Few books I´ve read over the many years I’ve spent in solitary confinement on Florida´s infamous “death row” have had more impact on me than Dante´s Inferno. Obviously fictional, Inferno becomes branded upon the soul as it depicts a journey through the depths of hell, describing in detail the horrors that await the damned.
At the beginning the unfortunate soul is told that the only means of escape is to descend into hell. If he can survive passing through the nine rings, each worse than the one before, only then can he escape from eternal damnation. No one yet has accomplished this.
As they pass through the gateway into hell, he takes note of what is written above …”Abandon hope, all ye who enter.” Like any mortal man would, he hesitates, unable to shake the feeling that something truly evil awaits him beyond.
They proceed along their descent, finding that there are many levels in hell, each assigned to a particular form of transgression – and each far worse than the one before. Dante paints a vivid picture of the torment inflicted upon the souls of those sinners, making the Biblical lake of fire and brimstone seem merciful.
Finally, they reach the Ninth Ring, an incomprehensible abode buried deep within the bowels of hell. Reserved exclusively for the “worst of the worst,” the worst punishment imaginable is inflicted here.
But to my surprise, the ultimate punishment is not physical such as the precious image of worms feeding upon the flesh and the other physical tortures only the most depraved mind could imagine. The Ninth Ring is an icy realm reserved for very few, each incarnated and frozen solid in eternal silence. Conscious of the passage of time for all eternity. Condemned to silence and solitude, unable to cry out in their misery or find the comfort of another´s compassionate touch.
The Ninth Ring is a vivid description of what life is like on America´s death row for the thousands sentenced to a fate far worse than death. Condemned to solitary confinement designed to break not the body but the soul, we are “frozen” in an eternal state of limbo, slowly succumbing to the abandonment of hope, and madness that consumes from within.
Our society professes pride in the preservation of human rights, but there´s an institution most choose to ignore. Some call it the price of freedom, but within the past generation America has evolved into a society that boasts the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Over two million of its citizens are cast into contemporary gulags, forced to endure punishment motivated less by convictions for crime as it is the billions made each year by private corporations feeding off the misery of the imprisoned under the auspices of criminal “justice”. (See, “Trump and the Prison Industry” by Fredreka Schouten, USA Today , February 24, 2017, illustrating how private corporations donate obscene amounts of money to political campaigns, with the expectation of receiving billion dollar contracts)
Like with Dante´s “Inferno”, our contemporary prison system is comprised of many rings, each far worse than the one before. At the very bottom of the Beast one will find the Ninth Ring – “death row”.
When we speak of the death penalty, most attention is focused on the execution, an event that does not take place often until decades later. Few give any thought to the many years between imposition of sentence and execution. Fewer still acknowledge that of the thousands currently under sentence of death, a small percentage will actually face execution. In truth, the vast majority are condemned to a fate far worse than death itself –decades of solitary confinement where they slowly rot in both body and mind.
I came to Florida´s “death row” in March 1984. At the time, I was 23 years old. I am now 57 years old. Over twenty years ago I wrote about “life” on death row was about (“Cruel and Unusual: An Intimate Look at the Death Penalty; C. Michael Lambrix. The Madison Edge, February 10, 1993). At the time, Florida´s death-sentenced prisoners were housed at Florida State Prison (read: “Alcatraz of the South”). I described it as follows:
Upon being sentenced to death, each of us is kept in a segregated unit and each assigned our own cell in solitary confinement, designed to intentionally isolate us and deprive us of any ability to meaningfully interact with one another. Not even for one moment are we allowed to forget that we are warehoused there, and waiting to die.
Each bare concrete cell measures approximately six feet by nine foot, including the steel bunk solidly affixed to the wall on one side, and the combination toilet/sink securely attached to the rear wall, and a single steel footlocker in which all our personal property is stored. No property is allowed to be out of that footlocker unless it is being used at that moment. Nothing – not even a single photograph of a loved one - is allowed to be affixed to the walls. Each of the three walls are painted while the cell front is a wall of steel bars that look outward to the catwalks where the guards make their rounds. There are no windows and the only source of natural light comes from the dusty, distant window located on the outer catwalk far from our reach.
At best, there is less than 30 square feet of open area in each cell in which we can “walk” (three short steps each way) and move around. Although prison officials like to say that we are in our solitary cells an average of 23 hours a day, in truth departures from the cell are relatively rare and as brief as possible Each time, we are securely handcuffed, chained and shackled.
The routinely scheduled departures are limited to a short shower three times a week in a designated “shower cell” located at the front of each tier and twice weekly we are allowed to participate in two hours of “outdoor recreation” on a fenced concrete pad. It is not uncommon for many to forego recreation for years at a time, electing instead to remain in their cells. All the time spent in solitary deprives them of the ability to socially interact. They retreat into their own world, the solitary cell becoming their own “security blanket.” Many abandon any interest in contact with others.
