cradled in the branches of those trees as a portrait of tranquility trapped between the two worlds of night and day.

It is at that moment of each day that each day itself is defined for me, that moment of comfort and private communion that renews my physical strengths if but only by the knowledge that I’ve survived yet another day. Soon that stealthy light will be consumed and swallowed by the distant horizon and I will rise from where I now squint and face yet another of what has already been far to many long and cold nights in my solitaire cage relentlessly haunted by the demons of what once was and what might have been – and even more by the thoughts of what may very will never be.

Just as my hopes and dreams live with the light of each day, my fears and regrets come with the cold loneliness of each night as when the small world around me grows silent I am reminded of just how alone and abandoned I truly am. As the many years have slowly passed too often sleep would never come, perhaps my way of holding on to today for fear of having to confront yet another tomorrow, until I finally surrendered to a dependency on antidepressant tranquilizers that each night induced an involuntary sleep as without that temporary refuge of unconsciousness one day would become the next and too quickly overwhelm me.

It has been a long and difficult journey. A few photos hang on my wall to remind me of the generation that has now passed me by. There’s the photo of me taken just before my arrest in early 1983, a young man with a whole life still ahead. A photo of my now long divorced ex-wife holding our daughter on the day we brought her home from the hospital, now faded and tattered at the edges; and then, the more recent photo of me holding my grandson in the death row visiting park. My children were so young when I was first imprisoned – and now I am a grandfather: a generation has passed.

Each day has a beginning and an end and yet it is the end of the day that I look to, to define my beginning. As each day begins I will awake from the sound of the chow cart coming through the steel door and moving down the wing towards my cell. Reluctantly I will stretch and then half stagger towards the combination sink and toilet a short step away. The cold water brings me to life as I blindly reach to the wall for my towel. As I dry off, I incoherently voice a vile thought towards this new day and then walk the few steps to the front of my cell to receive the tray of bland, cold food I’ve actually become accustomed to.

My cell has no table or chair and to eat I must precariously balance the plastic food try on my lap while sitting on the steel footlocker that holds all of my worldly possessions. We are allowed only a plastic spoon to eat with but then eating cold oatmeal or grits with a plastic spoon is not that difficult and few foods we are served would require more than that.

After I eat my breakfast I will turn my small T.V. on and listen to the morning news as I read through old newspapers or magazines that are passed down the line and shared. Although we are allowed to receive magazine subscriptions, few of us can afford to so what any of us receive are most often shared and passed down the cellblock.

The magazines not only keep me informed on what’s happening in the real world but also provide pictures of the rapidly changing world beyond us in full color. It’s funny how you never really think about it, but in my world the system methodically attempts to deny us any color. The walls around me are cold and gray – not really gray as they are actually a light tone of beige with brown trim and the bars flat black. But in my mind I still see only grey… cold, cold, colorless gray.

Since a few years we are allowed to buy a small color TV, the ones who have the money to do that and the ones who don't have a small black & white TV donated by various religious organizations, we also can buy a small “walkman” type radio. Reception on both is often, at best, bad but it brings in the sound of the real world. I smile when I think of that as at times a particular song will play on the radio and someone will holler out, and as others quickly tune into that station a number of men will simultaneously break out singing along; because all radios must be operated with headphones, the song itself is not heard – only the broken voices of the men; each singing along but not necessarily in tune. In stolen moments like that we each in our solitaire cell become one.

The hours pass by mid-morning the cellblock begins to come alive. Down the hall I can hear a couple of guys calling out chess moves and I momentarily follow the game. Closer to me tow others exchange trivial conversation around a concrete wall that separates them and at the far end I can hear one of the “bugs,” those of us so-called because we – or I should say he – has lost touch with reality and will spend the day talking and yelling to himself, or imaginary others.

As the morning passes and noon approaches I again hear the metallic clang of the food cart and wash my hands to eat. Soon enough the cart is at my cell and I silently accept my tray, most often some form of mystery meat or breaded “fish” complimented with half cooked rice and watery beans. Whether or not the particular food served that day is different from the day before remains debatable. as the bland food all tastes the same, if one can tell the taste at all.

Then the long afternoon passes and if it is not my floors day to go to the outdoor recreation yard -- an enclosed concrete pad with high fences topped by shiny razor wire – I will pass the day reading a book if I have a book worth reading, or writing a letter. If we go out to “rec” we are allowed two hours each time, but no more than a maximum of four hours each week, to play basketball or volleyball, or just to talk to other guys on the floor without the concrete and bars separating us.

By late afternoon the guards change shifts and as the new shift comes on we prepare to shave and shower. As simple as showering may be, it becomes a humiliating and even painful experience in this world as each time we leave our cells we must first be handcuffed behind the back and then escorted to a small shower cell at the very front of the wing. Once securely locked in that shower cell the handcuffs are removed and a quick shower is taken before the guards replace the cuffs and escort us back, one at a time. Cheap plastic disposable razors are passed out just before we shower and collected and counted immediately after.

As evening approaches it is time to eat again, yet it’s just another meal very much the same as that fed at lunch. There is little variety in the food we eat as the menu repeats itself weekly – for years at a time. If I happen to forget what day it is, I’m quickly reminded by what we are served at breakfast. I eat what I can but even after so many years I’m unable to eat most of what is served. That which I do not eat I feed to my cellmate Johnny Coe Mode, that being the toilet and believe me, he eats well and is apparently even grateful, as he’s never complained.

My time with my ritualistic sunsets varies and is at times broken by the evening meal. For now I am fortunate that I am in a cell with this view as most of the cells look out over the concrete rec yard and to the adjacent wing beyond. But even then I would look out if for no other reason than to watch the birds on the yard.

We all engage in our rituals this time of day as the cellblock becomes abnormally quiet while we anxiously await the days mail run, each of us hoping to get a letter from someone we love. And after the mail runs it remains silent – the few who got mail quietly read that cherished letter while those who did not retreat into a depressed silence that can last for hours –even days. Even as uplifting as it is to receive even one letter, it’s the despair of not receiving any at all that overwhelms you.

The evening turns to night and most of us withdraw to watch television, the electronic pacifier that helps us maintain our relative sanity as God forbid that we should lose touch with reality and become mentally incompetent as if deemed to be incompetent we cannot be executed. The televisions are not a luxury provided for our comfort but a necessity provided to maintain our sanity so that we can ultimately be executed.

That tranquility of my evening ritual marks my day, both beginning and end. Another day has run its monotonous course and my cage has become my refuge as I even become accustomed to this small, solitary world. My world is deliberately structured to methodically institutionalize me and intellectually I know that. I accept that the deliberate degradation and humiliation are intended to ever so slowly erode away my identity and even humanity so that by the time I do reach that fate that awaits me I am reduced to something inhumane and unworthy of comparison. By breaking me completely when the time comes to face that fate I am programmed to surrender passively, even welcoming my fate as a means of finally escaping a fate even worse than death itself… the fate of slowly rotting away in solitaire confinement as that fate stalks you relentlessly.

This was my day today and will be my day again for all of my tomorrows. In my own mind I chase the ghosts of the past to acquire the strength to survive the future, as the only life I know is the life I once had. In the world I’ve been condemned to I am neither allowed to live or die and it’s that existence without the ability to exist that is my worse fate of all.