The Death Row Companion – Episode#2

IMG_0486

Picture received in August 2015: “I was able to take out some pictures on Tuesday. I made a picture frame for my picture. You will see my pot belly that I am trying to loose, I am working on it.”*

In July, I mentioned for the first time my writing relationship with the man I am calling my “Death Row Babe”. He’s a man on the Florida death row whom I’ve been corresponding with since November 2014. Some people have been asking me about him and want to hear what’s happening to him so I am opening the year with update from my Death Row Companion.

# Keeping Your Word

Our relationship is definitely blossoming: I’ve finally passed the probation test. I think he’s been so used to being disappointed and abandoned that he was waiting to see if I really was trustworthy. He once wrote: “You are a man of your word. Everything that you said that you were going to do, you did it. Thank you.” I had got him a book of yoga exercises and another one called The Abs Bible as promised, as he tries to get back in shape.

He explained me that keeping your word is the number one rule in the prison world. This is how you make yourself a good or bad name: “Your word can carry you a long way in prison, when you keep your word and do as promise, you can get anything done in prison but if you do bad on your word, then you will get a bad name and nobody will want to do any business or anything for you. (…) I have no problem in getting stuff done in prison, my word is good, I always pay my bills.”*

He says he has many friends amongst the inmates, and things get rough and violent only if you are bad in business. You get ‘well known’ when you are a good basket-ball player and everyone wants you on their team at recreation games. I love it when he explains me the sharp rules of the micro-society he lives in.

After I passed the “keeping your word” test, I felt it was a turning point. He started opening up more.

I received a second portrait of myself in the summer. That’s another inmate who draws them. The guy seems well established as a portraitist on the death row. He never gets visits from anyone. A lot of death row inmates order pieces from him when they have a gift to make, and they get him $10 worth of canteen items like coffee, soap, toothpaste or cookies. There seems to be some trade going on between the inmates who try to market their talents to make cash.

photo(1)

# Sex

In August, he bluntly asked me about sex. I knew it would happen sooner or later, as sex must occupy 80% of his conscious time. Yet, the rawness of his questions took me by surprise:

“Do you like children? If yes than you need to get busy in the bed, I was surprise to hear that you has not had a partner in the last 2 years, can I ask you a personal question, please don’t take it the wrong way or feel offended also you don’t have to answer my question, since you didn’t have a partner in the last 2 years, is that mean you did not have sex for the last 2 years? Do you miss sex? How do you satisfy yourself when you are hornie? or do you have a lot of toys to satisfy your need. To be without a partner for 2 years, I have to give you credit, you are a very strong woman, I can not go a month without a woman in my life when I was in the free world.”*

Although I expected the topic to show up, it threw me off. I really didn’t know how to respond. Tell him off? Ignore it? Openly answer his questions? But then he would always ask me for more. I consulted several of my friends for second opinions. I finally decided to acknowledge his questions but explain in all diplomatic honesty why I didn’t want to go into personal detail with him:

img_8921

In the following letter, he thanked me “for the information regarding sex” and sort of apologised: “You are correct in so many ways, you can’t help me with sex in a letter. (…) There are some company in Florida They sell inmate freak letter and a picture of there model for a book of stamps. the most famous company that supply Florida prison those letter & picture are moonlite productions.”* I am not sure what the freak letters exactly are.

We never tackled the subject again.

# Fighting for a new trial

My Death Row Babe has been waiting to hear from his appeal at the Supreme Court since May 2015, when he had an oral argument to reevaluate his case (I know I don’t use the correct juridical terms, I am just conveying the info the way I understand it). In every new letter I receive, he’s saying he hasn’t had news yet as the death row inmates are at the bottom of the Court priorities. He’s been fighting for a new trial for years and spends most of his days in law books to prepare his own defence.

The more it goes, the more I believe in his innocence. I am asking subtle questions between the lines, because everything we both write can be held against him. Step by step, he’s unfolding his life story to me. He used to run several businesses as a tailor and a cabinet maker. He used to own property, which he sold to pay for his first lawyers. He has three kids he doesn’t hear much from. He also got a grandson in August and he’s waiting to receive a picture of the baby to have his portrait made by the portrait guy.

He seemed to be well off and well settled in life before his arrest. I obviously don’t know the truth. I don’t know if he got into drug trafficking and murder. But I strongly believe that he may have been a black guy who stood at the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught in the maze of the US justice system.

# Prison cake

He turned 47 on August 19th. He told me he made a prison cake for his sister and his niece who visited him. I asked him for the recipe of a prison cake. There you go:

photo

His last letter, written on November 16th, was hard. He told me that Florida started back its executions and that one inmate, Jerry Correll, got executed in November and that a date was set to January 2016 for another inmate, serial killer Oscar Bolin**. And a few weeks prior to that, an inmate had died of a heart attack during a basket-ball game.

My Death Row Companion was getting ready for Christmas. The local church brings the inmates brown paper bags with goodies. I had him deliver the World Almanac like last year, together with a card of the Nativity as he is Christian.

I am waiting to hear from him.

