Hold the Gate 3… A visit to Death Row.
As I walk out of my apartment at 03:30 in order to make the 6 hour drive up to a prison half way across the State to see a client, I pass nighttime revellers making their way into the take away joints, and wonder why I choose to drive a 12 hour round trip to spend 2 hours with a client when I could have spent the night in a bar and now be going home to bed. The answer is that my client is facing the death penalty and has not had a single visitor other than me for the past 4 years. His parents have died and his sister and her children decided to move out of State due to the death threats they received. He has been granted a resentencing hearing, this is his one chance of not having to go back to Death Row.
I’ve seen the tv documentaries and series depicting Death Row, and I have to say that’s not the Death Row that I see. When I arrive at the prison, which is in the middle of nowhere, I am searched and then searched again as though it is expected that I will have contraband on me and the corrections officers are so disappointed that they haven’t found it, that they search me again, just to prove a point. The reality is that I’ve been going into prisons for over 20 years, I will never have anything in my pockets, nothing round my neck or wrists, I will be wearing jeans and a long sleeve top, showing as little flesh as possible, and will carry a pad and pen. In high security prisons anything is a commodity, even a paper clip or an elastic band, or sneaker laces. The only commodity I have is me, and I hope that my client believes that I am a more valuable commodity working on his case that being held as a hostage!
When a Death Row inmate is moved, the whole prison is placed on lockdown, hence the other prisoners do not like the Death Row inmates. The corrections officer tells me that they are taking me over to Death Row as the conference room is busy. It’s the first time I have been to this prison and I assume that they are saying this to scare me. The reality is that, as I haven’t been to this death row before, I am desperate to see inside it and see what it’s like, and if it’s as bad as I’ve heard.
We walk through the prison wings, through one locked door after another, I am aware how empty the prison seems. Usually when I walk through prisons I come across inmates everywhere, polishing floors, pushing laundry carts, carrying boxes for staff. But today, as I’m being taken to Death Row, there is noone around, it seems eerie. It really is a lock down. No wonder the rest of the prison inmates don’t like the Death Row inmates.
We arrive at Death Row and I’m struck by the fact there are more corrections officers in this wing than anywhere else, but no inmates. They are all locked away behind cell doors. There is a table in the middle of the room and I’m told to sit there. It’s a very hot day outside and there is no aircon in this wing, Infact there is very little air in this wing. There are a couple of electric fans on the wall and the corrections officers have angled them down towards their chairs. To say it’s stifling in the wing is an understatement.
I notice that every other cell is empty, so that the inmates can’t even talk to the person next to them. I know from conversations with previous clients who have spent time on Death Row, that they are not allowed a colour TV, they can buy an overpriced black and white one which only shows the State run channels….that is the Government channel and a religious preaching channel. The inmates are locked up on their own for 24 hours a day, they usually get one hour of yard time a week, and that is usually in the yard on their own. They can have a couple of phone calls a month, but very few have anyone to call. There are no cats, or birds, wide screen TVs, communal areas, basketball matches.. These seem to exist only in tv documentaries. My client hasn’t had a hot meal since he arrived at Death Row as his food is driven over from the main wings, by the time it’s pushed though his door it is always cold. A few weeks ago his cell was searched and his mattress, sheet and pillow taken, he still doesn’t have them back. He is given postage stamps by the State, but isn’t allowed a pen or paper. His only book permitted is the Bible. Effectively Death Row sends my clients mad.
My client is brought out to the table, shackled at hands and feet, and round his waste. The hard cuffs on his wrists don’t even give him the flexibility to use a pen to sign the forms I have brought with me. I start to ask that my client is unshackled, but he gets very nervous and asks me not to make a scene. As I sit with him I am conscious of corrections officers walking past, much too close, as if to antagonise him, and they then start coughing and muttering things under their breath. So now I’m antagonised! I stand up and say “seems a lot of you in here have a cough, next one who disrespects me while I’m sitting with my client gets to walk the Green Mile to the Warden’s office, now get these cuffs off and move out of our personal space.”
The client looks stunned, the corrections officers stand rooted to the spot and then one comes over and says “he’s a killer, if he kills you, don’t come complaining to us.” The irony seems lost on him.
My client is unshackled and all the corrections officers move to the end of the room, obviously hoping that my client is going to come true on their warning. My client smiles and says ‘no one has ever fought for me before.”
We get to the end of the visit, the client hasn’t killed me, and I’ve ascertained that he went to Death Row aged 18 for a domestic killing. He shot someone who was beating on his mom. The problem was that he is black and the guy he shot was white, and the area they lived in still had segregation until the late 1970’s so at the time of his offence race issues were still prominent.
I could petition the Warden to get my client a mattress, sheet and pillow, pen and paper, but I know it will be of little use. Instead I submit the form I’ve just had my client sign.. The transfer form to get him moved to a jail closer to me so that I can work on his case. A jail that isn’t luxurious, but where he will at least be able to talk to other people.
Meanwhile, I have the unenviable task of trying to prepare a sentencing package for a 30 year old case in which the previous lawyer, who was not a criminal lawyer, didn’t turn up for the sentencing hearing as he was working on a private civil case, but in which the judge didn’t feel the client was sufficiently disadvantaged to postpone….
* I subsequently agreed a sentence of 40 years incarceration (with life probation) with the prosecutor… After all those years on Death Row, my client’s health is so bad I doubt he will make 58, but at least he has some hope, he has a prison job, and the State has been saved the exorbitant amount of money that it costs to keep an inmate on Death Row each year