What it’s like to live on Death Row, part 1.

Here is a letter from Damien Echols about what a typical day for him on Death Row is like.  He sent this to Margaret Cho who has fought for his cause and who is now his friend.  She helped him to publish his memoir and wrote the introduction.  This is from her blog at http://www.margaretcho.com/blog/category/wm3/page/2/

Here it is:

Our Man Inside

Thursday, May 20th, 2004

get a pretty good account of prisoner abuse that doesn’t get photographed, that happens daily, most likely in correctional facilities all over – America.

I asked chief correspondent, our man inside, Damien Echols, what it is like where he lives. He has a good sense of humor about his situation, but it makes it nonetheless a travesty of justice and humanity. He is innocent. And he lives like this..

Dear Margaret,

I was very happy to receive your letter, and there is much I want to respond to, but first I’ll jump right to the question because it may take a while to answer. You want to know about a typical day for me, what occupies my time and mind, and what the culture and society are like in here. There are many angles from which I could try to answer that, and I’m going to try to be as complete as possible.

The day begins with breakfast at 3 A.M. they have it so early because they want to get inmates out into the fields as soon as possible. They call it the “hoe squad,” and that’s where Jesse Miskelley is now. It’s considered punishment. There is no job in the world that’s more grueling, back breaking, or demeaning. You have to guard against heat stroke, poisonous snakes and other inmates who may decide to stick a hoe in your head because they’re having a bad day. I feel sorry for Jesse.

Breakfast is the same meal every single morning except Saturday. On Saturday you get pancakes. Every other day you get a scoop of powdered eggs, two biscuits, grits, and watered down gravy. I’m considered somewhat of a freak, because I love powdered eggs. I much prefer them over the real thing. I had never discovered this tasty treat before coming here.

At breakfast they turn the lights on and won’t turn them back off until 5:00 or 5:15, after all the trays have been picked up and put away. I try to get a little more sleep during that time, but it’s never restful because of all the lights and noise. The lights come back on at 7 o’clock, and stay on for the rest of the day. Shortly after this I begin trying to get the phone to make the morning call to Lorri. It’s not always as easy as it sounds.

After I get the phone (if the battery isn’t dead) I call Lorri for 15 minutes. This is the part of my day which soothes and calms me. Her very nature is happiness, and I can’t get enough. I’m always starving for more, and when she answers the phone my first cry is often, “Where ere you?! I nearly died!” to which she responds, “I was right here, and I nearly died!” If someone were listening in on our phone calls they would hear nothing but love and silliness.

Those 15 minute calls to Lorri are the only real conversations I will have in a day. We may talk of Yo Yo Ma (my favorite musician of all time), Deepak Chopra, G.I. Gurdjieff, Balthus, Goya (my favorite artist), Thomas Hardy, dysfunctional families, or we may plan out what we will watch on television together that night. I say this is the only real conversation I will have because there aren’t many people you can actually talk to in prison. Your average prisoner has an I.Q. of 80. That’s only 10 points above retardation. Most can’t even speak English properly, use words they don’t know the meaning of in ways that make no sense, or make up their own words. There are no insane criminal genius types in here. No Hannibal Lecters. That’s only on television. The vast majority of the people on death row are either mentally retarded or mentally ill. You’re not going to find many people who can even follow the same train of thought for very long.

After Lorri and I reluctantly get off the phone I do my morning stretches. Most people seem to have the impression that I’m still a teenager, the kid they saw in “Paradise Lost.” I am definitely not. I’m a nearly 30 year old man whose health has seen better days. When I first et up in the morning my back and neck are a flaming agony. I can’t even bend over the sink to brush my teeth until I’ve done 5 or 10 minutes of stretching. The stress, this place, the worry, and the people I have to deal with have all taken a toll on me. For example, when you’re locked in a cell 24 hours a day, your eyes never focus on anything far away and it plays hell on your sight. I can now only see clearly for about 3 feet in front of me. My hearing isn’t as keen as it once was, either.

At this point I’ll usually sit down to write a letter or two, but lately that has been the exception to the rule because I’ve been writing non-stop on my memoir. It’s nearly complete, so I’ll soon go back to writing letters. I am so behind that I now have about 150 to 200 letters to write.

I take a break at 9:30, which is when they feed lunch. Prison food is as bad as it gets. The meat is often spoiled or so undercooked that it’s inedible, and the vegetables are never washed. They grow them here, and pick them themselves. I’ve actually found grasshoppers and crickets that had been cooked in the greens because no one cleaned them first. People have made it possible for me to be able to avoid most of it, by donating money to the commissary fund.

