Sunday, April 24, 2016

Death Watch journal (Part 15)

My kingdom for a cup of hot coffee - really, is that too much to ask for? I guess in all fairness I can't really blame anyone for not wanting my kingdom of steel and stone since it does kind of suck. But then there's the few simple pleasures even a condemned man can almost take for granted and for too many years every morning I will awake early, hours before most others around me, so that I can enjoy those few hours of relative quiet as I sit at my so-called "desk" and begin my day by writing whatever it is that has to be written that day as I sip from a nearby cup of coffee.

Sometimes I will already be long at work even before the sun comes up and as I sit at that desk I will watch out that distant dusty window on the outer catwalk as the new day gives way to sunlight, and imagine that I can actually see the sunrise itself, although I can't. At most, I can see the shadows as they appear on the adjacent wing across that narrow strip of grass that separates one cell block wing from another...and as I do, I'll slowly sip from that cup of coffee.

This is the time of day that I like to write those closest to me, and as I write whatever letter I'm writing I will place a picture of the person against my wall only inches away so that I can see their face as I write and it gives me a feeling that in some small way I am with them. And as I do, I drink a lot of coffee and will go through two or even three cups of coffee in those early morning hours that I cherish so much.

As the morning progresses the cellblock around me will slowly come to life, at first through the sound of the first one, then another and all too soon many more flushing toilets - and thank God for whoever it was who invented the flushing toilet as during the colder months all the windows are closed and the ventilation fans turned off and with a hundred other men living in too close proximity to me, absent that ability to flush, the cellblock would quickly become pretty rank in no time at all. And having to live with the smell of many men relieving themselves would seriously compromise the pleasure of my cup of coffee.

                                                               


But for other reasons, it's been a bad week as the hot water went out and for days I could not have that most simple of pleasures -  my ritualistic morning cup of coffee. Don't get me wrong - I didn't actually go without my coffee, as I'm the first to admit that I'm a caffeine junkie and can't even function without that cup of coffee. To give you a good idea of just how bad I got for my beloved caffeine, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to picture me waking up early each morning all but rolling out of my bunk and staggering those few steps to the sink to first splash a bit of cold water on my face so the small world around me will come into focus, and then push the hot water on as it has to run for a few minutes before it will even get warm.

And as that water runs in the sink, I've been known to put my MP3 player on, pushing the earbutts into each ear and crank the volume all the way up to the song "Cocaine" by Eric Clapton, and then in nothing more than my state issued white boxer shorts, I will kind of dance while whispering along with that song - except every time they say the word "cocaine", I substitute it for the word "caffeine". "If you wanna hang out, you got to take her out...caffeine - if you wanna get down, down on the ground..caffeine" (I'll be damned, I think I finally figured out why I regularly get hit with random drug test - which I have never once failed in the past 20-plus years...but it's starting to make sense why they want me to piss in that little plastic cup a lot more than most of the guys around me!) Oh yeah - and a shout out to Eric Clapton...you are a guitar God! :)

So where was I? Oh, yeah - they seriously screwed up my morning coffee ritual this past week when the hot water suddenly went out, and I had no way to get even a cup  of barely warm coffee. And that sucked! All I could do was make my coffee with cold water, and it just isn't the same. Each week I buy, beg or borrow a couple of 4 ounce bags of generic instant coffee and it's already of poor quality but gets that much worse when all I got is cold water to make it with.

I guess I really shouldn't complain though...there's billions of people around the world that don't have any coffee at all and here I am a condemned man waiting to be put to death and I've got nothing better to do than whine about not having a cup of hot coffee? And I'm not really fooling anyone either, as those that really know me know that if they turned the water off altogether I would still figure out a way to get my caffeine fix, even if it meant having to pour that dark powder out into neatly sculpted lines on my so-called desk and snorting it up dry.  yeah, I think we can all agree that I'm an unabashed caffeine junkie and damned proud of it - and most of those reading this can relate, if you're a coffee junkie too!

The truth of the matter is that even on the best of days the most I can hope for is a cup of almost hot, but not quite, coffee as the water in the sink really doesn't get hot - that would be a threat to security as we live in a world where the word "security" is too often thrown up to justify depriving us of even the most simple pleasures. The powers that be have decided that if the temperature of the water is turned up too high to where it might actually be hot, we could use it as a weapon by throwing this hot water on the guards. Of course, that has never happened on death row, but what's reality got to do with it when the true objective of the American prison system is to keep prisoners as miserable as possible and declaring hot water a security risk is only one of an infinite ways they will grossly exaggerated "security concerns"..that's all part of doing time and you just got to roll with it.

But for me, the past week wasn't all that good as I really do miss my morning cups of warm coffee. But I might note that with the hot water gone that also meant very cold showers too. Some might think that can't be too bad since I'm in Florida, but believe me, Florida does get really cold too. The death row units are up in North Florida, not far from the Georgia line, and even this week, in early April, it's going down to almost freezing.

The thing is, this creates somewhat of a paradox - I can deal with a cold shower, and often have, as long as I can have my cup of coffee. In fact, the tier that I'm housed onoften has cold showers as by law they must have one shower on each wing that runs only cold water so that when "chemical agents" are used on prisoners - which happens frequently here at Florida State Prison, the inmate who was a "gassed" must be allowed to take a cold shower to wash the pepper spray off - hot water will cause the liberally used chemical agents to burn. So, sometimes the only thing we get is a cold shower - but at least then when I go back to my cell I can make a cup of coffee.