Conditions of our imprisonment are incomprehensible to most. For too many years we were forced to live in an environment infested with cockroaches, insects and rodents. Many of us would even make pets of rodents, or spiders, or even cockroaches, out of desperation for interaction with any form of life. Although we could talk to and hear others in adjacent cells, we could not see or touch them. A pet provided a needed surrogate for interaction.
Ventilation was minimal, and in long, hot and unbearably humid Florida summers, our concrete crypts became ovens. Our only relief from overwhelming heat would be to stand naked in our steel toilets and pour cool water over our sweating bodies. In recent years, and only after pursuit of a Federal civil action, we are each allowed to purchase an 8-inch plastic fan. Those who cannot afford to purchase their own fan continue to do without.
In winter months the death row unit at Florida State Prison often becomes so cold that a thin layer of ice will form in the toilet. When the heating system would work, it provided only minimal relief. Each prisoner is provided a coarse, wool “horse blanket” often worn ragged and riddled with holes. The only warmth for months at a time would be to get winter clothes (thermal underwear, sweatshirts, etc), purchasing them from the prison “store,” but many don´t have the money to do so.
Then there´s the food…by law, they are required to feed us but this is one area of prison administration that goes to great lengths to operate as cheaply as possible. As if saving money wasn´t itself a means by which to reduce our diet preparation and delivery methods further reduce it to something unfit for human consumption. By maintaining quality that discourages consumption, they encourage us to purchase our food from the prison “canteen” at escalated cost.
The unspoken truth of the American prison industry is that countless corporations compete each year for exclusive contract allowing them to sell to prisoners products of inferior quality at escalated price. Each year the captive market generates millions of dollars for politically-connected vendors who then make substantial contributions to elected officials. Like all prisoners, those on death row are forced to ask what they can from family and friends just to survive day by day.
Family and friends are what keeps us going, a fragile thread that dangling in front of each of us as we desperately try to maintain contact with the real world. But more often than not, both family and friends drift away, letters and visits growing fewer and further apart as the years pass. Although those sentenced to death are technically allowed a social visit each week, in reality those are few and far between.
Although I am blessed with family that remains by my side, and receive a social visit on average once monthly, the majority receive far less. Many receive no visits at all for many years at a time. Maintaining a semblance of a social relationship becomes impossible after prolonged isolation, their social skills eroding as they succumb to the inevitable mental degradation and retreat into a world of their own. Some even elect to forego minimal interaction with adjacent neighboring cells.
The solitary cell becomes a cocoon. Every meal is served and consumed there without table or chair, cold trays passed through the door and balanced the lap.
Those are just the tangible aspects of our endless solitary confinement. Words are inadequate to truly define the deprivation so deliberately inflicted upon the condemned. Not months, or even years, but decade after decade of solitary confinement under sentences of death, leaving each of us utterly powerless to influence our existence. We are methodically reduced to something less than human in this regime, our fates infinitely prolonged, constantly reminded that the only purpose for our continued existence is to be warehoused until it is our time to die. When our appointed time does finally come, if we survive that long, our death tomorrow will come at the hands of those that feed us today.
Isolation of the condemned pales in comparison to the alienation from prolonged solitary confinement. It is in our nature to interact with others. Each of us fundamentally needs to be part of something more than ourselves.
Those sentenced to “life” in prison for crimes indistinguishable from our own are afforded the luxury of community. They are housed in “general population” where they spend little time confined to a cell aside from the hours they sleep.
They eat in open dining halls and are able to converse with others. Assigned a job, they are rewarded with the sense of accomplishment that comes from self-sufficiency and being a contributing member of their community.
They are able to form social groups, often forging friendships with others, finding common ground in people and places they once knew out there in the real world. They can participate in religious activities, communing in spiritual fellowship and even go to church.
Community can never exist for those arbitrarily condemned to life in solitary confinement under the pretense of being sentenced to death. All we have are the fading memories of a life lived so long ago.
Then there´s the forbidden fruit we call “hope”; the imaginary sweetness we allow ourselves to long for. Yet each time our teeth sink into reality we taste only bitterness. One court after another denies our appeals and with each, we take one more step toward the gallows.
As the years slowly pass, meaning drifts further away. Family and friends become distant, strangers whose lives go on while ours remains trapped in time. As that hope fades, anger grows stronger, filling an emotional void. We find ourselves increasingly intolerant towards the slightest imperfections of others around us, causing unnecessary conflict and alienating us further, even from those similarly confined.
Many of us begin to fantasize about the only realistic escape: death. It creeps up on you, its siren song whispering. Before you realize it, there you are in the stillness of the night, lying on your bunk with your eyes wide shut, imagining you had already had taken your last breath. Imagining death, and its promise to end the misery.
But it doesn´t end. Fantasizing about slicing your wrists, or stringing yourself up at the end of a sheet is much easier than actually doing it. When the news comes that one of your own did find the strength to bring an end to their own misery, there´s a momentary sense of loss that quickly evolves into an overwhelming envy. You find yourself asking, “If only it could have been me.”
