Dec. 8, 2019, 1:00PM
Let me begin with a typical day on North
Carolina’s death row. Unlike most other death rows in the US, our
cell doors stay open from 7:00am until 10:45pm. There are about 20
people who live on each of the seven death row cell b locks, for a
total population of 135, divided between two floors. Much of our
day is spent on the block except for one hour of outside recreation,
meals at the chow hall, visits, medical appointments, or religious
services. In terms of size, I have spent the last twenty years in a
7’x9’ cell, walking the same 200 ft. length of hallway, playing and
exercising in a dirt and grass lot roughly half a square acre. I
suppose it could be worse: at least we don’t have cell mates.
Through the day we are left to our own
devices. Most of my time is spent writing and reading. A lot of
guys watch TV or play table-top games like cards or chess. There is
also a small library of mostly donated books on our unit. We even
have a few psych programs like group therapy, counseling services,
and a mindfulness-meditation group. However, the psych programs
sound better than they actually are. After so many years most guys
develop their own routine, doing what they can to occupy their time
with meaningful activities. It’s important we do so because of how
readily the mind decays without something to stimulate and stretch
it. Even then, some guys still lose touch with reality.
It is not an exaggeration to say we’re lost in
time and cut off from the real world. Without computers or internet
access this is especially true in 2019. Our information comes from
dated newspapers and magazines, or mainstream news affiliates like
ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. It wasn’t until 2016 that we received
regular access to a phone. Before then we were given one 10-minute
collect call a year around Christmas. Coupled with the stigma of a
death sentence, and the desert of information that is prison, this
technological deficit dissolved a lot of relationships. What were
already tenuous connections dissolved, because – who has time to
write a letter in the fast-paced free world?
Fortunately, over the years we’ve been able to
rely on one another. Our interaction has eased the sense of
isolation and abandonment. What for an outsider would be a
seemingly scary situation – living among people convicted of murder
– is mundane for us. We share the same fate, for the same crime,
have gone through the same legal process, and experience many of the
same problems. It makes it easier to identify with one another and,
while there is still a pecking order and various cliques, we are
more equal than not.
The main thing to remember is that we are all
flawed human beings who experience the same needs, hopes, fears, and
persecution. When one of us has a bad day, for example, someone is
usually there to hold him up. Like individual bricks, we don’t
amount to much on our own, but together we support and fortify each
other. Death row may be the unlikeliest of communities, but for
many of us it’s the only family we have.
To answer the question of Jesus as a man on
death row it will help to explain some of my religious background.
My mom raised my siblings and me in a Catholic household. She
taught Sunday School and we were all altar servers at some point. I
left my faith behind in adolescence and rediscovered it upon coming
to death row in 1999. I’ve been confirmed since 2000 and have
attended Catholic Mass every week for the last 20 years.
It wasn’t easy at first. Fr. Dan, one of the
priests who delivered Mass on the row, tried to convince me to
return using the parable of the prodigal son. He reminded me we all
stray from God, and the important part is to repent in humility and
reconcile that relationship. I was angry and defiant, questioning
Fr. Dan incessantly as people I came to know were put to death.
When his original approach didn’t work, Fr. Dan used Pascal’s
Wager. If you believe in God and it turns out to be a story, you’ve
lost nothing; but, if you choose not to believe in God, in all that
the Bible instructs, and it turns out to be true, then you, my
friend, have lost everything in this life and the next. Fr. Dan’s
belief in the eternal mercy of Jesus Christ and his infinite love
and patience saved my life. For me, it was the first manifestation
of Jesus as a man on death row and I paid attention. Endless
patience. Unconditional love. Mercy.
In Luke, Chapter 23, Verses 39-43, there is a
scene not repeated in any of the other gospels. As Jesus hung on
the cross between two criminals, one reviled him, saying “Are you
not the Messiah? Save yourself and us”. The other rebuked him and
said, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same
condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the
sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has
done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you
come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied to him, “Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in paradise.” (The Catholic Study Bible,
2nd Ed. New American Revised Edition, Oxford University
The first time a friend of mine was executed I
had been on death row less than a year. Harvey and I exercised
together and grew close. Like Fr. Dan, he urged me to pursue God.
Ask my questions. Be angry, but confess my sins and be constant in
my relationship with Him. Harvey was one of my early mentors who
was vocal in the Sunday Protestant service and on the block. He
admitted his crimes and repented and urged others to do the same.
In him I witnessed the rebuke of the second criminal crucified with
Jesus; the plea for mercy and redemption. Before they took him
away, Harvey urged me not to let death row define me like the State
intended it. He told me, “You. Are. Valuable.”
My friend’s death hurt me, as so many after him
would. The second manifestation of Jesus as a man on death row was
recognizing my faults and being unafraid to change and grow from
them. But Harvey also taught me to live.
