Written by Mike in January, 2009
There’s a song I recall from many, many moons ago in a life now far,
far away ~ the words still haunt me from time to time, and I smile…
“Once was the thought inside my head, before I reach 30 I’ll be dead…”
At 48 years old now. I’ve spent almost my entire adult life in a
solitary cage on Florida’s death row. Doing life on death row isn’t
about living at all, but about dying slow, a day at a time. If there’s
anything even harder than living alone, it’s got to be dying alone, as I
only exist in a very small world where death is the only absolute
reality and everything else is just part of that path getting there.
there’s many kinds of deaths ~ there’s the death of the body and the
death of the soul. There’s a point man can reach when even physical
death is seen as a blessing, as a means in which to end a nightmare that
has no end. I remain alive only because I still have the strength
within me to cling desperately to the remnants of hope that pass my way.
But perhaps hope is the greatest deception of all ~and the loss of hope
the cruelest death. I’ve seen it only too often, men I’ve know for
years slowly broken down by the existence in this artificial environment
until you can see it in their eyes ~ that dull look that means only one
thing… they’ve given up hope and now await the fate of the condemned, a
fate that ultimately becomes more of a mercy killing than an execution,
as that physical death brings with it the promise of freedom from a
fate far worse than death itself.
That’s what doing life on death
row really is ~ it’s a fate worse than death. It’s being condemned not
merely to death, but the torturous, methodical degradation of one’s
humanity in a world designed to first break you down and make you
something less than human before they finally strap that broken flesh to
a cold chair or gurney and ritualistically terminate your existence. In
truth, most of those ultimately executed at the hands of the state have
already given up the ghost long before and have embraced death as the
end of a long journey through a hell few could begin to imagine.
Hanging On To Hope
month all of us receive a slip of paper that advises us of any “gain
time” we might have received that previous month. By law, the prison
officials are required to do this, as well as provide the prisoners
“presumptive release date” recalculated each month to reflect the
deduction of any gain time that might have been awarded.
prisoner on Florida’s death row has a presumptive release date in the
year 9999. That gives me only, 7992 years yet to go before my presently
scheduled release and I’m already counting it down one day at a time.
I’ve read in the Bible that Methuselah lived to the ripe young age of
969 years and that was thousands of years ago. So, with modern medical
breakthroughs extending the average lifespan I figure I’ve got a good
shot at it… all I’ve got to do is live to be at least 8,039 years old
and then I’ll walk out the front gate a free man.
This is the kind
of humorous “hope” that we cling on to. When these slips of paper are
passed out each month, inevitably someone on the wing will holler out,
“Hallelujah, baby ~ I’m coming home!” or just as often one guy hollering
down the row for all to hear, “Pack your sh__, Bubba, they’re throwing
you out.” And some laugh.
A lot of us talk about going home and in
that stolen moment of fantasy we can see the green, green grass of
home. For some, this hopeful fantasy evolves into a form of psychosis
and they not only believe they’re soon going home, but know the exact
date and when that date approaches they even give away their personal
belongings and awake that particular morning and await the guards to
escort them to the front gate. Reality is nothing more than what any of
us chose to perceive it to be, and in their own little corner of their
own little world , that’s their reality and in a way I truly do envy
them as I remain trapped in my reality.
Through the years many
have gone home, having proven before the courts that they were
wrongfully convicted and upon that legal exoneration they won their
freedom. There’s been more than I can remember, but knowing that there
have been so many is, itself, a form of hope.
About five years ago
or better a long time friend of mine, Juan Melendez, known
affectionately to us as “Puerto Rican Johnny” was on the floor I was on.