Often someone we´ve known for years, or even decades, and lived in close to, is told he has a terminal illness, most often cancer. And then for months, sometimes years, we continue to live in close proximity as that person slowly succumbs to death. As the proverbial “lowest of the low”, we are extended no empathy or compassion from the prison system or society in general. A terminally ill condemned prisoner will remain in a regular death row cell until their condition progresses to the point they can no longer feed and bathe themselves. Only then are they transferred to a medical unit, where they die.
For the most part we look out for each other because when it comes down to it, nobody else will. We try to become hospices for one another, doing what little we can to help a terminally ill fellow prisoner. Society may see us as no more than cold-blooded killers and “monsters”; but the empathy and compassion we extend to one of our own remains is a testament that even in the “worst of the worst”, there are redeemable qualities if only we are willing to recognize them.
Whether unexpected suicide, prolonged terminal illness, or one of our own being led away to “death watch”, each loss takes something from the rest of us personally. It´s hard to say why that is, but it is. Every time one whom we´ve lived around for years dies -- as the death row population continues to grow older, it happens more frequently, they take with them a piece of each of us and hopelessness consumes even more of us.
Those who have never seen it cannot understand the emptiness within the eyes of those who’ve held on to hope for too long only to be crushed beneath it. They are the living dead. Not one of us immune, and even the strongest among us knows that we too might wake up tomorrow and join their ranks.
Especially in here, hope is a seductive mistress that keeps you going only to turn on you, leaving you broken and depressed. Being on death row is like going down with a sinking ship once so called life, and finding yourself stranded on the open sea. Human nature compels us to constantly search the horizon for a ship that will save us – that´s hope. All the while, helplessly watching others around us slowly sink beneath the murky surface, or unexpectedly fall victim to the creatures of the sea.
As hope fades away, we become that much more to desperate to hold on to it. Hope itself becomes the weight dragging us under. Time and time again those distant ships on the horizon prove to be nothing more than mirages within our own imaginations. Hope transforms into belief that we have been betrayed. Like a succubus it turns on us, consuming our very souls, leaving us empty and abandoned.
Throughout the years I have prayed that God would just let me die. I´m told He is a merciful God, and yet not so merciful as to allow this misery to end. For that I found myself angry at God as if he had betrayed me by forcing me to continue to live while so many others around me were allowed to die and I keep asking, “Why not me?”
Those that somehow find the strength to survive the years with some measure of sanity and self-identity, are then rewarded with the signing of their “death warrant,” removed from their familiar surroundings, they are led away to the bowels of the beast that is Florida State Prison, placed in the solitary cell feet from the execution chamber, they’re forced to then count down the days until they will die.
I’ve been in that cell where so many spent their final days, most recently when Florida Governor Rick Scott signed my latest death warrant on November 30, 2015. I spent 72 days in “cell one,” counting down the days to my own scheduled execution. A few days before I was to be put to death for a crime that I’m innocent of (please check out southernjustice.net), I received a temporary stay of execution and although I am now still awaiting the decision on whether I will live or die, I have been moved back to the regular death row wing as I anxiously await my fate (you can view a six part PBS documentary about my death watch experience here.) .
For my family and friends, that news of a temporary reprieve was cause to celebrate. But I know better. At any time the court could lift the stay of execution and have me put to death. I´ve been through this before (read: “The Day God Died”). A temporary reprieve is judicially sanctioned Russian Roulette…they put that gun to my head with the promise of pulling the trigger at precisely 6:00 p.m. on February 11, 2016. They pulled that trigger, and it landed on an empty chamber. The cold steel of the gun remains pressed to my head and the fear of death remains. Next time it might just land on a loaded chamber.
Do I now dare to hope this temporary reprieve will result in something more lasting? I can almost see the seductive mistress of hope smiling, and if I listen closely, I can hear the sirens’ call. There´s still a part of me desperately wanting to embrace hope once again… but do I really dare to?
As I weigh these thoughts, I need only look around this cell. I know that each of the last 23 men who previously occupied this very cell each desperately held on to that same hope and without exception each of them are now dead (read: “Execution Day – Involuntary Witness to Murder”).
I have ordered my last meal and the warden had me measured for the dark blue suit I will wear when they kill me. But death will have to wait a little longer. And I will remain the solitary soul entombed in ice unable to move and yet only too aware of all around me… frozen in time and space on this Ninth Ring.
After all that has been inflicted upon me under the perverse pretense of administering “justice” in the end my only reward is the ritual of “death watch.”
The punishment this presumably “civilized” society has chosen to impose upon me is not an act of God, but the product of a “Christian society.” I find myself once again praying that if only all those responsible for inflicting this misery upon me will themselves be blessed with the same measure of “mercy and compassion” they have extended to me. I am disgusted by that thought since it reduces me to the same evil of vengeance that has consumed them.
As I remain in this state of judicial limbo, not knowing whether in the coming days I will live or die, I think of those words Socrates so long ago spoke to the tribunal that condemned him. Perhaps those will be the same words that I speak as I lay strapped to that gurney and about to breathe my very last breath… “to which of us go the worst fate – you or I”
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|Michael Lambrix 482053|
Florida State Prison
P.O. Box 800
Raiford, FL 32083-0800