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.”

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