Live from Death Row
The last yard of the day is finally called. "Capitals! Fourth, fifth, and sixth tier-YARD UP!" the corpulentis rural accent alien to the urban ear. One by one, cells are unlocked for the daily trek from cell to cage. Each man is pat-searched by guards armed with batons and then scanned by a metal detector. Once the inmates are encaged, the midsummer sky rumbles, its dark clouds swell, pregnant with power and water. A bespectacled white-shirt turns his pale face skyward, examining nature's quickening portent. The rumbles grow louder as drops of rain sail earthward, splattering steel, brick, and human. "Yard in!" the white-shirt yells, sparking murmurs of resentment among the men. "Yard in! Shit, man, we just out here!" The guards adopt a cajoling, rather than threatening, attitude. "C'mon, fellas-yard in, yard in. Ya' know we can't leave y'uns out here when it gits ta thunderin' an' lightnin'." "Oh, why not? Y'all 'fraid we gonna get ourself electrocuted?" a prisoner asks. "Ain't that a bitch?" adds another. "They must be afraid that if we do get electrocuted by lightnin', they won't have no jobs and won't get paid!" A few guffaws, and the trail from cage to cell thickens.Although usually two hours long, today's yard barely lasts ten minutes, for fear that those condemned to death by the state may perish, instead, by fate.
For approximately 2,400 people locked in state and federal prisons, life is unlike that in any other institution. These are America's condemned, who bear a stigma far worse than "prisoner." These are America's death-row residents: men and women who walk the razor's edge between half-life and certain death in thirty-eight states or under the jurisdiction of the United States. The largest death row stands in Texas (324 people: 120 African Americans, 144 whites, 52 Hispanics, four Native Americans, and four Asian Americans); the smallest are in Connecticut (two whites), New Mexico (one Native American, one white), and Wyoming (two whites).
You will find a blacker world on death row than anywhere else. African Americans, a mere 12 percent of the national population, compose about 40 percent of the death-row population. There, too, you will find this writer.
Don't tell me about the valley of the shadow of death. I live there. In south-central Pennsylvania's Huntingdon County, a 100-year-old prison stands, its Gothic towers projecting an air of foreboding, evoking a gloomy mood of the Dark Ages. I and some forty-five other men spend about twenty-two hours a day in a six-by-ten-foot cell. The additional two hours may be spent outdoors, in a chain-link fenced box, ringed by concertina razor wire, under the gaze of gun turrets. Welcome to Pennsylvania's death row.
I'm a bit stunned. Several days ago the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed my conviction and sentence of death, by a vote of four justices (three did not participate). As a black journalist who was a Black Panther way back in my yon teens, I've often studied America's long history of legal lynchings of Africans. I remember a front page of the Black Panther newspaper, bearing the quote: "A black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect," attributed to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, of the infamous Dred Scott case, where America's highest court held that neither Africans nor their "free" descendants are entitled to the rights of the Constitution. Deep, huh? It's true.
Perhaps I'm naive, maybe I'm just stupid-but I thought the law would be followed in my case, and the conviction reversed. Really. Even in the face of the brutal Philadelphia MOVE massacre of May 13, 1985, that led to Ramona Africa's frame-up, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Clement Lloyd, Allan Blanchard, and countless other police slaughters of blacks from New York to Miami, with impunity, my faith remained. Even in the face of this relentless wave of anti-black state terror, I thought my appeals would be successful. I still harbored a belief in U.S. law.
The realization that my appeal had been denied was a shocker. I could understand intellectually that American courts are reservoirs of racist sentiment and have historically been hostile to black defendants, but a lifetime of propaganda about American "justice" is hard to shrug off. I need but look across the nation, where, as of October 1986, blacks constituted some 40 percent of men on death row, or across Pennsylvania, where, as of August 1988, sixty-one of 113 men-over 50 percent-are black, to see the truth, a truth hidden under black robes and promises of equal rights. Blacks constitute just over 9 percent of Pennsylvania's population and just under 11 percent of America's. As I said, it's hard to shrug off, but maybe we can do it together. How? Try out this quote I saw in a 1982 law book, by a prominent Philadelphia lawyer named David Kairys: "Law is simply politics by other means." Such a line goes far to explain how courts really function, whether today, or 138 years ago in the Scott case. It ain't about "law," it's about "politics" by "other means." Now, ain't that the truth?
