Monday, 18 February 2008

From Banbridge to death row

If you haven't read my general post about our Georgia visit, its right below this one, so don't miss it. Also, there are photo albums links from all parts of our trip over on the right hand side of the web page somewhere, so you can see all of the photos by clicking on them. I only put a very select few onto the blog.

So, Saturday was the big day. My first ever time inside a prison, and the first visitor E had received for years. His family stopped visiting once his Mum died. I think he has only had one or two visits in 12 years or so, both from his cousins who were passing by on holiday from another state. There are some things family just can't deal with I suppose. Some of his family chose never to visit him, I guess as a sign of their disapproval of his crime, or because they just couldn't deal with it. Others did visit at the start, but over the years they have forgotten him, in the business of their own lives. It happens to many of the prisoners, whether on death row or not. Family and friends promise to visit and write, but just as when people move away, they soon forget. They probably keep reminding themselves that they must write some time, but then they promptly forget again, and that's just the way it is. As with all families, sometimes enough is enough and people just can't deal with the pain any longer. E's Father never visited him in prison. I do understand this. I also understand that his mother did visit him. She had an unconditional love for him right up until her death, as he was her only child and she stood by him through right or wrong. His Father on the other hand, could not understand or forgive his crime and chose to walk away from him. I know that this hurt E, but I also see why it happened. Sometimes the people we love just go to far, and the only way to deal with it seems to be to walk away.

About 3 years ago, when Barney was young and I had nothing to do but housework and more housework, I decided that I needed to do something that was worthwhile, interesting, and beneficial to someone other than myself. At the time, the kids were home educated, and were trying to find overseas pen pals. I was looking through kids pen pal sites with them when we stumbled across the writeaprisoner site. We read some of the ads from men in prison and Jimmie asked me if I would write to one of them. I said I'd think about it, but really I was just fobbing him off as I had no intention of doing any such thing. A few days later Jimmie asked me again if I would write to one of them. And he kept asking me for weeks. He seemed to really understand their loneliness and felt for them. One night I sat at the computer and sifted through the hundreds and hundreds of ads. A lot of the ads were more like dating advertisements. But I soon realised that the ads from the men serving life sentences, or on death row, were heart felt and desperate. The ads from many of the men serving just a few years were simply looking for a girlfriend. So I started reading the death row and lifer ads. I thought about writing to some of them, but I was fearful of many things, some of them real fears, and some daft unfounded fears (like what if they escape from prison and come looking for me - across all that sea and land, lol).

So I set about making a short list from the ads of people I liked the look of, then I researched their crimes on google (nothing is private in the US, lol) and eliminated anyone who's crime I couldn't deal with. I certainly didn't want to write to any pedophiles, and I didn't really want to write to anyone who had murdered a young woman about my age. So I mostly chose people who had committed store robberies that had gone wrong, or that got caught up in drugs at a young age and ended up leading a life of crime. I wrote to four men. One wrote back several times and then stopped writing, one never replied, and one wrote back saying he had a good pen pal and thought someone else may need my letters more. The last man was serving his sentence next door to E. The morning that my letter arrived in the prison E was talking to R and saying that he just needed a friend, perhaps someone to write to. Minutes after that conversation my letter to R turned up. E asked R how he managed to get people write to him and he told him about the writeaprisoner website, but E just couldn't afford an ad on the site as he has no money and no one to send him any money. A few days later E asked R if he had replied to me, and he said No. So E said that if R wasn't going to reply then perhaps he could write to me instead. And so R gave him my letter, and he started to write to me.

At first I was a bit worried about receiving this strange letter from a person I had not researched and hand picked. The letter was very apologetic for bothering me, but also kind and friendly. I wrote back and before long we were writing to each other once a week. It was obvious that my letters were having a positive impact on the quality of his life. He had been in prison since the early 80's and had absolutely nothing to look forward to, only the eventual reality of his execution. My letters gave him something to think about, something to talk about, and something to do. Apart from reading and writing the prisoners on death row in Georgia get nothing to pass the time.

We have been writing now for over 3 years. I have a huge box of letters from E, as well as various other things he has sent me, including photos and his gold cross pendant. We spoke on the phone twice, but the cost for this was extortionate. Never, ever, did either of us think that we would ever meet. Not once did it cross our minds, as we live thousands of miles apart. But once this trip across the US was planned, and I knew we would be driving right past the border of Georgia, I knew it would be wrong to just drive on by and not visit. So with only 3 weeks to organise it I posted a message on writeaprisoner (WAP) asking if anyone knew how to arrange a visit. Thats when Leslie emailed me (see the post about Georgia for more on that).

