Here we share art and writing produced by the men and women on death row
Let me begin with a typical day on North Carolina’s death row. Unlike most other death rows in the US, our cell doors stay open from 7:00am until 10:45pm. There are about 20 people who live on each of the seven death row cell blocks, for a total population of 135, divided between two floors. Much of our day is spent on the block except for one hour of outside recreation, meals at the chow hall, visits, medical appointments, or religious services. In terms of size, I have spent the last twenty years in a 7’x9’ cell, walking the same 200 ft. length of hallway, playing and exercising in a dirt and grass lot roughly half a square acre. I suppose it could be worse: at least we don’t have cellmates.
Through the day we are left to our own devices. Most of my time is spent writing and reading. A lot of guys watch TV or play table-top games like cards or chess. There is also a small library of mostly donated books on our unit. We even have a few psych programs like group therapy, counseling services, and a mindfulness-meditation group. However, the psych programs sound better than they actually are. After so many years most guys develop their own routine, doing what they can to occupy their time with meaningful activities. It’s important we do so because of how readily the mind decays without something to stimulate and stretch it. Even then, some guys still lose touch with reality.
It is not an exaggeration to say we’re lost in time and cut off from the real world. Without computers or internet access, this is especially true in 2019. Our information comes from dated newspapers and magazines, or mainstream news affiliates like ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. It wasn’t until 2016 that we received regular access to a phone. Before then we were given one 10-minute collect call a year around Christmas. Coupled with the stigma of a death sentence, and the desert of information that is prison, this technological deficit dissolved a lot of relationships. What were already tenuous connections dissolved, because – who has time to write a letter in the fast-paced free world?
Fortunately, over the years we’ve been able to rely on one another. Our interaction has eased the sense of isolation and abandonment. What for an outsider would be a seemingly scary situation – living among people convicted of murder – is mundane for us. We share the same fate, for the same crime, have gone through the same legal process, and experience many of the same problems. It makes it easier to identify with one another and, while there is still a pecking order and various cliques, we are more equal than not.
The main thing to remember is that we are all flawed human beings who experience the same needs, hopes, fears, and persecution. When one of us has a bad day, for example, someone is usually there to hold him up. Like individual bricks, we don’t amount to much on our own, but together we support and fortify each other. Death row may be the unlikeliest of communities, but for many of us it’s the only family we have.
To answer the question of Jesus as a man on death row it will help to explain some of my religious background. My mom raised my siblings and me in a Catholic household. She taught Sunday School and we were all altar servers at some point. I left my faith behind in adolescence and rediscovered it upon coming to death row in 1999. I’ve been confirmed since 2000 and have attended Catholic Mass every week for the last 20 years.
It wasn’t easy at first. Fr. Dan, one of the priests who delivered Mass on the row, tried to convince me to return using the parable of the prodigal son. He reminded me we all stray from God, and the important part is to repent in humility and reconcile that relationship. I was angry and defiant, questioning Fr. Dan incessantly as people I came to know were put to death. When his original approach didn’t work, Fr. Dan used Pascal’s Wager. If you believe in God and it turns out to be a story, you’ve lost nothing; but, if you choose not to believe in God, in all that the Bible instructs, and it turns out to be true, then you, my friend, have lost everything in this life and the next. Fr. Dan’s belief in the eternal mercy of Jesus Christ and his infinite love and patience saved my life. For me, it was the first manifestation of Jesus as a man on death row and I paid attention. Endless patience. Unconditional love. Mercy.
In Luke, Chapter 23, Verses 39-43, there is a scene not repeated in any of the other gospels. As Jesus hung on the cross between two criminals, one reviled him, saying “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us”. The other rebuked him and said, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (The Catholic Study Bible, 2nd Ed. New American Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, 2011).