I continue to fight against this unjust sentence and conviction. Perhaps we can shrug off and shred some of the dangerous myths laid on our minds like a second skin-such as the "right" to a fair and impartial jury of our peers; the "right" to represent oneself; the "right" to a fair trial, even. They're not rights- they're privileges of the powerful and rich. For the powerless and the poor, they are chimeras that vanish once one reaches out to claim them as something real or substantial.
Don't expect the media networks to tell you, for they can't, because of incestuousness between the media and the government, and big business, which they both serve. I can. Even if I must do so from the valley of the shadow of death, I will. From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In the Commonwealth I am but one of 123 persons who await death. I have lived in this barren domain of death since the summer of 1983. For several years now I have been assigned disciplinary-custody status for daring to abide by my faith, the teachings of John Africa, and, in particular, for refusing to cut my hair. For this I have been denied family phone calls, and on occasion I have been shackled for refusing to violate my beliefs. Life here oscillates between the banal and the bizarre.
Unlike other prisoners, death-row inmates are not "doing time." Freedom does not shine at the end of the tunnel. Rather, the end of the tunnel brings extinction. Thus, for many here, there is no hope. As in any massive, quasi-military organization, reality on the row is regimented by rule and regulation. As against any regime imposed on human personality, there is resistance, but far less than one might expect. For the most part, death-row prisoners are the best behaved and least disruptive of all inmates. It also is true, however, that we have little opportunity to be otherwise, given that many death units operate on the "22 + 2" system: twenty-two hours of locked in cell, followed by two hours of recreation out of cell.
All death rows share a central goal: "human storage" in an "austere world in which condemned prisoners are treated as bodies kept alive to be killed," as one study put it. Pennsylvania's death-row regime is among America's most restrictive, rivaling the infamous San Quentin death unit for the intensity and duration of restriction. A few states allow four, six, or even eight hours out of cell, prison employment, or even access to educational programs. Not so in the Keystone State. Here one has little or no psychological life. Here many escape death's omnipresent specter only by way of common diversions- television, radio, or sports. Televisions are allowed, but not typewriters: one's energies may be expended freely on entertainment, but a tool essential for one's liberation through judicial process is deemed a security risk.
One inmate, more interested in his life than his entertainment, argued forcefully with prison administrators for permission to buy a nonimpact, nonmetallic, battery-operated typewriter. Predictably, permission was denied for security reasons. "Well, what do y'all consider a thirteen-inch piece of glass?" the prisoner asked. "Ain't that a security risk?" "Where do you think you'll get that from?" the prison official demanded. "From my television!" Request for typewriter denied.
Television is more than a powerful diversion from a terrible fate. It is a psychic club used to threaten those who dare resist the dehumanizing isolation of life on the row. To be found guilty of an institutional infraction means that one must relinquish television. After months or years of noncontact visits, few phone calls, and ever decreasing communication with one's family and others, many inmates use television as an umbilical cord, a psychological connection to the world they have lost. They depend on it, in the way that lonely people turn to television for the illusion of companionship, and they dread separation from it. For many, loss of television is too high a price to pay for any show of resistance.
Harry Washington shrieks out of an internal orgy of psychic pain: "Niggers! Keep my family's name outcha mouf! Ya freaks! Ya filth! Ya racist garbage! All my family believe in God! Keep your twisted Satanic filth to y'allself! Keep my family's name outch'all nasty mouf!" I have stopped the reflexive glance down in front of Harry's cell. For now, as in all the times in the past, I know no one is out near his ground level cell-I know Harry is in a mouth-foaming rage because of the ceaseless noises echoing within the chambers of his tortured mind. For Harry and I are among the growing numbers of Pennsylvanians on death row, and Harry, because of mind-snapping isolation, a bitterly racist environment, and the ironies, the auguries of fate, has begun the slide from depression, through deterioration, to dementia.
While we both share the deadening effects of isolation, and an environment straight out of the redneck boondocks, Harry, like so many others, has slipped. Many of his tormenters here (both real and imagined) have named him "Nut" and describe him as "on tilt." Perhaps the cruel twists of fate popped his cork-who can say? A young black man, once a correctional officer, now a death-row convict. Once he wore the keys, now he hears the keys, in an agonizing wait for death.
The conditions of most of America's death rows create Harry Washingtons by the score. Mix in solitary confinement, around-the-clock lock-ins, no- contact visits, no prison jobs, no educational programs by which to grow, psychiatric "treatment" facilities designed only to drugyou into a coma; ladle in hostile, overtly racist prison guards and staff; add the weight of the falling away of family ties, and you have all the fixings for a stressful psychic stew designed to deteriorate, to erode, one's humanity-designed, that is, by the state, with full knowledge of its effects.