With only hours to spare at the end, we managed to get our police checks mailed to the prison and our visits authorised. Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding we did not get permission for the kids to visit with us, which meant that Dan and I had to visit separately (as one of us needed to stay with the kids). I know E was disappointed not to see the whole family together. He wanted to see what sort of a Mum I was and how I dealt with the kids etc. He was looking forward to taking their sides if they were told off!

Strangely I didn't feel at all nervous about going into the prison. I was more worried about how claustrophobic I would feel being locked in rooms, than I was about meeting E. I had to sign in, outside the prison. Then I was taken inside and asked to empty my pockets. I was allowed to take in $20 (in $1 notes), a few quarters, and absolutely nothing else. This money is to buy the prisoners foods and treats from the vending machines. I had to walk through a metal detector, and then I was given a coin with a number on, and a piece of paper with E's details on, and told to walk up a long corridor & up some stairs until I'd come to a kiosk with a prison officer inside. I also had my hand stamped. So this I did. When I got to the kiosk the officer took the paper with E's details on and a message was sent to his cell to tell him he had a visitor. I know that E was sitting on the end of his bed, a ball of nervous energy, waiting, by this point. Then I was allowed through one set of big yellow barred doors, into an area with another set of barred doors. Behind these doors I could see people visiting. The officer asked me to put my hand under a machine, and I could see then that my hand had been stamped with an ultra violet stamper, with a date or some numbers on it. He told me to go through the next set of doors into the visiting area and wait until I heard E's name called.

The visiting area was like a crowded waiting room. I had expected desks with numbers on, and stern faced prison guards watching your every move. But it was nothing like this. There was only one guard in this room and she was a happy chatty little thing. However, the prisoners in this room were not on death row and this was not where my visit would take place. When I heard E's name called I expected to see him, but the guard told me to go through another set of barred doors, into an area surrounded by about 6 more barred doors! It was in here that I saw E through a window in a small room. He was waving wildy and looked so excited. I was so glad that I recognised him. A few barred doors and lots of keys later I was allowed into the room. What a strange place to have a visit. Obviously years ago prisoners had received non-contact visits through glass, and I was now standing in one side of that glass room. Except now, both the prisoner and the visitor were on the same side. The room was about 4 ft wide and about 50 ft long. There were four of these rooms, and prisoners from each death row block were allowed into the corresponding visit room. So, all the people receiving visits in that room were from E's block.

Surprisingly to me there was no prison officer in the room. I was let in, the door was closed behind me and locked, and then another door was closed onto that door and it was locked too. A prison officer watched all four of these rooms from a window at the end, but I noticed that the guard at the door took an awful long time finding the right keys when it was time to let me out! E's face was a picture when I was let into the room - huge smiles all round. We hugged each other and then sat down. There was no guard to say we couldn't hug as I had expected. All he could say for quite some time was that he couldn't believe I was really there! He kept looking at me, looking at my hair, at my hands, at my clothes, my eyes etc. I asked him what he was doing and he said he had to take it all into his memory as he would never see me again, and he didn't want to forget. We talked for four hours, and after every conversation he said again "I just can't believe you are here, I can't believe you came all this way to visit me". I said that I had never imagined I'd visit either and he said "I bet you never thought you'd be sitting on death row in a room with four murderers". Gosh. He was right. I had never thought in my life I'd be in that situation. Across the length of the visit I met about 6 other men from E's cell block. They all knew about me and knew that E had been expecting my visit. They all shook my hand and asked me about Ireland, and what sort of music I liked, or what I thought of America. I tell you this, if you ever met any of them in a supermarket or a restaurant, or at your work, you would never ever guess that they were dangerous men who had taken innocent lives. They were all polite, intelligent, seemingly sane and rational. I sat and chatted with them all as if I had just met them in a bar or something!

I think this is my problem with the death penalty. These men, no doubt, were once dangerous and a threat to society, and maybe they still would be if they were let out. But most of these men will be kept in the prison for twenty years or more before being executed. And by the time their execution comes they are not the person they were when the crimes were committed. I don't believe in the slightest that people should be able to kill and get away with it. But what is the point of reforming someone, giving someone time to see the error of their ways, and then killing them anyway? I saw how E communicated with the prison guards. They were almost like friends. Laughing and joking together. He told them "this is the girl I was telling you about, who came all the way from Ireland to see me", and they talked to me and knew all about me. But yet these are the same men who will one day come to E's cell and walk him to the room where they will kill him.