The first time a friend of mine was executed I had been on death row less than a year. Harvey and I exercised together and grew close. Like Fr. Dan, he urged me to pursue God. Ask my questions. Be angry, but confess my sins and be constant in my relationship with Him. Harvey was one of my early mentors who was vocal in the Sunday Protestant service and on the block. He admitted his crimes and repented and urged others to do the same. In him, I witnessed the rebuke of the second criminal crucified with Jesus; the plea for mercy and redemption. Before they took him away, Harvey urged me not to let death row define me like the State intended it. He told me, “You. Are. Valuable.”
My friend’s death hurt me, as so many after him would. The second manifestation of Jesus as a man on death row was recognizing my faults and being unafraid to change and grow from them. But Harvey also taught me to live.
How do you reckon with being in the shadow of the valley of death? The enemy uses helplessness, despair, fatalism, hatred, and self-loathing to break us down. These things erode one’s ability to resist violence and animal urges governed by prison norms. A loss of identity, failure, betrayal, and constant disappointment drains the ability to resist. It makes prison a miserable experience and daily battle.
I often draw inspiration from Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl’s experience in captivity provide a blueprint for finding purpose amidst unimaginable pain and suffering. He lived in a place where innocent people were stripped of their humanity, starved, beaten, tortured, and executed in the millions. He made it through multiple concentration camps, his mind intact, and discovered a radical resilience that made sense of the misery when it would have been so easy to succumb. What right do I have to do anything less?
Frankl provided a map to thrive in any environment, but there had to be more. What would thriving look like for me?
A third manifestation of Jesus as a man on death row came in the form of an offer to enroll in some college correspondence courses. I dropped out of high school and earned a GED in a reformatory because it was required of delinquent youth. College had never been a thought. But needing something to do, and genuinely curious what it would be like, I accepted.
It turned out to be the best decision of my life. I discovered I’m a capable student and avid reader; that my ability to write was an untapped talent. Within a few years I knew that for so long as my sponsor was willing to fund the courses, I would complete them. By 2013 I earned an Associate in Arts degree, with a social science emphasis, through Ohio University. By 2017 they accepted me into their Bachelor of Specialized Studies program with the degree title of Criminal Justice Administration. Higher education transformed my life on death row in ways I never could have imagined. It became the key God handed me to unlock any door I chose. The more I learned, the greater my sense of responsibility grew to use this wonderful gift to help my brothers.
1 John, Chapter 3, Verse 14 says, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Whoever does not love remains in death.”
Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer posited that the ongoing incarnation of Christ happens in the community. The church is the Son of God working among us. “Not only does this contain the notion that social interaction is the point of departure for understanding Christian faithfulness, it means when I encounter another, I encounter Christ, and that [person] places an ethical demand on me.” (Hale, Lori Brandt; Williams, Reggie L. “Is This a Bonhoeffer Moment? Lessons for American Christians from the Confessing Church in Germany”, Sojourners Magazine, Feb. 2018, Vol.47 / No. 2). Bonhoeffer said that to be disciples of Christ, to follow after Him, we are called to act vicariously on behalf of others
This is how love for our brethren is carried out.
My access to higher education on death row is unique, but it gives me a more objective and informed understanding of the criminal justice system. As such, I understand how critical the opportunity for higher learning is for the incarcerated. Access has been extremely limited since the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act ended federal funding for college in prison. The omnibus crime bill helped create mass incarceration through mandatory minimum sentences; rewards to states for building more prisons rather than addressing the need for them; increased use of consecutive sentencing and life without parole; and a reliance upon tough-on-crime rhetoric no matter the cost. As a result, America is not the land of the free, it has become a place where prisons proliferate and fill with the poor, the uneducated, and the marginalized; where human potential is sent to die.
I write not merely to advocate for those who lack a voice or an ability to articulate their needs, but out of a sense of Christian duty to use my gifts effectively and broadly. All of us are more than the crimes for which we’ve been convicted and sentenced: we are human beings. So, I take every opportunity that comes along to pull back the curtain of judgment and reveal how prisoners – especially those sentenced to death – continue to live, think, feel, and learn.