Nearly a century ago, a Colorado man was sentenced to death for killing his wife. On his arrival at Colorado State Peniten tiary, James Medley was placed in solitary. Medley promptly brought an original writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1890 consisted of six Republicans and three Democrats. In the case, In re Medley, 134 US 160 (1890), the Court reached back to old English law, to the early 1700s of King George II, to conclude that solitary confinement was "an additional punishment of the most important and painful character" and, as applied to Medley, unconstitutional. Fast-forward nearly a century, to 1986, to the infamous federal court decision of Peterkin v. Jeffes, where Pennsylvania death-row inmates sought to have solitary confinement declared unconstitutional, and one hears a judge deny relief, saying, in the immortal words of now-Chief Justice Rehnquist, "Nobody promised them a rose garden"-that is, solitary is OK.
The notion that human progress is marked by "an evolving standard of decency," from the less civilized to the more civilized, from the more restrictive to the less restrictive, from tyranny to expanding freedom, dies a quick death on the rocks of today's Rehnquistian courts. Indeed, what other court could make the Republican-controlled, Southern-Harlan-Fuller Court of the 1890s seem positively radical by comparison? Harry continues his howlings and mindless mutterings of rage at no one in particular.
There is a quickening on the nation's death rows of late-a picking up of the pace of the march toward death. The political prod is sparking movement, and judges in death cases are beginning to find themselves under increasing pressure to make the final judgment. As murder rates rise in American cities, so too does the tide of fear. Both politicians and judges continue to ride that tide that washes toward the execution-chamber's door. No matter that of the ten states with the highest murder rate, eight lead the country in executions that supposedly deter; no matter that of the ten states with the lowest murder rate, only one (Utah) has executed anyone since 1976. No matter that the effectiveness of the death penalty is not really debated; no matter that the contention that the death penalty makes citizens safer is no longer seriously argued. Habeas corpus, fundamental to English law since the reign of King Charles and to the U.S. Constitution since its inception, now faces evisceration under the hand of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a possibility unthinkable just a few years ago.Many of the condemned, with Constitutional error rife throughout their records, will soon be executed without meaningful review. States that have not slain in a generation now ready their machinery: generators whine, poison liquids are mixed, gases are measured and readied, silent chambers await the order to smother life.
Increasingly, America's northern states now join the rushing pack, anxious to relink themselves with their pre-Furman heritage. Deterrence? The March 1988 execution of Willie Darden in Florida, exceedingly well publicized here and abroad, should have had enormous deterrent effect, according to capital theories. But less than eleven hours after two thousand volts coursed through Darden's manacled flesh, a Florida corrections officer, well positioned to absorb and understand the lessons of the state ritual, erupted in a jealous rage and murdered a man in the maternity wing of a hospital. Seems like a lesson well learned to me.
A light-skinned native of Lenape lineage sidles up to a fellow prisoner in a nearby steel cage for a bit of small talk. "Damn, man," the Indian youth exclaims in his northeastern Pennsylvania twang, "I been here too damn long." "Why you say dat, Runnin' Bear?" "Well, cuz I caught myself sayin' 'poh-leece' insteada 'puh-leese,' (police) and 'fo' insteada 'four'." The two men yuk it up. Gallows humor. Bear, for the first time in his life, lives in a predominantly black community, albeit an artificial, warped one, for it is bereft of the laughter of women or the bawling of babes.
Only men "live" here. Mostly young black men. The denizens of death row are black as molasses, and the staff are white bread. Long-termers on the row, those here since 1984, recall a small but seemingly significant event that took place back then. Maintenance and construction staff, forced by a state court order and state statute to provide men with a minimum of two hours daily outside exercise, rather than the customary fifteen minutes every other day, erected a number of steel, cyclone-fenced boxes, which strikingly resemble dog runs or pet pens. Although staff assured inmates that the pens would be used only for disciplinary cases, the construction ended and the assurances were put to the test. The first day after completion of the cages, death cases, all free of any disciplinary infractions, were marched out to the pens for daily exercise outdoors. Only when the cages were full did full recognition dawn that all the caged men were African. Where were the white cons of death row? A few moments of silent observation proved the obvious. The death-row block offered direct access to two yards: one composed of cages, the other "free" space, water fountains, full-court basketball spaces and hoops, and an area for running. The cages were for the blacks on death row. The blacks, due to racist insensitivity and sheer hatred, were condemned to awaiting death in indignity. The event provided an excellent view, in microcosm, of the mentality of the criminal system of injustice, suffused by the toxin of racism.
