After 25 years of continuous solitary confinement on Florida’s death row the rigorously structured monotony of my Monday mornings is only too predictable. As long as I can remember Mondays have always meant awakening to a meager breakfast of two palm-sized pancakes with a side serving of bland oatmeal. Considering that on the other days breakfast mostly consists of cold “grits” or powdered eggs, the pancakes with the small packet of artificially flavored corn syrup has become my favorite meal, or at least at breakfast anyways.
Every meal is served in our cells on plastic trays and we are each given only a plastic spoon to eat with as even a plastic fork is too “sharp” an instrument to entrust a condemned man with. There is no kitchen and no dining hall on death row as we are in an isolated confinement unit deliberately set apart from the other areas of the large prison complex. All our meals are cooked somewhere out there, then placed on large carts and transported to this unit. The carts are then brought to each floor of the unit, where the individual food trays are off-loaded on to a smaller cart, and inmate runners will push that cart down each tier to feed us, a ritual repeated at each meal. A guard will open the lock on each cell’s “bean flap” as the non-death row inmate “runner’ will hand each tray to the individual prisoner within the cage. Monday mornings are predictable – but this Monday morning was not…
As I reached to accept my food tray from the runner; he quickly whispered “your buddy Bill just died’. Bill was William Coday, and it was no secret he was a close friend. But it was too early for my mental facilities to absorb this unexpected information and I responded only with a puzzled and almost incoherent “what!?” Again the runner spoke, nervously watching the guard, “Bill cut himself up last night and died” No way man, Bill’s right above me, physically not more then a few feet away and separated only by a few inches of concrete. I would have known. But then, that’s the nature of our interminable solitary confinement – although virtually warehoused in close physical proximity to each other, even though physically only a few inches away, each of our solitary cells remain isolated and a world of its own.
I laid my breakfast tray down. My appetite now gone and sat at the edge of my bunk silently digesting this shocking news I just received. After the guard left the floor, I stepped to the rear vent (ventilation duct) and hollered upstairs to another guy I knew and got confirmation, it was true – Bill was dead... As the morning hours ever so slowly passed I could hear the cell door above me clanging open and shut, and I realized that they were now cleaning up the blood and packing up what meagre personal property Bill had. In no time another condemned man would be placed in that cage, like stock awaiting their slaughter.
Bill was dead – that reality repeatedly reverberated in the numbness of my mind. Slowly it sank in and emptiness filled me. Each time a runner or a guard passed my cell I desperately picked them for more information – trying to understand the how and why of it all and somehow make sense of it. Bill was dead and now I knew how.
Sometimes in the early morning hours as the whole wing slept, Bill had silently taken some form of sharpened instrument and slashed both his wrists and his own throat. He never cried out and nobody heard anything as he then lay back on his bunk and went to sleep for the last time…
Bill was dead. Understanding the “how” was the easy part – it’s the “why” of it that ate at my gut. In my world, death is no stranger; death is the condemned man’s unrelenting protagonist and like Ahab and his great white whale, only too often it is difficult to tell the hunter from the hunted, even when death ultimately prevails. Death is a palpable presence always amongst us as we are condemned to perpetually waste away in solitary confinement, isolated and abandoned by the world beyond as we grow old and die. In recent weeks, 3 others have died too (Charles Globe, Burley Gillium and William Elledge)
I caught my case when I was only 22 years old. At the time the father of 3 young children who have now grown up without me. I’m now 48 years old and a grandpa. Many around me have been here much longer, some almost 35 years now. All of us condemned and continuously caged and warehoused until we die. More often then not death comes from old age or suicide, not the state sanctioned execution we were sentenced to.
That’s the dirty, dark secret of America’s death rows that society and the mainstream media do not want to confront and will not talk about. With thousands of men and women now virtually warehoused on death rows across America, even the most fanatical proponent of capital punishment knows that the vast majority of us will never actually face execution. Rather we are condemned to a fate even worse than death as in reality we are condemned to slowly waste away in solitary confinement, in a man made virtual hell meticulously designed to break our will to live and reduce each of us to something even less than human. While each of us inevitably drifting further and further away from the world we once knew, drowning in the infernal sea of inhumanity where no man is intended to come out alive.
As time sluggishly passes, each of us struggles that much harder to find the strength to sustain our ever-eroding will to live. Too often, something slowly dies and life itself becomes a formidable prison we desperately seek to escape from. Now Bill is dead, and I am left to struggle to understand the incomprehensive “why” of it, even though a part of me knows only too well what had compelled Bill to take the easy way out.
I do understand the “why” and perhaps that is the hardest part: Some would say that Bill killed himself, but I know that he did not. Rather, Bill freed himself from a fate that he knew he could not defeat – not the negligible threat of facing a state-sanctioned execution, but the inescapable reality of the inhumane prolonged solitary confinement under unrelenting oppressive physical and mental conditions insidiously intended to feed off our flesh while systematically stripping us of our will to live. (Please check out http://www.doinglifeondeathrow.blogspot.com)
In America, we claim to be a Christian nation, but compassion and mercy elude us. As Supreme Court Justice Stevens recently recognized in Baze v Rees (us.s.ct, April 16, 2008), the contemporary practice of capital punishment is not about justice, but about retribution and revenge. Today’s death penalty is a modern-day manifestation of a state-sanctioned lynch mob, and the inhumanity of our solitary confinement an intended part of the often unjustified vengeance society seeks.
In the desperate act of yet another suicide, Bill freed himself from a fate few of the condemned can escape. At that thought, the heaviness in my heart at the loss of a friend begins to lift just a little as I got to believe that Bill is in a better place now. Here’s to you Bill….I will miss you.
(Note: Please read more of Mike’s writings at http://www.doinglifeondeathrow.blogspot.com and to read about how Mike was wrongly convicted and condemned to death for a crime he did not commit, please check out http://www.southerninjustice.net/