Works of Justice Podcast: George T. Wilkerson on Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row
KATE CAMMELL: Hi George, thanks so much for joining us today. I wanted to start by just asking you how you are. I know the conditions are really fraught in a lot of prisons during the pandemic, so how have things been for you?
GEORGE T. WILKERSON: Well, that’s a good question. I’ve actually been asking myself that question since the pandemic began. As a writer, that’s one of the ways I try to process my experiences. So for the past several months, I’ve actually been just really thinking about everything that’s been going on, trying to pay attention to what’s going on on the news around me, the world around me, inside prison, outside prison. It’s just a whole new experience and a civil menace—and I don’t know, I’m not exactly sure how I’m doing with it. It’s a little bit overwhelming, but I have been trying to write a poem, to try to capture—there’s all these different little pieces—and maybe try to bring it together, if you’d like to hear it.
CAMMELL: Yeah. I would love to, if you don’t mind sharing.
WILKERSON: Okay. I called this, “In Prison During COVID-19.”
My self-isolating family no longer visits me. We must keep everyone at arm’s length, until we flatten the curve of yearning for connection, we must strap on masks before exiting our cells. Many of us shelter in place instead. We flinch away from those who cough or sneeze. The consequences of getting sick is a constant topic of conversation. Everybody knows the terms ‘medical’ and ‘attention’ only cohabit our sentences in prison like a loveless marriage. We disguise the few cleaning chemicals we get, filling Mellow Yellos, steady green bottles, with blue window cleaner, pink floor soap, clear disinfectant.
They become contraband if inside our cells. Camouflaged amid our sodas, we try not to accidentally drink them, again.
We stockpile ramen, coffee, batteries, soap, and stamps. This money from our families dries up. I could last, perhaps, two months. Mail takes longer and longer to reach us. Weeks sometimes.
If pressed, most of us would admit to feeling increasingly lonely, abandoned, forgotten. Nevertheless, we checked the news all day, praying not to recognize the names of people victimized while buying toilet paper. And then the pandemic began and change some things. First the prison prohibited all visitors.
Now my family couldn’t visit even if they tried. Next, the prison closed our barbershops, so many of us looked like mangy savages. Then the prison issued uniform masks to all of us — flimsy, black fabric behind which we can relax. The veneers of indifference we had kept flexed on our faces. To reward us for not rioting, the prison started playing movies from Netflix every day. Then posted a memo, to warn us that any noncompliance with coronavirus restrictions will be punished. That is, to get too close to anyone now, is to pay a $10 fine plus weeks in the hole. The prison is enforcing, not just encouraging, the social isolation. To gauge the mandated spacing, we may stand apart extending our arms toward each other. Our fingers may not touch. That six feet, the right distance is as long as the gravy is deep.
CAMMELL: Wow. That was beautiful, thank you so much for sharing. I really resonated with so much of that. I think the isolation and the fear and that constant want to check the news is really overwhelming. Also, I really loved the line about how they’re trying to reward you not writing and playing Netflix to keep you distracted. So I’m glad you’re still finding time to write like that, because I think it’s important that you’re documenting that. That’s awesome.
WILKERSON: Sure. ’Cause one thing I’ve seen out there, it’s all this emphasis on the consequences of all this social isolation. And I’ve heard a lot of specialists on the news and on NPR—you know, psychologists describing just the detrimental effects of just the isolation. And I was like: That’s what prisoners go through all the time, even before this pandemic. So I wanted to create this sympathy between the reader outside of prison and then the person inside of prison, and just show all these things that people can resonate with are actually just the everyday way of life in prison. And the pandemic just made it worse.
CAMMELL: Absolutely. Yeah after this, I hope at least people have more empathy and sense of connection. And in the midst of all of this, congratulations to you on publishing “Crimson Letters.” That’s so exciting, and your essays are really beautiful contributions and just powerful accounts of your life that are leading up to your incarceration and your experience on death row. I just want to ask you what it was like writing the book, and if you could share a little bit about your contribution.
WILKERSON: Well, one thing about it is, there are five of us who contributed to that book, and I’d have to say that Tessy probably has made hands down the biggest contribution. Even now, she’s still working on the book. These little things that we do are nothing compared to all the work that she’s doing. But even so, there are a lot of obstacles for writing in prison just from the persecution that comes from the prison atmosphere—the hopeless, aimless, atmosphere that’s inherent in prison. A lot of the practical aspects of writing and getting them published—there are just so many obstacles. So I have to say it’s really gratifying to see a project to completion, to have participated in the planning of the book and then just troubleshoot each obstacle as it arose and just persevering in the face of wanting to give up and wanting to just throw in the towel so many times on the way. We had to keep encouraging each other.