Visits are an exercise in humiliation. In Pennsylvania, as in many other death states, noncontact visits are the rule. It is not just a security rule; it is a policy and structure that attempts to sever emotional connection by denying physical connection between the visitor and the inmate. Visits are conducted in a closed room, roughly eighty square feet in size. The prisoner is handcuffe and separated by a partition of shatterproof glass, steel trim, and wire mesh. What visitors do not see, prior to the visit, is a horrifying spectacle-the body-cavity strip search. Once the prisoner is naked, the visiting-room guard spits out a familiar cadence: "Open yer mouth. Stick out your tongue. You wear any dentures? Lemme see both sides of your hands. Pull your foreskin back. Lift your sac. Turn around. Bend over. Spread your cheeks. Bottom of yer feet. Get dressed."
Several prisoners have protested to the administration that such searches are unreasonable, arguing that body-cavity strip searches before and after noncontact visits cannot be justified. Either allow contact visits, they argue, or halt the body-cavity strip searches. But prison officials have responded to this proposal as they have to repeated calls by the condemned for allowance of typewriters: refusal, due to security risk. For the visitor, too, such visits are deeply disturbing.
In Rhem v. Malcolm, the often-cited caseon prison conditions in New York, Judge Lasker quoted expert testimony from Karl Menninger, the late psychiatrist, who described noncontact visiting as "the most unpleasant and most disturbing detail in the whole prison," and a practice that constitutes "a violation of ordinary principles of humanity." Dr. Menninger stated: "[I]t's such a painful sight that I don't stay but a minute or two as a rule. It's a painful thing. . . . I feel so sorry for them, so ashamed of myself that I get out of the room." The ultimate effect of noncontact visits is t weaken, and finally to sever, family ties. Through this policy and practice the state skillfully and intentionally denies those it condemns a fundamental element and expression of humanity-that of touch and physical contact-and thereby slowly erodes family ties already made tenuous by the distance between home and prison. Thus pri oners are as isolated physiologically as they are temporally and spatially. By state action, they become "dead" to those who know and love them, and therefore dead to themselves. For who are people, but for their relations and relationships? Hurled by judicial decree into this netherworld of despair, forcefully separated from relationships, overcome by the dual shame of their station and the circumstances of the crime that led them to death's door, a few succumb to the shady release of suicide. Some fight Sisyphean battles, struggling to prove their innocence and reverse unjust convictions. Others live as they are treated-as "shadows of [their] former selves, in a pantomime of life, human husks." To such men and women, the actual executions are a fait accompli, a formality already accomplished in spirit, where the state concludes its premeditated drama by putting the "dead" to death a second time.
In the midst of darkness, this little one was a light ray. Tiny, with a Minnie Mouse voice, this daughter of my spirit had finally made the long trek westward, into the bowels of this man-made hell, situated in the south-central Pennsylvania boondocks. She, like my other children, was just a baby when I was cast into hell, and because of her youth and sensitivity, she hadn't been brought along on family visits until now. She burst into the tiny visiting room, her brown eyes aglitter with happiness, stopped-stunned-staring at the glassy barrier between us and burst into tears at this arrogant attempt at state separation. In milliseconds, sadness and shock shifted into fury as her petite fingers curled into tight fists, which banged and pummeled the plexiglass barrier, which shuddered and shimmied but didn't shatter. "Break it! Break it!" she screamed. Her mother, recovering from her shock, bundled up Hamida in her arms, as sobs rocked them both. My eyes filled to the brim. My nose clogged. Her unspoken words echoed in my consciousness: "Why can't I hug him? Why can't we kiss? Why can't I sit in his lap? Why can't we touch? Why not?" I turned away to recover. I put on a silly face, turned back, called her to me, and talked silly to her. "Girl, how can you breathe with all them boogies in your nose?" Amid the rolling trail of tears, a twinkle started like dawn, and before long the shy beginnings of a smile meandered across her face as we talked silly talk. I reminded her of how she used to hug our cat until she almost strangled the poor animal, and Hamida's denials were developing into laughter. The three of us talked silly talk, liberally mixed with serious talk, and before long our visit came to an end. Her smile restored, she uttered a parting poem that we used to say over the phone: "I love you, I miss you, and when I see you, I'm gonna kiss you!" The three of us laughed and they left. Over five years have passed since that visit, but I remember it like it was an hour ago: the slams of her tiny fists against that ugly barrier, her instinctual rage against it-the state-made blockade raised under the rubric of security, her hot tears. They haunt me.