Category Archives: death row

Life on Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

Being a writer, I was very curious about Death Row when I met John, so I asked him to tell me what life in there was like . . . 

“Life on Death Row isn’t hell. That is far too meaningless a cliche. It is purgatory, an endless waiting, neither dead nor alive, until one pays the ultimate penalty, whether you are guilty or innocent.

“Each of us inhabits a small cell alone, and this cell can drive the strongest of men crazy. Medical care is a joke for Death Row inmates. Unhealthy food three times a day served cold on unsanitary plastic trays and often contaminated with dirty dish water or foreign matter. We must often choose to go hungry rather than risk illness.

“Canteen is a blessing for a Death Row inmate, and only if he is lucky enough to have money to eat out of the canteen every day.

“All men die, some die young, maybe in a bloody accident at work or war, but none will know the exact method and hour of their death except for those on Death Row.

“Outside prison, our dreams and nightmares were fueled by life experiences. Here they are fueled by stark emptiness. I have heard other cats’ anguish echoing in the night, screams, moans, whimpers, animal shrieks of rage.

“Some cats roll up their mattresses and use them as punching bags. Some exercise constantly, even mindlessly. Some don’t move, talk, go to yard, or even shower, only stare into space or sleep day and night, or in my case can’t sleep enough.

“I have seen cats hang themselves, oppress others, smoke themselves into lung cancer, fight about anything at all, get lost in religion out of fear. All this to relieve the tension of facing death every day and night.

“I have seen thirty-five, thirty-six guys executed. I have looked into their eyes before they went to death.

“These guys, though, they need someone to talk to. It’s hard on Death Row, knowing every day you’re going to die. Guys come to me crying. ‘Man, oh man, I did it man, I just hope they don’t kill me, man.’”

“So they don’t all say they’re innocent?”

“What? Of course not.”

“Lots of people out here say they do.”

“Well, some guys are, some guys aren’t, and I can’t read the hearts of other people. I do know one thing, though. These guys ain’t about to tell their hearts to strangers.

“Most these guys in here, they’re not bad people, they did a real bad thing, but they are not bad people. You understand me? They got drunk, they got on drugs, got in a stupid fight.

“There are evil guys in here though, and that’s why I’m in favor of the death penalty. Some guys should just be taken from this world.”

“I’ve never heard of someone on Death Row who supports the death penalty.”

“Well you’ve met one now.”

John Lee’s Reunion with His Birth Mother

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old



When I met John in 2006, he had not seen his birth mother in sixteen years, so I arranged to bring her down from Hurlock, Maryland, to visit him for his birthday. The experience was so powerful that the only way I could express it was in this poem, which became part of the collection An Innocent in the House of the Dead:



I brought your mother down from Maryland.
I intended to surprise you,
but in the way of close-held secrets, it leaked out.
Or else I told you.
Maybe out of curiosity to see what you would say.
Are you trying to give me a heart attack?
Or to give you something wonderful to think about.
Yes, wonderful, despite the sixteen years.

Or to test you, maybe, to determine
if you tell the truth
when you say you have forgiven her for all
the beatings, for throwing you away,
when you say you’ve always loved her,
wanted nothing as a child but to go back to her.
I do not know. Intentions are so slippery.
Like ice squeezed in the hand, they skid away,

they melt, take on another shape.
Intentions, when you come right down to it,
are not much good for anything,
which is why trials go awry,
why men are locked up when they shouldn’t be,
or not locked up when they should.
So my intentions do not matter.
All that matters is I did it. And she came.

I thought you both would jump
clear through the bars and glass.
No touching. Touching not allowed.
Not even after sixteen years. Not even for a mother.
I wanted you to be alone. I offered,
and was glad when both of you refused.
Glad to be a witness to this amazing joy,
this grief pent up so long.

A visitation booth is tiny.
Like a phone booth, like a shoe box,
like a bathroom in a dollhouse.
But joy and grief are big, enormous,
and they filled it, made the walls bulge
and begin to crack,
like an explosion in a cave, or mine shaft,
or railroad tunnel underground,

or like the high priests’ rams’ horns
blown outside the walls of Jericho,
or a story told across the years
compressed into a poem, or a song.
There was that intensity.
It backed me up against the door and I slid down it,
sat there with my arms around my knees—
high heels, stockings, and my best gray suit.

I wanted to be small, to disappear.
Intruder. Voyeur. Secret agent.
But you said, No, get up, sit next to her,
sit right there on that stool.
And she kept saying, Baby, oh, my baby,
my sweet Johnny Lee.
The boy locked in the frame before her.
Ageless. Beautiful. Child out of her womb.

An Innocent in the House of the Dead – NPR with Frank Stasio

Innocent Cover


In an interview with Frank Stasio on NPR’s “The State of Things”, Joanna tells the story of meeting John Lee and the origins of their poetry collection “An Innocent in the House of the Dead”.  To listen to the story via WUNC,  CLICK HERE