A few days ago the young man whom I have visited for the past 20 months had his death sentence set aside. He now has a life sentence without parole with opportunity for appeals. It is a blessing for him to know that the state will not be killing him.
I began this journey with him on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday because I thought it to be a fitting way to honor Dr. King. I was right about that choice, and I am delighted to have made it. I had no idea what to expect. I had never been to death row before even though I am a committed death penalty abolitionist. I realized some time ago that it was not good enough to only be opposed to it or to write about it, but that what I really needed to do was to walk along the path with someone on death row in order to make my witness against it more forceful.
There is something to be said for the experience of going into a prison and having all of those heavy doors close behind you as you’re checked in. On my first visit there I got stuck in the small elevator that goes up from the first floor to the second. Though I was only in the elevator for about 10 minutes before they got someone to come and get it started again, it seemed much longer. But it did give me some sense of what it is like to be in a very small space without any control over what is happening.
Now I never pass Exit No. 201 without thinking about my friend, a young man, who could be my son and his life in a small cell -- and the life that he has to live. Before his death sentence was set aside, I wondered what it must be like to live each day knowing that one day someone would issue a death warrant for him. It is difficult to imagine how one can go on each day under such circumstances, but it is possible. A part of what makes it possible for my friend is his faith. In addition to it is his love for books. He laughs about reading labels and anything with words because he loves to read.
On some of my visits we made each other hungry talking about the different kinds of food that we had cooked in times past. He is quite a chef and enjoys good food. His culinary talent and imagination help him to create a few tasty things out of the food that is available to him from the prison store and from the packages of food that can be ordered periodically.
I don’t sit in my sun room with my ceiling fan and air conditioning anymore without thinking of my friend living in this unbearable summer heat without any real means of relief. They have fans at the end of the hallway in their cell block but they don’t offer much relief from the heat.
The rules change a lot in prisons and for many of my visits, a garment or something that was acceptable on a prior visit can prove to no longer be acceptable. My experience with this practice is a tiny sample of what it is like to live without having control over the simplest parts of your life. Prison is punishment by virtue of the fact that prisoners have lost their freedom. All of the other things such as bad food, no air or poor heat, lack of adequate medical care and arbitrary ways of enforcing the rules are not necessary in order to create the punishment.
Both of us are better because we are on this journey together. We are deeply grateful for the work the lawyers did for him, but most of all for the grace that brought this blessing.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.