There are two roads to death row. One being a life of crime and the other a long desolate country road with nothing but speed traps along the way. I have a friend who chose the first road, and because of him I chose the second. My trip to death row started six months ago when I began corresponding with a death row inmate. I “met” the inmate through Cyberspace Inmates. James and I began a great friendship and soon we were writing back and forth on a regular basis. We looked forward to each others letters and tried to provide support for one another.
Now a lot of inmates venture out and place advertisements looking for the love of their lives and romance and such. James, however, was different. He wanted a friend. A friend for life, or for the remainder of his life, which no one really knows how long that will be. He wanted a friend that would understand the fight he is waging for the right to live and someone to be a constant source of encouragement. I was, am, and will continue to be that friend. But sometimes a written letter just doesn’t fill the gap of human companionship when you have been locked in a 6 by 9 foot cell for ten years.
A few weeks ago James asked if I could come visit him. I thought for a moment about walking through the front gates and all the questions that I would be asked and being pat down to check for weapons and then, finally, being locked in a room with a death row inmate! I was terrified but very excited at the same time. I decided to take the chance and agreed that I would come. This past Sunday the road to death row took three hours to travel, every minute of the three hours was filled with the same feelings of being terrified and excited that I had first felt when he requested that I come and meet him face to face.
When you pull up to the prison you enter a visitor’s building where they check and make sure that you have been approved. They then direct you to walk out and enter the actual prison through two glass doors. Through those glass doors is a waiting room, where the average wait is about thirty minutes until you are asked to take off your shoes, empty your pockets, inventory your jewelry and everything in your possession. It’s not all that painful, actually the next step is the hardest. Once leaving that area, you walk through the metal detector and the guard lets you through a series of slamming gates until you are totally behind prison walls. You think to yourself that if anything should happen, a prison riot for instance, you are stuck! The next guard directs you down a very long walkway that would be intimidating to anyone. The walkway is constructed of barbed wire fencing, it reaches about 20 feet high and even the top is covered, the wire is set in a concrete walkway. After reaching the end of the walkway you enter building “P” which is death row.
Building “P” is where a death row inmate spends every hour of their remaining existence. Even when allowed to go into the yard, they are always right there by Building “P”. When you enter this building you are surrounded by gates and guards, this is high security. Once allowed to pass through the gates you enter a room that seems to be like a small cafeteria. At that moment, James stepped in front of me. It was almost startling. I mean, I know him and he is a dear friend, but it’s nothing like you see in the movies with the glass partition between us. When he said face to face he meant it! But how wonderful for the inmates to be able to hold their children, hug their mothers and wives. There were many other death row inmates receiving visitors that day, and James introduced me to a few. They are allowed to walk freely among the tables and greet other visitors and other inmates that they don’t see very often.
It almost seemed surreal. Here I am sitting amongst some of the men that society considers “the worst of the worst”, the “monsters”, the men that judges and juries feel are only worthy of death and the electric chair. To experience this for the first time, you almost can’t even hold a conversation with the person that you are there to visit! You just can’t seem to grasp that the men sitting there holding hands with their brides, or having quiet conversations with their parents and children have been sentenced to die. But eventually you adjust and realize that you are finally able to hold a conversation with your friend that you have written for months. Words come hard at first, but then start flowing and you don’t even realize that hours have flown by. James later admitted to me in a letter that he wrote me that night that he was a big ball of nerves and after having spent ten years on death row he wasn’t sure of the correct manners to use and was worried about saying something offensive. He should of had no concerns, however, he did just great and was a very nice host.
At 3:00 visitation ends. Around 2:00pm you observe people starting to say good-bye and the joy leaving the inmates faces, although there is still a shadow of that joy left behind because someone cared enough to come that weekend. The prison will allow you to take instant pictures, well it’s more like they will take them for you and charge you $2 per picture. The inmates have limited funds but James still insisted that we take four pictures, two for me and two for him to keep in his cell.
Leaving the prison you feel a strange sensation of freedom that you can never really understand until you have been there. You appreciate your freedom, you can’t wait to get in the car and be able to drive and to go home and take a shower and run around your neighborhood, or just about anything..... because you can! But at the same time you feel sad, lonely, depressed. Not for yourself, but for the person that you left there between those thick concrete walls surrounded by fences and guard towers earlier in the day, because they can’t do those things.
The road to death row has been a harrowing and humbling journey. It has been filled with great memories and a great friend that I will continue to cherish. The road that I took, that long desolate country road....well, let’s just say I am glad that I took that road instead of the first one, because I got to come home.
Kim M. Copycat595@aol.com