Saturday, January 24, 2009

Writing For Their Lives: Death Row USA

BOOKS: Love, life and death on Execution Row

Writing for Their Lives: Death Row USA

edited by Marie Mulvey Roberts

University of Illinois Press, $19.95

IF I had nothing more to do each day than consider matters of life and death and all that happened in between from the confines of an 8ft x 8ft cell then I'd probably be a much better writer. I'd probably also go insane and hope to die before someone else killed me. The madness of death row in the USA is described in graphic detail in this collection of testimonies, short stories and poems. In addition to contributions from prisoners, included are accounts from people employed in the business of killing: defence lawyers, psychiatrists, spiritual advisers, abolitionists and executioners.

The journey to a horrific and excruciating death is documented from a capital trial to the point of execution through the testimony of the prisoners themselves and those who love, watch, listen and write to them. It is an uncomfortable journey, however far removed you may be from the ultimate destination when you embark on it.

Whether it is the careless humiliations heaped upon Martin Draughton's elderly and infirm mother by his jailers when she comes to visit him on death row in Texas, or the complicity of the guards in allowing a violent assault on Michael Ross, a serial killer from Connecticut, by another (non-death row) prisoner, conditions on death row mean it is nothing short of miraculous that residents make it to the death chamber at all.

When they do, prisoners can expect to be gassed, injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs that shuts down the vital organs one by one, a process that can take up to half an hour to complete, or electrocution, depending on which state condemned them to die in the first place. In many states death row prisoners are not allowed any form of socialisation with each other and some are even denied their choice of spiritual adviser if they do not practice a recognised, sanctioned religion.

Most moving, inevitably, are the testimonies of the prisoners themselves. Most do not question either their guilt or their fate, accepting their lot with resignation. It is a tragic expectation of American life that if you are poor or black – or both – then this is the way things have always been.

It is the accounts from those in a position to effect change that carry the most weight. These include an account from former Illinois governor George Ryan, who became so concerned about miscarriages of justice on his watch that he took the unprecedented step of commuting the death sentences of all death row prisoners to life imprisonment.

For anyone brave enough to wonder what being killed by the state entails, Erika Trueman details the final hours leading up to the execution of her friend Ignacio Ortiz. In stark prose she takes you inside the prison, allowing you to wait those excrutiating final hours with her before being taken to the death chamber.

"The curtain opened and we saw Ignacio. He was already strapped onto the gurney, with a white sheet covering him up to his neck. We could not see the straps that held him, nor could we see the needles they had inserted ready for the poison to flow. Ignacio lay still. His eyes shut and head towards the ceiling. An officer announced that there was no stay [of execution]. The microphone was switched off and the officer walked out without looking at the man waiting to die. Ignacio's head and chest heave up once as if he was choking. He breathes twice more, and lies still, his mouth slightly open. An officer came in and announced: 'Death at 3.05pm.' It was as if the man on the gurney did not exist, as if he had already gone, left his humanity behind like an old coat that one can just take off or put on as one pleases."

Very few books have the power to change the world. This book is unlikely to be the exception. And for that we should all be very sorry indeed.

(source: Tribune Magazine; Cary Gee)

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