We talked about all sorts during the visit and I bought him burgers and chicken wings, and snacks and drinks. I also bought him a cherry pie type thing from the vending machine and his face lit up as he said it had been 19 years since he had seen or eaten one of them. We were able to get our photo taken by an official photographer (also an inmate). The photos were taken in the corridor. Much to E's disappointment they brought in a new policy that inmates had to be handcuffed during photo sessions. The prison guards apologised to E as they cuffed him, but he made no fuss and later told me that he didn't want to cause a fuss in front of me. But the other inmates were fuming about the new policy as they had been photographing un-cuffed for 20 years. I didn't see the point behind it, seen as I had been locked in a room with four un-cuffed inmates for several hours anyway. We took two photos, a sensible one, and a silly one. E has the silly one and I have the sensible one, as he really wanted the other.

We talked about everything. He described what receiving my letters and photos was like, and we talked a bit about his crime and how he feels about it now. He told me that his final appeal is over and it wasn't successful. He is waiting on some kind of ruling from a judge or something but his lawyer has told him to expect a final judgment in 24 to 36 months. He said that he didn't tell me this in his letters as he didn't want to worry me. He talked more to Dan about this. Dan had an hour visit after my four hour visit. He told Dan that we mustn't be upset when he is executed. He said that was is done is done and theres nothing to be done about it, and that Dan must make sure that I don't get upset. Dan told him "listen here mate, she will be upset, and there is nothing you or I can do about it, she will be heart broken". He told Dan that after his execution all his possessions will come to me. All the letters and photos I've sent will be sent back to me via his lawyer. His lawyer has my phone number, address and details and knows that if anything whatsoever happens to E, then he is to contact me. I feel rather sick just writing about it now.

But the visit was good. I know E will be smiling for weeks. I am glad that I got the chance to meet the person I have written over 300 letters to. To meet the person whose letters make me laugh out loud. And I'm glad to have made a difference in someones life. Someone who many people think doesn't deserve a friend, or comfort. Someone who the government of America will kill in cold blood. I don't deny that he once led a bad life and has committed bad and regrettable crimes, and I'm deeply sorry for the families that have been hurt through his actions. I don't condone it. But I just don't think that this is the right way to deal with it. When an inmate is executed it is not just him that suffers, but his family and friends too. The people who love him are also punished, in just the same way as the victims family. I think its all just crazy and I can't write about it any longer.


Anonymous said...

I am very impressed by your death-row-story. It is very impressing and thought-provoking.
Had this never in mind in my life. Thank you to let me have a look at this strange world.


Anonymous said...

hazel! That's stunning!

Neil x

satori-in-coleraine said...

I am very moved by your account of your visit to your friend on death row. I couldn't agree more with your sentiments against the death penalty
kind regards from Penny

Anonymous said...

That is a very moving story and you wrote it very well. I think you should write a book when you come home. It's wonderful to hear about your visit. It gets things in perspective when we think we have problems. Keep your stories coming! Mum x x x

Anonymous said...

See - I am not the only one who thinks you should write a book!
Well done on writing such a thought-provoking and sensitive piece on your visit to E. What impressed me in particular is that you didn't get bogged down with the details of his crimes but instead concentrated on the joy of your visit. You are a very special person and I am lucky to have you as a friend. Caroline xx

Anonymous said...

All I can say is "WOW".. your post was truly bittersweet.. the beginning was so exciting reading about how you got ready to see him and the details about going in and seeing him that made me get excited cuz it reminded me of my first visit too :) (I'm a WAP member too) But then at the end of your post tears really filled up my eyes cuz just reading about the fact that things will change and he'll be gone one day broke my heart big time! :( All I can say is get the best out of those years you'll get to be his friend and may God bless you both!
Sending you and your PP a big greeting all the way from Kuwait! ;)


Stephanie Bemrose said...

As the Kuwait commenter said, I got excited reading the introduction and tears filled my eyes as I read the end of your tale.

I used to be pro-death penalty, I'm not going to lie. But wait until you fall in love with a man who is sent through the military injustice system and then see people as PEOPLE and not labeled as criminals. Now I think the death penalty is awful because convicted criminals or not, when you go int a visitation situation and see someone like this, it turns you into an absolutely different person.

Thanks for the tale ... tell E hello from "SAB." My heart belongs to an inmate. :0)

~ Stephanie ~