After lunch I do a few hundred crunches or sit- ups. It’s hard to stay in shape here, so I work out twice a day. Some people go “out,” but I see no point in it. They come by and ask if you want to go “outside.” If you say “yes,” they put your number on a list. When they come to get you they open a slot in the solid steel door (the same one they push your food through) and you stand with your back to it while they reach through and put chains on you. Once that’s done they open the door and take you to another concrete structure that looks like a cross between a horse stall and a grain silo. The inside is coated with bird feces because of the hordes of pigeons who got in and now call it home. The bugs are pretty bad, too. It’s filthy, and the space is even smaller than your cell. You can’t see anyone else, or carry on a conversation. The entire place echoes constantly with the screams of prisoners. I see no point in going out there, so I spend all my time in my cell. It was different before they moved us to this new prison. At the old place we actually went outside, and you could walk around talking to other people, or at least smelling the air. I haven’t felt the sun touch my skin in nearly a year now. You’re expected to live in complete and total isolation. Here, you’re mostly just ignored, sealed away, and forgotten.

After morning exercise I’ll try to do a little meditation. I don’t nearly as much done as I used to. At one point I was getting in up to 5 hours of meditation a day, but no more. Now, since I’ve started writing, I try to get in at least 30 minutes a day. On a good day I’ll get about 10 letters written, if I work non-stop. That doesn’t even put a dent in the load, but it allows me to thank at least a few people for their thoughts and support.

To relax I’ll put my headphones on and listen to music as I read for a while. I can’t take all the teenage angst crap that comes out these days under the title of “rock,” so I mostly listen to the classical station. I love Thomas Quasthoff. He’s a dwarf with the voice of a god. The first time I saw him was on P.B.S., singing 3 rare concert arias by Mozart. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. Any time I hear him come on the radio now I stop whatever I’m doing and give it my total attention. I also love to hear Hillary Hahn play anything, but especially Bach. I believe she’s the best violinist out there today, better than Joshua Bell by a mile.

As for what I read – everything. But my subject by far is history. I’m a history junkie. I used to think that I would want to major in psychology, but that was before I discovered history. Especially Military history – The Romans, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Civil War, etc. I love it all.

The second greatest time of the day for me comes at 6 o’clock – mail. That and talking to Lorri are the high points of my day, the things I look forward to. After reading it, I’ll do my second exercise period of the day. Sometimes I’ll do two or three hundred push-ups, other times I’ll run in place for 45 minutes to an hour. This may sound like a lot, but it’s really not when you consider it’s the only exercise I get. There’s no walking around all day for me. Exercise is followed by my nightly shower.

The shower here consists of a spout on the wall and a drain in the floor of my cell. Everything is soaked when you’re finished, so you have to get down on your hands and knees and mop up all the water with your towel. That’s the closest thing to cleaning supplies you will ever get.

After a shower I settle in for the evening. I may watch television if there’s anything on (We only have three channels.) or listen to the radio while reading or writing. Other than classical and opera, the only other music I really love are hair bands. There’s a radio station that comes on for two hours every Saturday night that I will never miss. They play Guns-N-Roses, Saigon Kick, Faster Pussycat, Kixx, L.A. Guns, Skid Row, etc. I’ll take that over Blink 90210 (or whoever the hell they are) any day. I just don’t understand why no one likes Iron Maiden anymore. Or Slayer. Or Pantera.

(editor’s note:I still have much affection for all of these bands. They are the heaviest metal from the truly great age of rock. My dream has always been to one day play Castle Donnington.)

I despise “American Idol.”

( editor’s note: I believe we can all agree on this.)

They turn off the lights at 10:30. If you could train yourself to fall asleep the second the lights went off, you’re still only going to get 4 and a half hours at the most. You can’t sleep straight through though, because you’re constantly awakened by slamming doors, schizophrenic inmates screaming, and rats trying to crawl into our bed as you sleep. The rats are fearless. The night before last I was awakened three times by rats crawling across my feet as they tried to reach a pack of crackers I was saving. The little bastards even chewed a hole in one of my good socks. I save my best ones to wear when Lorri comes every Friday, and now there’s a hole nibbled in one.

The only exception to my routine is Friday, when I get to spend 3 hours with my wife. From P.M. to 4 P.M. we’re locked in a cage together and left to amuse ourselves. Lorri can buy sodas, chips, and candy from a vending machine, and we have a picnic. Sort of. I nearly go into seizures of rapture when I take the first drink of Dr. Pepper, because I always forget how good they are. I can’t have them at any other time. We could buy them at the other prison, but here you drink nothing but water, water, and more water, unless you’re on a visit. It’s agony to have to say goodbye to each other every week after only three hours. It’s never enough.

That’s a typical day in my life, more or less. I’m certain I’ve left out 100 little details that I’ll remember later.

(editor’s note: Regrettably, I had to delete many portions of this letter, because I did not wish to endanger Damien, because he is not yet free, and the truth about where he is, what he deals with, the injustice and the inhumanity are incomprehensible. These revelations made public could far too easily place him in harm’s way. Those 100 little details, and more will be revealed, once justice is finally served.)

I’d better close for now and get busy. Busy taking a nap I desperately need. I’m sending love to you both, and we’ll talk soon.


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