Johnny and I had lived in the same area out on the streets and we would
often talk about places and even people we both knew. Johnny would show
me pictures of the house he grew up in, of his elderly mother, and talk
about how when he got out he would return home and take care of his
Just before Christmas back then he got word that the lower
state court threw out his convictions, recognizing that the state had
illegally withheld exculpatory evidence. Mucho Macho Johnny cried that
night and in our own way we all shared a tear with him. In the sixteen
years that he lived among us, he became our brother. Then a few weeks
after Christmas the warden came up on the floor and told Johnny to get
his stuff as they were releasing him that day. Johnny’s cell was down
towards the end of the hall and as he passed he spoke to each of us
momentarily. As Johnny approached my cell I felt only joy ~ sharing his
joy ~ as he told me, “Rum and coke, esso” … remembering our promise to
have a drink in the free world . And then he was gone, but a part of
each one of us walked out that front gate back into the free world with
Hope… yet another four letter word, a mistress that can and
gladly will deceive and seduce you with her elusive charms. It’s that
whisper of a promise that your time there will come too, that gives a
man the strength to keep that hope alive. But when hope fails then that
mistress can become the Angel of death as that lost hope becomes nothing
more than the desperate last act at the end of the rope. And there are
few things more despairing than to watch helplessly as the guards rush
into a cell in the middle of the night and can be heard cutting a man
down, then moments later passing by your cell with the cold body of
someone you knew and lived among for years.
Rotting Away One Day At A TimeWhile
hope is a stolen luxury that brings with it a fragile strength, death
continues to be a reality that cannot be denied. For too many of us now
doing life on death row this condemnation is about slowly growing old
and rotting away until death claims us not at the hands of an
executioner, but by “natural causes.”
Although I have now been on
death row almost a quarter of a century, there are many who have been
here much, much longer. After the Supreme Court threw out the death
penalty in Furman v. Georgia (1972) Florida was the first state to rush
newly written laws into effect to allow the continued use of capital
punishment. Although these new laws didn’t pass constitutional challenge
until 1976 in Proffit v. Florida, many of the men still on Florida’s
death row today have been here since at least 1974.
When I was
charged with the capital murder case that brought me here, I was 22
years old. Recently divorced at the time, I had three young children; my
youngest barely a year old.
Mike shortly before being incarcerated
I look in my mirror today and it’s hard to
see that young man I once was, as the face looking back is that of a
grandfather. My full head of hair is long gone and what hasn’t fallen
out is turning gray.
Mike in 2009
I am not alone. Death by default that’s what
it is. Too often when morally corrupt prosecutors know they cannot kill
you, they will maliciously drag your case out until you simply die of
old age. Under any circumstances living in solitary confinement under
the stress of being condemned to death takes its toll upon the physical
and mental health of even the strongest men.
Inevitably, we all
grow old, and again, death is the only absolute reality. In a way I
should consider myself lucky as at least I came to the row while still a
young man. There are many more significantly older when they arrived
and the years living in a cage were not as easy. For every man executed
in the past 30 years, there’s been at least one other slowly rotting
away and inevitably dying of old age.
I read recently in the past
10 years alone at least 30 men have died of “natural causes” on
Florida’s death row. Some were of old age ~ others of various types of
cancer… many I personally knew. With so many here now for well over 25
and even 30 years, death row is growing gray. At the front of each death
row floor there is a handicapped cell intended to house the many who
are already confined to wheelchairs. More than a few are now over 75 and
will almost certainly slowly rot away and die in their cell as even if
they lost all their appeals the governor would not sign a death warrant
on them as it’s politically incorrect to put an old, physically disabled
man to death ~ but it’s perfectly acceptable to, instead, let him rot
away until he eventually dies.
In some cases this is actually by
intent and purpose. I know at least a few here today who have lost touch
with reality and if ever scheduled for execution the courts would be
forced to reduce their sentence to life as it’s constitutionally
prohibited to execute a person who has become legally insane. It’s also
politically unacceptable to recognize their insanity and reduce their
sentences to life. So that they can be transferred to a prison
psychiatric unit and receive proper care. The solution is to simply
ignore them ~ to deliberately let them rot away until they die in that
cage. Inevitably they do… they always do.
