A Strangely Fruitful, Frustrating Experience
It is the end of another January. I find myself locked away, facing the most unforgiving punishment any human being could possibly face: the “death penalty.” Consequently, I have just completed one of my many “mind clearing” observations of the outside world while looking out the 5 inch wide hole that suffices as my window. It is about 3 feet in length with bullet proof glass filing the narrow hole. It is not just another window to me as an average person might envision a window. These little peeks into the outside world happens to be a really big deal as well as a huge accomplishment of mine. An accomplishment that many others hope to attain one day.
When you are going through what I and so many others are going through on a daily basis, everything in life becomes enhanced and deeply appreciated; making this little 5 inch wide hole in my wall become more than a temporary escape inside my mind from this elegiac dungeon that is my reality
As I look outside my window, I notice how the snow is falling from the heavens, slanted to the direction that is my right, with the trees from the forest barely visible in the background. The entire wintry setting comes alive resembling a Hallmark greeting card in motion. During my continued quiet observation of nature’s wonderful attributes, the snow begins to slowly pile on the ground until the earth’s floor is nothing but a glittering, white surface untouched by trampling feet, untarnished by automobile fumes and tire marks, or made ugly by the daily operations of the unappreciative world. This visual masterpiece forces me to wonder, then bravely ask myself, how in the hell did I allow myself to get into a situation like this anyway?
I reside on the third floor of the building where I am being held captive. Whenever I look straight ahead out of my window without looking down towards the ground, I can easily see a few of the lighting poles that surround the institution and a small forest of leafless trees with touches of freshly fallen snow trimming the cold, empty branches. I am reminded of the emptiness that has crudely taken over my life without my permission.
When I first decided to write, the premise was going to be a daily recording of my everyday life on Ohio’s Death Row. After countless hours of carefully contemplating and brainstorming the idea, I decided that a daily journal by itself would fail to express, define, or capture the gravity of this situation that I (and others) are in currently. This is a direct result of the lack of little change on a day-to-day basis for a person sentenced to die. Every day in a place like this is very similar to the day before. Every day I feel emotionally strained.
I have gradually found through some of my own experiences and the careful observation of a few others I have daily contact with, most of our thoughts and feelings go on normal and abnormal roller coaster rides more frequently than I initially anticipated. One minute I can be feeling upbeat and motivated to extend my company to anyone available while ten minutes later I can feel as down, as low as human emotion will allow.
This prison cell I am being held captive in is not very big in either length or width. Thirteen feet between the door and the back wall and 6 feet, 7 inches from side to side. I just measured it myself, so the numbers are precise. I am 5 feet, eleven and 1/2 inches tall and I can touch the ceiling if I raise up on my toes another 2 inches. The bunk, the small desk, along with the toilet and the sink attachment leaves little room for maneuvering. If you keep your mattress on the slab of concrete that serves as your bunk (which is inconveniently attached to the wall in the back of the cell) the likelihood of you waking up and seeing the same things in the exact same way every single day is very probable. I, on the other hand, cannot get used to being confined, so I have mental problems with seeing the same closed environment each time I open my eyes. That is why I have my own small way of changing some of the first sights I see whenever I wake each day. I often put my mattress all over this little prison cell before I find a spot to go to sleep in hopes of somehow disallowing myself from becoming too familiar with these uneasy surroundings.
Yes, I know what you are thinking. Crazy Man! You are still waking up, locked up. Which is the absolute truth. I cannot dispute the obvious fact. The way I see it, If you wake up seeing the same things all the time, then you will wake up knowing that you are locked up without even thinking about it.
On the other hand, when you wake up in different spots, positions, or locations, seeing different walls from completely different angles, you first have to get acclimated to seemingly new surroundings before recognition is established. Not to mention the few moments of distraction trying to analyze what is different about what you are seeing.
I know it is not much, but it is my own way of trying to deal with the realities of my situation that I know I will definitely have to face once my surroundings become more familiar. Those few moments of total mystification at the beginning of my days are a welcome distraction from having to carry the burden that is my death sentence on my conscience.
Because my situation can result in such a finality of my existence, I have to steal moments throughout the day to just let myself cry sometimes. There are days I feel like crying more than on other days. I have no problem relenting to the desire to cry on any given day. For a distraction, I try to find things that will temporarily occupy my mind and thoughts from visualizing my lost future.