I also write to create greater public awareness about the nuances of imprisonment. It’s no coincidence that tough-on-crime drug laws, for example, target poor, urban, minority communities. You will find a thousand Black and Latino drug users in prison before you find a single Oxycontin or Fentanyl distributor being punished for the overdose deaths of hundreds. It’s no mistake in the creation of criminal laws that a robbery of $1000 is punished more harshly than an embezzlement of $100,000. This is the twisted logic of a criminal justice system that grew from plantations, Black Codes, and Jim Crow Laws in to a modern exception to the Thirteenth Amendment.
Mass incarceration is a colossal, seemingly insurmountable problem. When broken down by state and community it can become more manageable. As you sit here today consider that prisons are a testament to what society thinks about the least of its citizens. If there is no investment in the people you believe are problematic enough to confine, those problems don’t disappear – 95 percent of them return to your communities.
The question becomes whether you want to educate and rehabilitate people caught within the criminal justice system; or, waste more resources prosecuting, policing, and imprisoning them. I can tell you research shows the former is more cost-effective and better for society than the latter.
As people of faith, I shouldn’t need to convince you of the value of human potential or dignity of life wherever it exists. The question I’ll end with is fairly simple but one you can refer to each time you answer it with action: how can your faith community at St. Paul’s impact North Carolina’s carceral state?
Don’t sit idly by and think the answer will occur on its own or that someone else will do it for you. Community involvement, spiritual accountability, and personal action are essential to building up the world we want to exist.
Remarks delivered by Lyle C. May (0580028) on December 8th by phone to the St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Durham, NC.
Life Lines is an audio journal of poetry, spoken word, and other creative writing by people living on death row. Published as a podcast, it is a production of the Life Lines Collective, a group of creatives, both incarcerated and not, who made their public debut in 2016.
This podcast is about connection: finding surprising spaces to share endangered, beautiful life. It’s about recognizing our power and our powerlessness to give and take life.
Click the image above to hear this powerful piece by Paul Brown. We’ve included some of Paul’s work before (see below). This piece, like his others, is a testament to his creativity–and more so, his humanity.
a whirlwind: visiting with a 5-year-old granddaughter through bars and glass
by Paul Brown
I saw her again. Mom and Rose came to visit today, and they brought her. They moved here to Raleigh last September, and I’m getting to see them more frequently now. I feel like the luckiest man in the world, or at least the luckiest one in Central Prison. I was expecting them, and was already smiling as they neared the visitation booth. When I saw a tiny pair of legs walking along with them, my heart skipped a beat. It was Mariah!
It was the kind of surprise where everything stops. My breath got caught in my throat and all I could utter was “Aaahh!” All the words I’d wanted to say just left me, and I know not where they went. It was a moment frozen in time, and I was stuck there, my face lit up with the silliest grin.
Mariah is my youngest granddaughter. The first time I saw her she was 2, and I was torn: elated to see her, yet horrified we had to visit under such awful, dehumanizing conditions. She’s 5 now, and she is gorgeous. I have a bunch of photos of her, so I already knew she was a little cutie. But her pictures do not compare to seeing her in person.
She knows who I am, which is amazing and a testament to the strength and love of my family, particularly mom and Rose, our matriarchs and the glue that holds our family together. She assured me, through song, that she knows her letters and numbers, which she does although she’s not been enrolled in school…
Guilt rains down on my head like brimstone when I think of the challenges she’ll face, knowing that I’m supposed to be there to help her navigate the pitfalls she won’t be able to see or anticipate. I try to be creative and say grandfatherly things, and hope they’ll somehow make a difference in her life. I know I must speak with assurance even though my own circumstances are tenuous.
They say she may have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, or ADHD as they call it, but I don’t believe she does. She’s an extremely bright child, bursting with energy with a brain that is naturally curious. All she needs is the discipline to channel all that energy in ways that will be beneficial. She’s just grandfather-deficient, and that’s on me.
