Murder, America's Favorite Pastime
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“While he did commit a crime in trying to break a friend out of a prison transport van where his accomplice, Frank Valdes, shot and killed one of the guards, Bill never intended for anyone to get hurt, much less killed,” Lisa said. “I feel that 26 years on death row with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head has been punishment enough for the crime he did commit. I have received so many letters from people saying that his writings, especially his autobiography ‘A Checkered Past,’ have changed their lives. He is not the man he once was. He underwent a profound spiritual conversion. He is a beautiful soul. He deserves [to live].”
In “A Checkered Past” Van Poyck describes his troubled boyhood, including the death of his mother from carbon monoxide poisoning when he was a year old. His father, who worked for Eastern Airlines and had lost a leg in World War II, turned the children over to a series of housekeepers, most of whom were neglectful or abusive. By 11 Van Poyck was in a juvenile home, along with Lisa, who was 12, and a brother, Jeffrey, who was 18. By 17 Van Poyck was in prison for an armed robbery. And then in 1987 he and Valdes attempted to free a friend from a prison transport van in downtown West Palm Beach. A corrections guard was fatally shot, apparently by Valdes, who a dozen years later died after eight prison guards beat him in his cell. Van Poyck’s brother, who is ill with lung cancer, has been in prison since 1992 for a series of bank robberies in Southern California.
Van Poyck has written two novels, “The Third Pillar of Wisdom” and “Quietus.” One of his short stories, “The Investigation,” will be included in an anthology of prison writing edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
“I started working with Bill [Van Poyck] in 2007 in the PEN prison writing program,” said Elea Carey, a short-story author based in San Francisco who was his writing instructor for two years. “There is a sense of isolation in his writing, as if he grew up alone in nature. He defined his experience without anyone around to help him understand it. He often appears as if he was dropped into a foreign land. His sensitivity to others, his compassion, his awareness and his empathy grew with his writing. He moved from his aloneness to grappling with the basics of human relationships.”
“People die every day,” Carey said when we spoke by phone. “I lost my dad in January. I am not afraid of death. I don’t think Bill is afraid of death. I am not shocked that Gov. Scott did this. But I want to do everything possible to stop this from happening. We are asleep as a society. We too do not know what it means to be fully human. This asleepness was once part of Bill’s life. He was asleep, in this way, when he carried out his crimes and committed the wrongs he knows he did. But this unconsciousness is not limited to people like Bill—it is part of all who think it is OK to do this kind of harm to other human beings. I want my government to be above murder.”
Van Poyck has an eye for detail, a terse, laconic writing style and a deep compassion for those trapped in the system. He explores the daily degradation of prison life, a Stygian world where some 50,000 people are held in solitary confinement in supermax prisons or special detention units and where hopelessness and despair threaten to overwhelm those inside.