How do you reckon with being in the shadow of
the valley of death? The enemy uses helplessness, despair,
fatalism, hatred, and self-loathing to break us down. These things
erode one’s ability to resist violence and animal urges governed by
prison norms. A loss of identity, failure, betrayal, and constant
disappointment drains the ability to resist. It makes prison a
miserable experience and daily battle.
I often draw inspiration from Viktor Frankl,
Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl’s experience in captivity provide a blueprint for finding
purpose amidst unimaginable pain and suffering. He lived in a place
where innocent people were stripped of their humanity, starved,
beaten, tortured, and executed in the millions. He made it through
multiple concentration camps, his mind intact, and discovered a
radical resilience that made sense of the misery when it would have
been so easy to succumb. What right do I have to do anything
Frankl provided a map to thrive in any
environment, but there had to be more. What would thriving look
like for me?
A third manifestation of Jesus as a man on
death row came in the form of an offer to enroll in some college
correspondence courses. I dropped out of high school and earned a
GED in a reformatory because it was required of delinquent youth.
College had never been a thought. But needing something to do, and
genuinely curious what it would be like, I accepted.
It turned out to be the best decision of my
life. I discovered I’m a capable student and avid reader; that my
ability to write was an untapped talent. Within a few years I knew
that for so long as my sponsor was willing fund the courses, I would
complete them. By 2013 I earned an Associate in Arts degree, with a
social science emphasis, through Ohio University. By 2017 they
accepted me into their Bachelor of Specialized Studies program with
the degree title of Criminal Justice Administration. Higher
education transformed my life on death row in ways I never could
have imagined. It became the key God handed me to unlock any door I
chose. The more I learned, the greater my sense of responsibility
grew to use this wonderful gift to help my brothers.
1 John, Chapter 3, Verse 14 says, “We know that
we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.
Whoever does not love remains in death.”
Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer posited
that the ongoing incarnation of Christ happens in the community.
The church is the Son of God working among us. “Not only does this
contain the notion that social interaction is the point of departure
for understanding Christian faithfulness, it means when I encounter
another, I encounter Christ, and that [person] places an ethical
demand on me.” (Hale, Lori Brandt; Williams, Reggie L. “Is This a
Bonhoeffer Moment? Lessons for American Christians from the
Confessing Church in Germany”, Sojourners Magazine, Feb. 2018,
Vol.47 / No. 2). Bonhoeffer said that to be disciples of Christ, to
follow after Him, we are called to act vicariously on behalf of
This is how love for our brethren is carried
My access to higher education on death row is
unique, but it gives me a more objective and informed understanding
of the criminal justice system. As such, I understand how critical
the opportunity for higher learning is for the incarcerated. Access
has been extremely limited since the 1994 Violent Crime Control and
Law Enforcement Act ended federal funding for college in prison.
The omnibus crime bill helped create mass incarceration through
mandatory minimum sentences; rewards to states for building more
prisons rather than addressing the need for them; increased use of
consecutive sentencing and life without parole; and a reliance upon
tough-on-crime rhetoric no matter the cost. As a result, America is
not the land of the free, it has become a place where prisons
proliferate and fill with the poor, the uneducated, and the
marginalized; where human potential is sent to die.
I write not merely to advocate for those who
lack a voice or an ability to articulate their needs, but out of a
sense of Christian duty to use my gifts effectively and broadly.
All of us are more than the crimes for which we’ve been convicted
and sentenced: we are human beings. So, I take every opportunity
that comes along to pull back the curtain of judgement and reveal
how prisoners – especially those sentenced to death – continue to
live, think, feel, and learn.
I also write to create greater public awareness
about the nuances of imprisonment. It’s no coincidence that
tough-on-crime drug laws, for example, target poor, urban, minority
communities. You will find a thousand Black and Latino drug users
in prison before you find a single Oxycontin or Fentanyl distributor
being punished for the overdose deaths of hundreds. It’s no mistake
in the creation of criminal laws that a robbery of $1000 is punished
more harshly than an embezzlement of $100,000. This is the twisted
logic of a criminal justice system that grew from plantations, Black
Codes, and Jim Crow Laws into a modern exception to the Thirteenth
Mass incarceration is a colossal, seemingly
insurmountable problem. When broken down by state and community it
can become more manageable. As you sit here today consider that
prisons are a testament to what society thinks about the least of
its citizens. If there is no investment in the people you believe
are problematic enough to confine, those problems don’t disappear –
95 percent of them return to your communities.
The question becomes whether you want to
educate and rehabilitate people caught within the criminal justice
system; or, waste more resources prosecuting, policing, and
imprisoning them. I can tell you research shows the former is more
cost-effective and better for society than the latter.
As people of faith I shouldn’t need to convince
you of the value of human potential or dignity of life wherever it
exists. The question I’ll end with is fairly simple but one you can
refer to each time you answer it with action: how can your faith
community at St. Paul’s impact North Carolina’s carceral state?
Don’t sit idly by and think the answer will
occur on its own or that someone else will do it for you. Community
involvement, spiritual accountability, and personal action are
essential to building up the world we want to exist.
Lyle C. May 0580028