In the cramped space that is the visitation booth, she was a little dynamo: sitting first in one seat, then the other, then standing before sitting again on the arm-rest up against the plexiglass between us, then standing on that, until Rose made her get down. It was incredible. I didn’t think so much could be accomplished in such a small space. She was a whirlwind. Mom and Rose appeared to grow tired just watching her. I laughed thinking maybe it was her who brought them to me, instead of them bringing her.
After only minutes, she said, “I wanna go home.” When she was informed that the purpose of the trip was to see her grandpa, she gave me a curious glance, and asked “Granddaddy, you comin’ home?” She said it so sweetly and with such innocence, and I know her words will echo in my mind like a bitter-sweet melody till the end of time… I gave her some mumbo-jumbo about being patient, told her I was working on it, and how important it was for her to be a good girl and to listen to her mom… She heard me out graciously, then promptly hopped into Rose’s lap and went to sleep.
It wasn’t until later that I realized what I’d told her made no sense… We were sitting in an area the size of a phone-booth, sitting on stools that were not designed for comfort; our stiff, aching joints screaming for relief. The lighting was medievally dim and we had to strain to see each other through bars and permanently scratched and grease-stained plexiglass. With 12 visitation booths lined side by side in a tiny corridor, and only a tiny slot to speak through, we barely heard each other while also catching snippets of other visitors conversations. Of course she wanted to go home.
I was struck by the purity of her child’s mind, vibrant with promise, not yet tarnished with grown-ups’ notions of fear and acceptance of the absurd. She glowed brilliantly even as she slept. Mom said she has my dimples… She would know. I don’t even remember having dimples.
She blew me a kiss as they were leaving. I’m still floating on clouds as I pen the thought and hold the memory of the light in her eyes; and those dimples.
The next time she asks, I will answer honestly… I want to go home too.
by Paul Brown
In the ghetto, there’s lots of improvisation. As young boys, we were very active and had loads of energy. We liked to play baseball, but lacked the equipment. No problem.
For a bat, we used a broken broom handle. An old fuzzy lime green tennis ball served as the “baseball.” Our hands were the gloves, and our Levi’s and Sears Tough-skin jeans and T-shirts were our uniforms.
The stadium was a patch of grass towards the end of the apartment complex. First base was an old, discarded half gallon milk carton. Second base, an empty UTZ Bar-B-Q potato chip bag. There was a bald patch in the corner where no grass would grow, as if it was naturally meant to be third base. Home plate was the other half of “first base.”
There were eight of us, so we played four-on-four. It was my brother Pat, cousin Boo, Tony and Malcolm; against my other cousin, Boo’s brother Kenny, Tony’s brother Reggie, Joe and me.
With this arrangement, one would pitch, another played catcher, someone played first base, and the other played the outfield. Of course the first baseman was also the short-stop, while the pitcher also had to cover second and third base; and the outfielder had to play the entire outfield himself.
All of this was manageable because the field was so tiny and sloped slightly upward into a wood. I was pitching, and I remember we were losing, but had no doubt we’d come back to win when we got our turn at bat.
It was a Saturday in August, a perfect summer afternoon. As I was about to toss the next pitch, two figures emerged from the wood. We waited until they passed. They were grownups. One was slightly built, medium brown-skinned and wore glasses. The other was big and stocky, a bit taller and wore a neat beard. What was odd about him was that he wore a wool hat as hot as it was and he had a shotgun slung over his shoulder.
There were always a few odd characters in the neighborhood though, so I thought nothing about the way he was dressed, and it was not my first time seeing a gun…
I thought maybe he was just taking it home to put away. I was more annoyed at the way they just strolled through the field. Like they owned the place, holding up our game. When they finally passed, I got set to pitch, but everyone else took off, running as fast as they could.
I called after them, “Hey, where y’all goin’? I want my ups!” I was so intent on winning the game: I wanted my turn at bat. As soon as I had spoken, I heard the shot.