I have read a ton of books with a wide range of subjects to boast about. But none more than in the field of psychology. My hope, if it can be called as such, is to find out as much as I possibly can about the human mind in order to strengthen my own mind so that I will be better equipped and soundly prepared to deal with my current crisis. Also, as uncertain as my future may be, I find no clue as to the direction my life is headed. I believe it would be smart money and logical for me to prepare myself to handle any and all wonders life may have to offer. I know that my mission to one day liberate myself from the shackles of mental and physical confinement will never be accomplished if I allow myself to relax or become accustomed to or comfortable with despair.
I cannot accept becoming physically lax to the point that my body starts to interfere with my overall progression and ultimately manifest into another burden for me to regulate. This could possibly cause me to become a miserable, callous, unforgiving curmudgeon without a good word or thought for anyone around me, like so many people I come in contact with on a regular basis.
Death Row, for me, has and continues to be a very strange place. Very frustrating, but at the same time an extremely fruitful experience for me that I have most definitely not taken lightly by any stretch of the imagination.
This experience has been very strange to me. Even though every one of us on Death Row is potentially facing the end of our existence as we know it, I’ve noticed that many of us still find courage from somewhere to smile and display joy when something humors us. This makes me wonder: 1) If we here on Ohio’s Death Row are only sometimes laughing and smiling because we have become immune to our daunting finality? 2) Taking solace in the fact that there are other people going through the same struggle fighting for mental stability in an unsteady environment? Has a comfort factor developed meaning we are all one in the same? 3) Or are we as the human beings we are just displaying a piece of psychological resolve to live and function as the people we still see ourselves as? Regardless, we relentlessly face every day our situations, our circumstances, our surroundings, and our very possible elimination from this planet.
As an individual who is trying desperately to deal with being in a predicament as dire as facing the death penalty, I sometimes have to ask myself why I am not contemplating suicide as one of my viable options. Which reminds me of something I once read in a book called Existentialism by Robert G. Olson, a terrific author. He quoted another person who is a great author in his own right, William James. Mr. Olson quoted Mr. James on the consciousness of death saying, “No man is truly educated until he has toyed with the idea of suicide.”
Just knowing what I know about hard living, I have to respectfully disagree with Mr. James. To agree with such an overall presumptive statement would be saying that all of mankind, everywhere and every place on this planet, that has not toyed with suicide is uneducated. I strongly believe it is an unfair assessment on his part.
I believe what makes a person entertain ending their own life is based on isolated events, circumstances, and various situations experienced by those closest to them and themselves. There are many people that can and do live their entire life without experiencing dire predicaments or strenuous life altering events. There would be no need for them to want anything other than living their life to the fullest.
The question I have been forced to ask myself (after reading the afore mentioned quote by Mr. James) is what does that say about me and the other people dealing with similar circumstances who have yet to entertain the idea of suicide? I wake up every day to stare death right in the face yet I have never allowed the thought of taking my own life begin to cross my mind. This thought absolutely makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with me and the other Death Row inmates who are all in the same predicament? Those other Death Row inmates are the ones from whom I get my inspiration and my desire to live through the struggle. They are the ones I sometimes get the will and courage to fight against my potential murder. Are we ignorant or to be considered uneducated because of our featherbrained desire to live and exist? Or, could it simply be that we have reached that point inside our personal struggles as human beings making us unable to form the idea of no longer wanting to exist?
Being an active participant and living with the reality of my situation automatically causes me to think about my own death more often that I would like to. I know and understand that it is very possible or probable my death will happen before I expect it or accept it. I strongly believe the constant reminder of my probable finality makes me much more familiar with the actual reality of death. Even with the constant gloomy shadow of death lurking everywhere around me, the idea of my life coming to an end by my own hand is not something I am willing to think about or toy with. That idea is very, very bad for me to entertain even just for a micro-second.
I do not know, maybe it is true that I have solace in the fact that there are other people dealing with the same issues I deal with every day. Not that my intentions are malicious or sinister for I truly would never wish these very unfortunate circumstances on any human being. I am simply trying to make the point that other people experiencing the same things you are can be walking blueprints to be observed and utilized. People are like “how to guides” for getting yourself in or out of various mental or physical dilemmas. Just by talking with and watching people’s daily activities on Death Row, I’ve educated myself in ways to act and react to different personalities, weird characteristics, and many more situations. At the same time I work hard to maintain a level of mental stability and inner strength in order to deal with everything. If you watch other people close enough, they will eventually show you what to do and what not to do in every situation of your life’s journey. Observation is a golden key for the free world as well as for those living in a prison setting.
