Our Dear Friend Mike Lambrix left us on October 5, 2017
He went from the Darkness to the Light..

Friday, June 29, 2018

To Live & Die on Death Row

 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.

But 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
Each 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.

Every 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 mother.

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 him.

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.

But 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
When 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.

A 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 slipping away.

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.

That’s 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.

Florida 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.

When 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.

As I 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.

Mike Lambrix

Mike's website: Southern Injustice