*I’ve transcripted with the orginal spelling and punctuation exactly as received in the letters

**Oscar Bolin is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on January 7th, 2016

Advertisements

The Death Row Companion

imageimageimage

I started a strange journey nine months ago.

Out of the blue, I contacted an organization in order to correspond with an inmate on the US death row. I’ve always had a strong fascination for the penitentiary world. Prisons qualify as heterotopias, these “other spaces” of society theorised by French philosopher Michel Foucault. Heterotopias are enclosed public locations run by their own rules and their own relationship to time.

Ten days later, I received the name and address of the man who would become my penpal. There was a short manuscript letter enclosed, with his request to be put on the waiting list for the penpal program. He had been waiting for 14 months. I was moved in an unusual manner when I saw his handwriting. I instantly sensed that I was getting myself into an extraordinary human adventure.

The organization provided me with a list of recommendations and advice. The one that stroke me the most was that I was supposed to regularly check the calendar of scheduled executions on the official death row website. Most likely the information would be online before the court and lawyers would announce it to my penpal. I was going to know before him when he was scheduled to die.

They strongly recommended not to try to find out information about the facts, but one of the first things I did was to google the man. My curiosity to discover his face and the crimes he was accused of was too strong.

His name is ΝΣ. He’s going to be 47 in August. I learned from the web that he had been involved in drug trafficking. He was convicted of first degree murder in 2000 for commending the double murder of a couple. The woman had died and the man had survived the bullet shots in his head.

I didn’t know anything about his life conditions in jail and it was super touchy to write my first letter to a stranger who had been cut off from the outside world for the last 14 years.

He replied very fast, and I remember being disappointed by his first letter. He was complaining about the prison selling iTune songs for $1.49 to the inmates. He thought it was a total rip off. I felt stupid in my spiritual expectations. I wanted deep moving conversation, remorse, metaphysical reflection on life and death, and I was facing a supposed murderer who ranted that Apple was overpriced. I had got caught in my own game of craving for depth and redemption. I replied to him that I was paying my iTunes songs £0.99, which was more or less the equivalent. “And I haven’t killed anyone” I thought. But I didn’t write it.

I toned down my expectations after that. I chose not to ‘want’ anything from the guy.

We never talk about the facts he’s charged with. I let him bring up whatever he wants about his trial, his case and his life conditions. I don’t have an opinion about what he did or not. I don’t know the truth. I am reading between the lines that he’s claiming innocent.

I chose to believe him when he says that his trial was botched up and that the American justice system is a maze. He says he had poor defence. The court didn’t look at the evidence and didn’t call his witnesses. He’s studying law books to work on his case every day. He had an appeal in May, aiming to get a new trial in a few months.

Gradually, we started having some kind of relationship.

He asked me to ship him the World Almanac. I have to learn the procedure and rules for everything I want to send his way. I got him candy and chocolate through a food order form for Christmas.

He told me a little about his background. He was born in Trinidad and Tobago. He has 6 or 7 siblings but his family almost cut him off. One of his sisters visits him once a year. My favorite part of his letters is the description of his day to day, the rules of the prison, his life conditions, the updates on his trial.

I mostly tell him about my trips so he has names to look up in the World Almanac. I always get him postcards everywhere I go. I often don’t even send any to my family and friends, but I always make sure to get one for him. After all, he’s also the only person who sends me real letters.

After a few months, I started signing my mail “Your friend, Σ”. He did the same.

I started referring to him as my ‘Death Row Companion’, or more familiarly as my ‘Death Row Babe’ – which I obviously don’t tell him.

To thank me for my gifts, he had my portrait drawn by another inmate on the death row who is his friend. He used the photo of me which I sent him at the beginning of our correspondence. I don’t know when they meet, because they have individual cells, but they have up to 6 hours of recreation per week which must be collective.

This portrait of myself is one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received, because there’s the hell of an intense story behind it. It doesn’t look like me but it does at the same time. The movement of my hair looks incredibly real with pencil. I have put it on the top shelf, between the books by my dear Virginia Woolf and King Kong Théorie by Virginie Despentes.

He was impatient to get my feedback on the drawing. I think he was happy to have shipped me something. I asked him the name of the artist to thank him as well.

Now, he starts being more chilled with me. The other day, he asked me for tips to cut down his belly fat. I laughed and I made him funky stick man drawings of the plank position. He told me he has been doing the exercises every day. Next, I’ll send him some stick man sketches of the sun salutation.

I’ve decided to go and visit him at some point. I don’t know if I should, because this friendship is scheduled to stop and I can’t say that I wasn’t aware of it.

I’ve received an email from the organization this morning. The subject was: “Two executions scheduled for September”. I opened it in a hurry, but his name wasn’t there.

I am tough and stubborn, so I’ll end up visiting him anyway.

There are currently at least 30 people on the death row in the US who are waiting to be put in contact with a penpal. I know 2 organizations which run the penpal program: the ACAT in France, which is the Christian organization I am involved with, but you don’t have to be Christian or to be a practicing Christian to register with them. Human Writes is a British organization which also runs the death row penpal program. The only requirement is to be over 18 and to commit to write regularly, as this correspondence may be the only support received by the death row inmates.

imageimageIMG_8013