I remember telling this guy, whom I consider to be one of my closest confidants in this world of condemned people, that I seriously did not want to associate with other people here on Death Row if it was not going to be beneficial to me in some way. Granted, I was still really young. Even younger in regards to the psychological growth required for boys to be valued as men. To be completely honest, when I first made that statement, I meant a wide range of things. The point I was trying to make was if anyone wanted to be a close associate of mine, I had to get something out of the deal that would benefit me directly. When I looked at someone I had to see a fight or resistance to our situation burning in their eyes and fire quietly exuding from their mannerisms. If a person has given up his will to live, mentally and physically, what could they really do for me except to show me how to do the same thing. Was I wrong to think in such a selfish way?
According to nature’s first law, self-preservation, I was not! Today I still think that way to a certain degree. I say this because the will to live burns fiercely in every part of my existence. It is that fire that makes me reluctant to jeopardize the will to survive by allowing another person’s perception to become my own. I have to admit that this is a selfish way of living among other people who are desperately trying to deal with the same fate as I am.
As I continue to grow I have come to the realization that every person I come in contact with may not be able to give me what I need because of their own struggle to salvage some part of their existence. What I do now is focus more on what the other person may need to continue pushing on through life. It may be something as simple as a brief conversation. Something simple that allows him to spend a few moments outside his personal despair.
Do we on Ohio’s Death Row laugh and smile with each other because we have become accustomed to our daunting finality? Or are smiles merely pain masquerading as joy? The answer to the first question is most certainly yes, and most certainly no. The answer to the second question is maybe, sometimes. The grim fact is that nothing on Death Row is definite or certain. Practice often makes people accustomed to doing what they train to do. Not to say that we on Death Row are training or practicing misery and emotional detachment. That would be ludicrous. I am merely saying that most athletes have as many practices as possible in order to be able to deal with any situation or circumstance that might arise. A similar analogy would be someone preparing for a major exam. The more they study, the better prepared they are to succeed and earn the desired grade.
As the years have slowly passed by, I have become more in touch with my surroundings, my situation, and my unfortunate circumstance. I am not ecstatic about death being a major part of every day. It is what it is. Right now, this is my reality.
I would love to claim that I have yet to fall into institutionalized ways of thinking and living. But I can’t. Like most people entering prison, the first thing you tell yourself is, “I am not going to become institutionalized!” After being locked in an institution for eleven years, how can anyone not become institutionalized to some degree? I believe it is impossible not to.
To the everyday eye, it would seem as if I, and others like me, have successfully resisted the gravitational pull a place like this can have on our ways of living, thinking, and processing matters of importance or non-importance. We all actually believe we are O.K. At least until someone steps outside of the realm of reality too often. Only then will others notice something is wrong with a particular individual. But for the rest of us, we really are okay because we haven’t shown our diminishing sanity for others to see. Right? I think not.
We have a mental health doctor who comes around at least twice a week to ask each person on Death Row how they are doing. When he finally reaches my door, like everyone else who really believes they are fine, I tell him that I am doing just terrific. Am I doing as terrific as I believe I am? The better question is, am I reasonably equipped mentally to evaluate my own psyche and then accurately articulate an appropriate assessment as requested? I have to be honest and say no, I am not.
The prolonged dealing with a strenuous situation has not allowed me to formulate any new propensities. This causes my already fragile mentality to struggle, even when I try to seek personal grandeur in this inordinate, appropriated death environment. With such discouraging limitations on our intellectual or psychological growth, we on Death Row will likely be unaware of our diminishing capacities whenever it actually happens.
I believe this is where the artificial smiles and laughter come from. The smiles are psychological camouflage for having to endure another day inside these walls of the condemned, rejected, and abdicated. Again, I only speak for myself when I say that I sometimes have to mentally prepare myself before I can come out of my cell. I put on my “everything is just fine with me” look before I step into the gloomy world that surrounds me. Even when I know everything is not alright, I still have to act like they are for the sake of the other guys on Death Row. I cannot appear as if I am losing the fight. I also do not want administration or corrections officers (COs) to be looking at me sideways all of a sudden, because they think I am starting to become mentally unglued.
In places like this, smiles and frowns do not necessarily mean what they appear to mean, because you never really know how your situation will go on any given day, hour, minute, or second. Whenever the opportunity presents itself for one of us to laugh, we enjoy it. No matter how brief the time or shallow the subject may be. I believe we would be fools if we failed to take advantage of the psychological nourishment smiles and laughter provide to so many of us who are participants in death’s cruel game.
Frustration has been very instrumental as a motivating force behind my mental, personal, and intellectual growth. Without the fire I feel from being frustrated about my predicament, I would not have the courage to think.