What it’s like to live on Death Row, Part 2

This letter was written to an art collective who hosts art shows for Damien featuring his work to raise money for his Legal Defense Fund.  It’s similar to the Margaret Cho letter but is more bleak in tone and is more recent.  The Margaret Cho one was written in April of 2004 and this one was written in November of 2006.  It is from this website http://skeletonkeyart.com/?p=24

Here it is:

A typical day in prison begins with me getting out of bed at 7 A.M. and 8 A.M. Sleep deprivation is a tool the A.D.C. puts to good use, so you can’t get more than 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep at a time. For example, they don’t turn the lights off until 10:30 P.M., and then they turn them right back on at 2:30 A.M. This is because a great many of the prisoners in general population are forced to work in the fields all day, and they want to get them out there as early as possible. Death row eats breakfast at the same time, even though we don’t work the fields. They bring a plastic tray to your cell, open a slot in the steel door, and slide the tray in to you. They’ll return about an hour later, open the slot, and you slide the tray out to them. You can then go back to sleep, but you’ll be awakened several more times for various reasons.

After getting up for good at 7 or 8, I make myself a cup of tea and call my wife. We’re allowed to talk once a day, for 15 minutes. The calls cost an arm and a leg – a 15-minute phone call costs 15 dollars. The system designed so that they can make money off of you even as they try to kill you. Prisoners even have to pay tax. Every tube of toothpaste, every bar of soap, every candy bar – you pay sales tax on all of it.

After the phone call, we get an hour on what they call “the yard”. They yard is a concrete vault, a sort of cross between a grain silo and a dog kennel. During the summer it’s full of pigeons and mosquitoes. The exercise period consists of walking in circles for an hour, and then the guards take you back in to your cell. Lunch is served at 9:30 A.M. and is a repeat of the breakfast ritual.

Next I begin working my way through the letter pile. I’ll write two or three letters, then take a break to read for awhile, or to work out. Push-ups, sit-ups, jumping a homemade jump rope, yoga, or the little bit of Tai Chi you can do in such a confined space.

Dinner is at 3 P.M. Dinner is the worst meal of the day, because everyone is in such a hurry to get out of the kitchen. The other two meals are nothing you’d ever order in a restaurant, but the last meal has been known to cause near riots.

I then proceed to write a few more letters while Oprah plays in the background. There is a television in my cell, which picks up the basic stations – ABC, NBC, CBS, and on a really clear night PBS. The shower is also in my cell, a metal faucet on the wall and a drain in the floor. You can’t control the water temperature; you just push a button and get blasted for 60 seconds with whatever comes out. It can range from frostbite to scalding.

On Thursdays a priest comes from the nearby parish to hold mass for the catholic inmates. This consists of myself and two other inmates being chained hand and foot, placed in a room slightly smaller than my cell, and given an hour to have mass, say the rosary, etc. As sparse and dull as it may sound on paper, it’s actually a pretty fun event, and I look forward to it every week.

The only other time I’m out of my cell is on Friday, when my wife and I are allowed to see each other for three hours. This takes place in a cell in the visitation area.

I’m often working on projects – submitting my poetry to various literary journals and magazines, or doing paintings, drawings and collages like you’ll be able to see at the upcoming art show. Sometimes something will fill me with inspiration and I’ll be burning up inside until I can find a way to work it out. The last thing was the art and life of Remedios Varo. The inspiration that came from that is what made me start on my first collage. The poet Ogden Nash is famous for quotes “Where there’s a monster, there’s a miracle.” That was stuck in my head, too. So if you combine Remedios Varo and Ogden Nash you get monster themed collages. At least that’s what I got. So far the only person to see them is my wife. Not even my partner-in-art Anne has seen them yet, but I’m eager for people to get their first glimpse of them.

I obsessively write in my journal, and have filled quite a few volumes over the years. That’s something else I’d love to publish one day – “The Death Row Diary.” Just compile them into one volume. Journaling is like therapy for me, even while keeping a record.

I don’t watch a great deal of television, but I leave it on all the time for back ground noise. I like “My Name is Earl” and “Boston Legal.” For a long, long time I couldn’t watch anything that involved cops, lawyers, court rooms, etc. It was too much. I like “Boston Legal”, though. It’s smart. For the most part, television is trash. Brain rot.

When people ask me about an average day in prison, I never know what they want to hear about. My boring daily routine? The brutality, fighting, stabbings, and abuse? The executions? Or are they interested in the bright spots, the currents of magick that lift you up and makes you want to go on living, even in the center of a nightmare? I write about whatever comes to mind and hope it satisfies.

Be well. Talk to you soon.


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