It’s also validating because we can tell ourselves lies about what we think we are and what we want to be, and just try to psychologically self-medicate with these ideas about ourselves. But saying I’m a writer and seeing something from the publication is like the difference between someone saying something and their actions speaking for itself.
So it’s really validating in that sense. But also the fact that you guys are wanting to interview me and talk to me about my contributions to the book kind of makes me feel valued, as if what I have to say actually matters because being where I am, so much of what I say goes ignored. I mean, even my own family, I think, still in many ways see me as the immature guy that I was when I came to prison. So it’s sad to say that I’m still trying to convince them that I’m a different person now. And then there’s a sense of accomplishment I think that any writer would feel.
So, yeah, there’s just a lot that’s tied into the book, and it’s just a great experience overall.
CAMMELL: Yeah. I think that sense of validation is so important, so I’m glad that you feel that from this book. And I know that for me, too, writing has always been the way that I work through just understanding my own journey. And I’m wondering if you relate to that and if writing the book taught you anything new about yourself, or if it helped you work through anything that you’ve been struggling to kind of understand about your journey.
WILKERSON: Oh yeah, for sure. I think part of—I mean, it’s complicated—but one of the things I think that led me to prison was my inability to reign in my emotions. I would just be overwhelmed if I got angry or depressed; I just honestly mentally didn’t know how to process it, and writing is a great tool for processing what I’m going through. Like, if I’m trying to think through a problem, in my mind it’s just so complicated as it is—it’s easy for me to get confused if I just try to think it through in my head.
And, my prejudices or biases or my fears and desires, they distort what’s going on in my mind. And I think I came across a quote one time by Flannery O’Connor who said, “I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.” That just really resonates with me because writing, it’s almost like taking all my thoughts and dumping them into a Scrabble tile bag. So technically, all the thoughts are there in the bag, but in my head, it’s just really disjointed and not coherent. But when I write, it’s like I’m dumping those tiles out on the paper, and I have the ability to rearrange my thoughts and order my thoughts on paper. And as I reorder them on paper, I reorder them in my head.
So, I’m actually imposing order on my mind when I write. Writing just for me is a way to think and reorder my thought processes.
CAMMELL: Totally. I love that Flannery O’Connor quote. That’s great. And I know that “Crimson Letters” is actually banned in your facility. Could you share what it feels to have written a project that you can’t hold in your own hands or share with the people that you live with? And I’m just wondering if you’ve gotten any messages from people on the outside who’ve read the book and just about what it’s meant to them.
WILKERSON: Well, the fact that the book was banned, it’s both screwed up and validating at the same time. Because people think that we’re paranoid when we talk about how the prison will do just about anything within their power that they think they can get away with, anyway, to just inhibit guys from doing anything productive. And so the fact that they banned the book—and not only banned the book, but banned it for a bogus reason—it just sort of validates those claims and hopefully gives people on the outside evidence that these things actually do occur inside the prison system.
But it’s also sad because I can’t hold the book. Part of having it, and feeling like I’ve produced something, is the ability to hold something tangible in my hands and look at it and just kind of admire it like you would a trophy on a shelf or something, but I can’t do that.
It’s just an abstract concept. But I did get to hold it for a little while before they banned it, so that was pretty cool. I have that memory. But one thing that stands out about the second part of your question is, before the book was published, my own lawyers—I don’t know how the other guys, his lawyers were—but they were telling me I shouldn’t write, I shouldn’t do this project, and they were worried about the consequences of it. They were just really trying to discourage me from contributing to the book project, but I believe in testing.
PHONE OPERATOR: [interrupts Wilkerson] 60 seconds remaining,
WILKERSON: I believe in my coauthor. Do you want me to call back?
CAMMELL: Sure. That’d be great. Thanks, George.
WILKERSON: Okay. Okay.
PHONE OPERATOR: George Wilkerson, an inmate at central prison. This call will be monitored and recorded. Thank you.
CAMMELL: So I’m sorry I interrupted you in the middle of the question. Do you want to start the second part of the question over again, or just pick up from where you were?
WILKERSON: Okay. Okay. As it pertains to the second part of your question, one incident that particularly stands out there—I have gotten feedback from several different sources about the book—but probably the most dramatic one was from my attorney before the book was completed. It took us years to bring this project to completion, and we made my lawyers aware of the book, I think at least two years before we finished the project. So from that time on, they were just badgering me, to try to discourage me from going through with the project. They were worried about my case and how it might negatively impact my appeal process. But as someone who is genuine in this transformation process, as a spiritual person, I really believed in our project. And then the goal for the project, it’s not about money, it’s about getting a specific message out there and just demonstrating that, no matter how bad the crime, no matter how bad the person may be perceived to be, even if that were true about the people—you know, the prisoner—they can change, people can change. We really want to get that element of the message out there. And so I went through with the project anyway, and now that it’s been completed and published, now I’m hearing all these great compliments from my lawyers, and they’re just really encouraging me and praising everyone’s contributions and saying things like, how brave they thought we were to do this project. So it’s just been a complete 180 on their part, and that means a lot to me to see that they could change their perception, or that their perceptions of us and what we’re doing can change.