The sound a shotgun makes when fired in an open area is not very loud. It’s not a big boom, but more of a cracking sound. I can recall the reverberations as they echoed off the apartment buildings. I froze…
The gunman was running back towards me. However, now his hat was pulled down over his face; a ski-mask. He carried the gun in both hands as he ran right past me. Had we been playing football, I could have tackled him easily. He was not very fast; he seemed to waddle as I watched him disappear back into the woods.
I then walked in the direction from which he’d come. I proceeded slowly, and with trepidation. When I turned the corner, I saw a slim, light skinned man, in his late teens or early twenties, with a little facial hair. He wore cut-off jean shorts, some sort of Hawaiian shirt; I never noticed his shoes…
He was standing beside a radio, a boom-box. I cannot recall if there was any music coming from it. Beside the radio was a brown paper bag with a bottle inside; a cold beer. He was slinking to the ground seemingly in slow-motion, as if about to faint.
Half his head was gone. My mouth went dry. I could not move. I knew it was real, but somehow it didn’t seem real. How could someone only have half a head?
On the half of his head that was still there, the eyeball was not in its socket, it was out of the skull, and just hung there as if by a coil…
I can only remember certain sounds. Mrs. Carter was walking back and forth on Savannah Street crying and screaming “Oh God, his poor momma, his poor momma!”
Everyone else seemed to be standing as far away as they could, but still trying to see. I suppose I could have been among them, but I was stuck; my eyes glued to the corpse.
First to arrive at the scene was the ambulance. The driver, a young, slightly built, light brown-skinned dude with a close-cropped hair cut, jumped out, put on a stethoscope, checked the body for vital signs; finding none, he hopped back into the ambulance and drove away.
This seemed strange. I mean, I knew he was dead, but it still seemed he should not be alone, that someone should be tending to him.
Next to arrive were the police. They only cast a glance at the body, then spread out to ask questions. One of the officers, a white dude with a friendly face, but cold, mean eyes, went to the corner where men had been drinking, smoking and selling drugs. He used his baton to knock over drinks that were left there, asking whose were they.
He then made his way over to where I stood, and asked “You see anything?” I shook my head no. This seemed to amuse him. He smirked and said, “Man gets his head blown off in broad daylight, and no one sees anything, heh?”
It was only a cursory question though. Had he been paying attention, or merely asked a follow-up question, it would have been obvious that I was in shock and could not speak, but that was all he asked.
Then a huge red truck drove up, and two attendants got out with a stretcher, strapped the body on, covering it up completely. They used these thick, orange rubber gloves to gather up pieces of brain, storing it in a plastic bag, then drove away.
This one act, more than anything else, served as a sort of “rite of passage” for me. It effectively ended my childhood at age ten.
I never played in that area again, and we used to play there all the time. If not stickball, it would be tag, kickball or football. When younger, we’d gather plywood and build tree-houses in the woods. Sometimes we’d catch bees inside of Nehi soda bottles, observe their behavior, then remove the tops and take off running.
After the shooting, things just seemed different…
The way the apartments were situated, the woods sat directly behind Aunt Rose’s apartment, particularly behind Boo and Kenny’s bedroom window. After the shooting, I was conscious not to walk directly in front of that window. I’d sit on the floor when inside the bedroom, and if I was on the bed, I’d lay down flat. At night, I’d make sure the blinds were fully straightened and the curtains completely closed.
As I write this, I realize I’m confronting these emotions for the first time. I’ve mentioned the details of the shooting before, but never admitted to being afraid. Part of how I coped at the time was to suppress it, not deal with it at all. Now that I’m conjuring up these memories, the emotions I felt back then somehow arise as well.
I was scared. I can feel it now as I write, and the fear is still palpable 39 years after the fact.