But nobody cares. When
was the last time you saw any newspaper talk about the many on death
rows growing old and dying alone? Recently a national debate about the
constitutionality of using lethal injection as a means of carrying out
executions generated substantial media interest after Angel “Popo” Diaz
was allegedly “tortured” to death by a botched execution and witnesses
said it took at least 24 minutes to kill him…. 24 minutes.
what of the many more who are slowly dying in their cells? If prolonging
a man’s death for 24 minutes constitutes cruel and unusual punishment,
then why can’t it also be argued that allowing a man to slowly rot away
in solitary confinement for many decades until he dies is also cruel and
unusual? As a presumably civilized society we are ultimately defined by
the measure of humanity we show to others and yet nothing personifies
that malignant evil within the heart of man than by looking at the
inhumanity we so deliberately inflict upon the least of the least ~ and
nothing in our contemporary society illustrates this truth better than
the deliberate deprivation imposed upon the condemned ~ it’s not enough
to want to take our lives, society demands that we must also suffer
until we are slowly broken and then ~ for those who are lucky ~
something less than human is put to death.
From Cockroaches and Rodents to Rats and Snakes
I first came to death row in March of 1984 this was a much different
place ~ not only physically, but the mentality was different. At that
time Florida’s main death row was at Florida State Prison, long infamous
as the end of the line, where prisoners were warehoused when they could
not be securely kept elsewhere. Physically, the wings housing death row
were comparable to Third World living conditions. In the winter we
froze and in the summer we boiled. With “open wings” (the interior of
the wings open from the first tier all the way up to the third tier) it
was noisy, as a hundred men would be yelling or watching TV or whatever.
With no screens on the always broken windows, the wings were quite
literally infested with cockroaches, rodents, even snakes, and birds ~
and then there were many wild cats that would come in to feed off the
mice and rats.
But as bad as the physical conditions were it was a
better place. In 1992 they built and opened a new building designed
exclusively to house death row. Soon after the majority of the over 300
condemned were transferred to this “Northeast Unit” of the Union
Correctional Institution. As I write this I can look outside the window
on the catwalk and in the distance I can see the Florida State Prison ~
so close, and yet so far away.
At “FSP,” as we call it, there was a
unity ~ even a “brotherhood” ~ that tied us all together. We lived in
close proximity to each other and looked out for each other. If a guard
came down and screwed with one of us without cause, he took on the whole
wing. Although there were always a few assholes and idiots on both
sides of the bars, most of us looked out for each other. Back then you
knew the difference between a convict and an inmate and a
correctional officer and a guard ~ and there is a world of
difference. A convict is a stand up guy whose word is his bond and he
knew enough to mind his own business and keep his mouth shut when he
didn’t know something for a fact. An inmate was seen as a prison rat;
the lowest form of life; worthy of no respect. An inmate was by nature
unworthy of respect, he was the kind of guy who would lie, gossip, and
backstab even his own best friend; often for no reason at all. Inmates
were rare on death row back then.
Equally so, the difference
between a corrections officer (known only as an “officer”) and a guard
was like night and day. An officer came in to work his eight hours and
go home ~ it’s just a job and he wasn’t going to take it personally. An
officer had no personal malice towards the prisoners and didn’t go out
of his way to provoke anyone. If he came in to do a cell search
(“shakedown”) he did it without maliciously destroying your property and
didn’t have to prove his manhood by being a jerk. Although avoided as
much as possible, officers were respected ~ guards were not.
guard was commonly referred to as inbred redneck scum, the kind of guy
who got the job because he couldn’t work anywhere else. A guard didn’t
just work eight hours ~ he lived the job and it ate him away like a
cancer until all that was left was a bitter broken man who went out of
his way to make everyone else miserable. He has malice in his heart and
was looked upon with nothing less than contempt, not only by prisoners,
but the officers who respected their job.
In those early years a
man was allowed to do his own time. In the early 80’s we had only just
began to see politicians begin to campaign on promises to lock up more
people and make sure prisoners did “hard time.” Although physically our
environment was deplorable, we would all gladly go beck if we could have
all our privileges returned. Back then we had packages sent in from
family and friends four times a year with personal clothes, shoes,
cosmetics, maybe even a decent watch or ring and a nice radio. We were
allowed to receive “hobby craft” packages monthly with materials for
painting, crocheting, and all sorts of other stuff. All of that is long
gone now ~ nothing comes in from the outside world anymore and anything
we might get must be bought from the prison store at significantly
marked up prices; the profits used to subsidize our incarceration, as
the prison system has become a virtual industry with thousands of
companies now dependant upon contracts they receive to provide
everything from the food we eat to the toilet paper we wipe our asses
with. It’s all about politics now.
