January 7th, 2000

Column 24

Recently, a friend who had read an article about Death Row, asked me if I thought what she read in the article was true. It was an article where a guy with the death penalty said, "being on Death Row was like dying a little bit at a time before they actually executed you." I wasn't sure how to answer that question. On one hand, I think having your freedom taken away from you and being locked up, regardless of whether it is doing a little time in prison or being on Death Row, a part of you can die if you don't keep things in perspective. I think by their very nature, prisons in America are places where, if you aren't careful, it will rob you of a bit of your humanity during your stay. Of course, it depends on the person and how they are able to deal with their time. But, generally I feel prisons and jails have a tendency to destroy what is good in people and to nurture the negative and destructive parts in them.

As an example, before you are sent to prison (or Death Row) you are locked up in a County Jail to await a trial. When I was awaiting my trial, I saw a number of guys come in on minor charges. who seemed to be relatively decent guys. Over time, you could see a change in them. You began to see a hardness forming in them, which hadn't been there when they were first placed in the jail and there was a rage that seemed to be simmering just below the surface. They also seemed to develope a indifference towards people and all they focused on was surviving. In order to do so, they seemed to let a part of them die. Unfortunately, the part which died was what made them decent people in the first place.

In prison, compassion and kindness is often perceived as a weakness and others could exploit it if you show that. So people in prison tend to lose that part in themselves. In that sense, they die a little bit at a time. There is more to it then that though. Many people in the free world have stereotyped all people in prison as animals who you have to watch out for. Maybe having this attitude helps them justify in their minds, that prisoners deserve any sort of treatment they receive.

I think the majority of people in prison want to do the best they can while there, then get out and stay out. However, while in prison, most people don't get the help they need to use for leading a productive life when they are released. The vast majority of people who are in prison are here for drug related offenses. Treatment programs for prisoners is very difficult to get, so when they get out of prison they haven't handled their problems, so are in worse shape than when they were sent there. No matter how badly you want to stay out of prison, if you haven't dealt with the problem, you will usually repeat the same mistakes when you are released. Each time a person returns to prison, they lose more and more of what makes them a decent person and the negative traits become more dominant. So, that is another example of dying a bit at a time.

The question of whether you die a little bit at a time on Death Row? I think it depends on the character of the person. There are the parts that die and you have no control over. As time goes by, your memories of being out in the free world fade, or are suppressed, so that part of you dies a bit at a time. With some people, the relationships with family and loved ones drifts further and further apart, so that part dies too. Your hopes that you will be able to win a new trial and can overcome all you have facing you, tends to fade. So that is another part of you that dies. But as I said before, it depends on the character of the person.

I have seen men in here who have every excuse to lose whatever makes them decent, yet through it all, they maintain a humaneness and compassion for others that is quite remarkable. They are also able to keep focused on their goals and won't give up and let themselves lose what is decent inside them. For example, I know a man here, who heard of another guy here on Death Row, who’s child wouldn't be able to get a toy he wanted for Christmas because his Mother didn't 'have the money to buy it for him. So this Man sent the child's Mother some money so she could buy this toy for the boy, as well as some other gifts as well.

Many try to use their time to do things that are positive and will help them keep that part of them (which makes them who they are) alive as well. I think if you allow the negative parts of Death Row or prison, take away the good in you, then yes a part of you dies a little bit at a time.
I don't know if that answers my friend’s question. If she expected a yes or no answer, I can't give one. It isn't that simple and it's a question that has as many answers as there are people locked up behind bars.

I am reminded of this TV series called "Nightline". It was about the Women doing time in California prisons and it was a remarkable series of stories considering the limited time they had. I thought it showed many of the flaws in the way the system is and did a good job of illustrating the problems for both the Men and Women in California prisons. But being a skeptic, I doubt if the program did much to change the minds of people who watched it. Perhaps it made some of them think a bit, but I suspect most people would say these prisoners don't deserve any help. I also suspect these are the same people who scream about prisoners getting out and committing crimes again.
They want to lock people up and make them do hard time, yet they complain the loudest when people get out and screw up again. If people in prison were given help and stayed out of prison when they were released they "Get Tough On Crime" Politicians wouldn't have anything to use to get elected to office. Ironically, I always wondered why these same Politicians don't promise to get tough on the social problems that lead to people going to prison. Things like drug treatment or job training and the homeless. I guess it is easier to play on people’s fears and anger with the get tough on crime issue though.

I've said all there is to say about that, so I will move on. Before I go, I would like to remind you that my mailing address is on this site. I have received e-mail from people who are under the impression I have a computer and am able to reply to them via e-mail. I don't have a computer and I do not have access to the Internet, so if you want to write and ask a question or make a comment, please write via snail mail. Ironically it is faster for you to write via snail mail and get a reply, than it is to send a e-mail to this site. So if you send an e-mail, expect it to take twice as long to get a reply. We are talking about starting a letters section to this site, so if we do, then all messages will be welcome. Thanks for taking time and all the best to you.