I observed everyone else during that time and they appeared to be doing fine. I thought if I said something, I’d be seen as weak. In hindsight, I’m sure others felt things similar to what I felt, but we never talked about it. No one said a thing…
We still had to function and live in that area. There was no psychoanalysis, family counseling or therapy. We could barely afford the necessities of life; I couldn’t afford to break down.
Besides, this was not something the culture would allow, especially for boys. At the first sign of tears or hesitancy of any kind, the rebukes would be immediate, harsh and constant. “Fuck you crying about?” “Stop acting like a lil bitch!” “Soft motherfucker!”
There was a persistent emphasis on “Being Hard.” It seemed the more horrible something was, the more you were expected not to be affected. From a small nick to a punch in the face, a broken bone, or murder, you were told to “Shake it off.”
When I hear that refrain today, I laugh at the absurdity of it. Shake it off…
Sometimes I think what a luxury it must be to feel safe; I’ve not known the feeling since that day.
Going out for a run the other day, I ran into two beautiful birds. They were on our recreation yard. Someone told me they’re Canadian geese.
They have fat bodies, covered with grey feathers, long-skinny black legs and wide-webbed feet, long elegant necks and curved beaks, solid black except for a ribbon of white curving around the neck, under the beak and behind the eyes. They are lovely birds. I gave them a respectable berth as I made my laps, checking them out.
I was pleased to see they were still there when I went out today. They’re nesting. The female has made a nest. Though clearly made with great care to keep her eggs, I can’t tell what it’s made of exactly. She just sits there on those eggs all day, refusing to move.
The male struts around the yard, on patrol. It’s more his yard than ours really: he’s there all day and night; we only get the one hour a day. Guys gave her a bowl, which we keep filled with water, and keep her supplied with loads of bread.
Sometimes other birds will swoop in to snatch a piece; she’ll allow it, but if they venture in too close, she’ll snap her beak at them.
He’s fearless too. Rather than flinching when someone gets in his comfort zone, he’ll chase them. He has a bow-legged but determined gait, and attached to that long neck, he has quite a reach when he snaps his beak.
He’s strolled right in the middle of corn-hole games, reaching up with his beak at the bags as they’re tossed through the air. He’s held up play on the volleyball court. He won’t step on the basketball court though. Smart bird – that’s where all the drama usually starts.
I noticed the female keeps her mouth open, panting. I could see the pink of her tongue, and her beak is always wet. Then it dawned on me that it is really hot and she’s without shade.
The male has his own water pail off in the corner, but she isn’t moving without her babies except to stand periodically, to check and turn her eggs. However, when anyone nears, she’ll plop back down, and use her beak to re-tuck the nesting beneath her. I was amazed at her protective motherly instinct, and her willingness to make any sacrifice for her babies.
I’m proud of the way guys are taking care of the birds, even down to picking up the droppings.
There were no discussions or meetings; everyone just knew instinctively to care for the birds.
Being forced to live in an unnatural setting that devalues life, the birds have given us a chance to behave in life-affirming ways.
Having no contact with our families for such a long time — for some of us, it’s been more than twenty years since we’ve had any meaningful human contact — the instinct to care still comes naturally. It is really good to see, and to know. Some of us are barely hospitable with each other, yet we’re all attentive and accommodating to the birds.
I’m expecting a visit from my mom this week. She’s coming via train. She’s 70-years old, and it’ll be her first time traveling alone — so, I’m worried. I’d much prefer she not have to travel by herself, but I’m excited about the visit. I’ve not seen her in years, and miss her terribly.
I feel pangs of shame too; shame she has to travel such a long distance to visit her wayward son, shame, because I’m supposed to be taking care of her…
I remember how she’d implore my younger brother and I to be careful and to do the right things. She said, “I’ll do anything for you, but if they get you in the system, I won’t be able to do anything…” But our heads were hard as rocks, and we dove head-first into trouble.
Now she has to take trains just to visit us, still making sacrifices. My heart will melt just seeing her face.
I’m excited about going outside tomorrow too. I hope the eggs will hatch. It will be nice to see a family together.