CAMMELL: Totally. And I think exactly what you’re saying about your writing trying to really humanize your experience and those of the people around you reminds me a lot of—in addition to the book, you’ve written a lot of really thoughtful first person essays, and one of them, “Limp Gray Fur,” received a PEN America award for memoir writing. The pieces about your neighbors in prison who were both dying of cancer and just how your relationship with them really challenged you to think about your own death, and one of the themes in the piece that really resonated with me, especially lately, is just your reflections on how meaningful small moments of connection with other people can be. I can only imagine what death row is like, but I definitely relate to those little moments just filling me with hope, especially in this time of isolation, and so I was wondering if you could share some other sources of hope for you right now.
WILKERSON: Wow, that’s a great question. Hope is such a big word that we throw around, right? I’ve thought about it, I’ve tried to define the word, and just the feeling, just really explore it, right? And what I’ve come up with is that hope is a pleasant feeling of expectation. So it’s like a reasonable expectation that a specific outcome will occur, so it’s goal-oriented. So spiritually, I have some goals to try to live a moral life and be a better person. It’s like you said, those granular moments—each presents its own obstacles and avenues to success.
And so trying to live a right life in here, where the culture is completely antagonistic toward doing the right thing, it’s almost hopeless if I’m trying to do it in my own power, because this was the attitude that I had that led me to prison. But being spiritual, I know I have access to a God who is stronger than I am. And so that gives me hope, because God offers to empower me to do the things that I know that I should do, but that I am too weak to do on my own. So spiritually speaking, that’s where I get my hope to do the right thing and to just be a better person.
As it pertains to writing, organizations like PEN and people like Tessy, specifically, give me hope. Because for a writer, we want to get our stories out there. We want to get our message out there, and being in prison, there are so many practical obstacles to doing that. We don’t have access to computers. We don’t have access in here to typewriters. I had, for example, won third in a poetry chapbook contest, and part of the prize was publication. The publisher there told me—and this wasn’t a prisoner writing contest, this was just a writer contest—so they didn’t know I was in prison until I actually won the contest.
So then when he found out I was in prison, the publisher actually said, “Look, if you can’t help promote the book, then I’m not going to publish you.” He’s like, “I’m not a charity, I’m not here to just do good deeds, I’m in this business for money. So if you can’t help promote it and help us sell books, then I’m not going to publish your chapbook.”
So it didn’t get published, obviously, because I can’t promote the book in the way that he was demanding that I promote it in a sense of going to book readings and traveling around and finding books and showing up at just poetry events and writers workshops. I can’t do any of that. But when PEN offers writers publication in your anthology, or people like Tessy come along who really are willing to take the bulk of the work onto their own shoulders and duties—things that we can’t do—that gives me hope. Because it says that, “Hey, someone believes in me, someone values what I have to say.” There are people out there who don’t just discard people who are in prison, people who actually invest their time, donate their time and energy, and just a lot of their resources to just giving us some of those inherent human needs of just being seen and heard and being able to connect with people out there. So I have to say organizations like PEN and people like Tessy just really help me, in that regard.
CAMMELL: Absolutely. And lastly, I’m curious what you have to say about the power of storytelling. Why do you think it matters?
WILKERSON: If you would have asked me this question five years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to answer it. But I think now as a writer, I see that storytelling is part of being human. For example, when a wife comes home from work, if she’s married, the husband is going to ask her how her day was at work. She’s going to tell him a story. She’s going to tell him about things that she went through throughout that day.
Or if a child comes home from school, the parent asked her kid, “How’s school?” And the kids are going to tell the parents some stories about their day at school. Or a doctor asks the patient, “How did you get this injury?” And the patient’s going to tell the doctor a story about how they got that injury. You know?
So storytelling is really just about communication, and it offers us the raw material to empathize with each other and to really get into the vicarious experience of others’ experience to help us get outside of ourselves. So I just really think that storytelling, change the name, is just essential to what it means to be human and to connect with others.
CAMMELL: Totally. Well, thank you so much, George, for joining us today and for your really thoughtful answers. I really enjoyed getting to speak with you.
WILKERSON: Thank you guys for this opportunity. I really appreciate it.