Presumably, they'll fix the water in a few days and now at least I have something to look forward to. And as I await the uncertainty of my fate, not knowing if any day now the governor will reschedule my execution once again, I hope you'll forgive me if this opportunity, to whine just a bit about not having a cup of hot coffee, provides me with a much-needed momentary distraction

 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Death Watch Journal (part 14)

That cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over my head as we await word on what the courts will do about the question of whether the Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida (January, 2016) should be retroactively applied to all Florida cases...a decision that may very well decide whether I and many others will live or die.

As of this week I have now been in continuous solitary confinement on Florida's death row for 32 years (I was charged and arrested this case in March 1983 but was not convicted and sentenced to death until March, 1984) In that I am now at Florida State Prison, where those first coming to death row are initially housed, I'm surrounded by many relatively recent "new gains" that was significantly younger than the average death row prisoners - those such as me. They inevitably ask me how long I've been here and when I say "32 years", I smile when they immediately respond "damned bro - that's longer than I've been alive!". Yeah that's just what it comes down to... I have been in solitary confinement under sentence of death now for what amounts to an entire lifetime.

But let's keep this in context..This week I "celebrated" my 56th birthday. I was only 22 years old when I was arrested on this case. Once upon a time I was married and I've got three children, obviously now all grown. As I look into my little plastic mirror and can't help but notice that what hair is not slowly turning gray has already fallen out, I smile as I think that I now have seven grandchildren. That person I was when I was 22 could never have imagined one day waking up and realizing that I'm now a grandpa.

If the State of Florida had its way, I would never have seen my 56th birthday as they never intended to allow me to live beyond February 11, 2016. That was the day they planned to put me to death by lethal injection. And even now I'm in limbo - if the courts rule against me in coming weeks, or months, then the governor will quickly set a new execution date and I will go back down to the bottom floor of "Q-wing" and count down those final days as I've already done 3 times before.

So, how do you celebrate a birthday that wasn't meant to be? There are many who I wish I could spend my birthday with, such as all my friends who sent me birthday cards and best wishes - I wish I could give each and everyone a big hug as it's hard to put into words just how much it means to get a simple card and know that even when you are marked for death by society, there's still that measure of mercy and compassion that gives even a condemned man hope. Too often, when I feel overwhelmed by circumstances around us, it's easy to forget that the whole world isn't trying to kill us.

For those who sent me cards, some that came from complete strangers that didn't even give their name, I truly do thank you. I wish I could throw a big birthday party, not to celebrate my so-called life, as in truth I don't have much of a life to celebrate here in this six-foor concrete and steel cage. Rather, I'd want to celebrate that measure of humanity within those that do reach out in spite of society's demand that we be cast aside and marked for death.

I am reminded of that scene in the Mel Gibson movie "Passion of Christ" where there on the hillside stood those three crosses of Calvary - in the center, Jesus was crucified but to each side of him were common criminals. And all around the crowd gathered, filled with hate and demanding nothing less than death. But then there were the few who suffered the loss of someone they so dearly loved and that moment of compassion became more powerful than all the hate the crowds could muster.

On my birthday I don't celebrate my life, but rather I celebrate those who despite circumstances selflessly reach out in compassion and mercy to offer a few words of good will. They sustain our hope and give us the strength to continue this journey to whatever end will be.

As I write this, today is Easter Sunday - two days before my birthday and the gift I received was truly special...I got to spend the day with my daughter. For only the second time in 32 years it was just me and her. You see, my daughter Jennifer suffered of trauma during childbirth that left her mentally disabled. Despite her handicap, she struggles to live independently and almost 10 years ago married someone and they now have two children.

Life has been anything but easy on them and every day is a struggle - like so many here in America they are poor and little hope of overcoming their circumstances. But I remain inspired as despite the odds against her, my daughter Jennifer doesn't give up.. and she never becomes bitter of how unfair life has been. And she isn't capable of hate or all the destructive traits we see in the world around us.

Everyday she is judged by others around her for what they see, rather than what they know. And yet she responds with a childlike love. As I walked into the death row visiting park today and she came through the door the visitors come through, her face lit up with a smile that comes from the heart and although it's been years since I was last able to hug her, she immediately gave me the biggest hug I've had in a long time and she said: "I love you Daddy" and that almost made me cry. I've been here on Florida's death row since she was 4 years old. And although too many years pass between those hugs, each seems like it was just yesterday.

In a couple of days I will have my birthday and as I do, I want to think about all those who kept me going through their support. And as we all wait for the decision from the courts, I will be grateful for the small things that give even my so-called life meaning..while many may gather outside the prison to celebrate my death, if that day comes, there will still be those who have only compassion in their hearts, and there will be that hug that a father gets from his child. And it's in those moments that even my own struggle not to succumb to anger and drown myself in the negativity of my circumstances that I'm able to rise above it all and bask in that fellowship that comes from those who so selflessly reach out to me.

And so that's all I want for my birthday - the chance to give each of you a big hug and to thank each of you for being a true friend.