Death row has changed, in every
conceivable way. No longer is a man able to do his own time and mind
his own business. A new generation has taken over and even so many of
the old timer “convicts” are now nothing more than inmates themselves.
Because of this death row has become hard time as now not only do we
live in a much more deliberately segregated building with only 14 men on
each closed run, but you learn to keep to yourself as the man you call a
friend today will only too quickly backstab you tomorrow. Respect means
nothing in this new generation. And it’s become a much lonelier place.
Watching the World Slip AwayI
see that outside world only through the very limited media I’m allowed…
a small TV, which the powers that be have determines necessary to
prevent against insanity ~ if I were to go insane, then they could not
kill me. A small “walkman” type battery powered radio, that doesn’t pick
up any stations, and a few magazines and newspapers.
In my world
there are no computers, no cell phones, and none of the electronic
conveniences that most people take for granted. In the past 24 years I
have not touched dirt or grass as our small fenced yard is nothing more
than a concrete pad between two wings. I sometimes wonder if the moon
and stars still exist as I haven’t seen the night sky in so many years
it becomes hard to even remember it.
The deprivation of material
those material things that most people simply take for granted out there
in the real world certainly pale in comparison to those things that
really do matter; especially in this world ~ those things that once
separated make it seem that we are helplessly watching the world slowly
It is the nature of prison to alienate a man from
those he loves. For most, with very few exceptions, as the years pass
the few family and friends that once stood by slowly drift away and move
on with their own lives. Through the years I can count on the fingers
of a single hand the number of death row prisoners who have had family
consistently stand by them. Friends tend to drift away even quicker.
not to say they deliberately abandon those they love at the time they
need them most. I’d like to believe that most of our families and
friends never intended to abandon any of us, but simply moved on and we
became less and less of their lives. I’m personally blessed with a large
family but haven’t had any communication at all with most of them for
many, many years. Life out there in the real world doesn’t come to a
stop just because we are no longer in it and as time takes its toll the
distance becomes greater and before you know it you’re no longer part of
their lives. That’s just the reality of doing time. Accepting that
reality doesn’t make it any easier and many in here do turn cold and
bitter as they’re abandoned by those who mean the most.
Most of us
learn early on not to count on anyone other than ourselves. Contrary to
a popular myth the prison doesn’t provide all our needs ~ at best, it
provides only the absolute minimum and even then does so in such a way
that encourages ~ if not coerces ~ each prisoner to actually purchase
even the basic necessities from the prison store, as with each purchase
the prison makes a substantial profit.
Without a friend or two
outside willing to help prisoners ~ especially those on death row ~ can
become even worse than what might be imagined. At least in general
population most prisoners can work a job and “hustle” for what they need
through a long established barter system. Death row prisoners are not
allowed to work a job and have no means in which to barter ~ our only
means of survival with minimal comfort is through the compassion and
generosity of those who care about us.
As family and friends tend
to drift away we are forced to try and reach out to new friends and
establish new ties with that outside world. But there are many who hold
nothing but malice in their hearts towards prisoners ~ especially death
row prisoners ~ and have exerted political pressure to pass laws that
now prohibit prisoners from placing personal ads that might allow them
to meet new friends, perhaps even a girlfriend who might want to visit.
is unique in the country in implementing these draconian rules
prohibiting prisoners from attempting to meet new friends and the result
can be seen ~ more and more. Those of us who have been here the longest
are increasingly isolated from the free world; effectively abandoned
and left to die alone. More and more I see strong men break down and
give up, unwilling to have to beg their neighbors for a simple cup of
coffee or bar of soap and slowly retreating into his own world of self
consuming bitterness and anger and a fate far worse than death.
it comes down to it, that’s what doing life on death row is really all
about… it’s not about living, but about dying one slow day at a time.
It’s about simply existing in a solitary concrete crypt. Increasingly
isolated from all that really matters, of being methodically deprived of
the most basic elements that make us human ~ companionship, compassion,
and hope, as hope itself is dependent upon a reason to live.
am increasingly isolated from all that matters, that hope and will to
live continues to erode ~ I’m not doing life on death row … I’m simply
waiting to make my death final.