“YOU CAN TAKE AWAY our names and replace them with numbers, cage and store us in conditions not even fit for your family dog, and exterminate us at your whim, but we are still human beings, capable of everything from love and beauty to violence and hate.”
– Thomas B. Whitaker. Mr. Whitaker is currently incarcerated on Texas death row (#999522).
“I HAVE ALWAYS HEARD that places such as this [death row] breed insanity, I never truly believed this before. I always though that one could hold insanity at bay by force of will alone. Then when one is in the position of coming within days of execution you realize that insanity creeps into you without you ever realizing it. How can I look into my mirror without seeing the insane person staring back at me? I had spoken to others that have stood here and lived past it, they told me that this would change a man. I always thought that I would remain constant whether they executed me or not. I have changed this point of view as I have now stood here and I have stared into the abyss, and I can honestly now say unequivocally that something has looked back from those dark depths. If I walk away from this date I am forever changed.”
– Kevin Varga. Kevin Varga was executed by the state of Texas on May 12, 2010. He kept a diary, “Death Row Journal”, during the last 80 days before his execution.
” I THINK THAT AS the day draws closer I will find myself thinking darker and darker thoughts. I want to wake each day with the news that I have been granted a stay, and each day that I do not is just another disappointment to my mental well-being. The only thing that one in my position looks for is those simple words, “You have been granted a stay of execution.” Without them I am just a corpse that hasn’t the sense to lie down and pull the soil over its head.”
– Kevin Varga. Kevin Varga was executed by the state of Texas on May 12, 2010. He kept a diary, “Death Row Journal”, during the last 80 days before his execution.
“I HAVE BEEN THINKING back on these past 14-years and I am trying to remember how many men have been executed, but it’s been so many that I have lost count. I know, at least, 250 men, some who were my friends, or most who I had met over the years. It was a sombre experience to be speaking to these men, knowing that in only a few days, sometimes the next day, they would be dead. Some accepted it, some didn’t. One man, whose image stays in my mind, I will never forget. As they were taking him out of our wing to be executed, he stopped at my cell to tell me “good-bye”. It was his eyes, his eyes were wide open with fear. I felt his fear (if that is possible to explain) it was so overwhelming. That, took place in 1997, and more than 5-years later, I still see his eyes.”
– John Alba. John Alba was executed by the state of Texas on May 25, 2010.
“I DON’T REMEMBER much of the first afternoon after my arrival at the Polunsky Unit [Texas Death Row]. There were strip searches, questions, more questions. The long walk down the central hallway which divides the six pods housing nearly 400 condemned men. The long slow walk through c-pod, all eyes on the new guy. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe lots of bars, and big burly tattoo-covered forearms connected to scarred, meaty palms. Shanks, cigarettes, etc. What I found was silence. Silence, broken at last by the sound of my door to 12CC-42 slowly sliding shut behind me. I had been hearing metal doors slam shut behind me for over 18 months in the county jail, but this door sounded different, almost silky-smooth. I had never been able to escape the thought that the echos of those doors had become an allegory for my life. My cell door, though, that noise resonated deeper within me. If a person could still hear the sound of their own coffin being closed over them, that’s what it would sound like. I remember clearly standing at the door, taking in for the first time my new 6 by 10 foot home, the cage that would become my retirement home where I would spend my golden years, to continue the metaphor.
I am twenty-seven years old.
I remember hesitating to take a step into my cell, as if moving inside would be acknowledging the horrible truth, and therefore somehow make it all real. The haze that had been hovering inside my head since before the trial was omnipresent. The headaches, oh the headaches, they felt like some massive screws at the center of the world were constantly grinding down, twisting, twisting, twisting down into the bedrock. I finally moved to my bed, and sat down. Four steps, I remember thinking. It took four steps. I felt myself go flat, that’s the only way I can describe it. To my shame, I let myself fall into that place I hate more than any other – that deep, safe place, where I am untouchable. My constant and only friend since my youth, my constant enemy that strips me down to nothing and leaves me there. You probably know the place; we all have one.”
– Thomas B. Whitaker, Texas Death Row inmate. Thomas Whitaker’s journal, “Minutes Before Six” can be read here.
“I ALLOWED MYSELF TO BE fingerprinted and then I was placed in the death watch cell. After I gained my composure I surveyed the room. It was one of the most intensely cold and numb places I had ever seen. It was a narrow room with about 4 other cells.
I was in the very first – just a few steps away from the death chamber. In front of my cell was a long table with drink containers and several Bibles. Straight up – it was like a funeral home. I couldn’t help but to again look towards the death chamber. It was a big steel door with a square window at the top. It was a one way mirror, so one could not see in. I just stared at it. I couldn’t help but to think about my good friend John Amador that was just executed hours before. I felt his presence with me. I thought of his last words which were so profound. I was in the Texas catacomb.”
– Kenneth Foster Jr., after his death sentence was commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole in August 2007.
“THEN MY THOUGHTS are broken when the warden comes into the death house [Huntsville Unit, Texas] to tell me what will be taking place when the time comes. He points to a door I can see from my cell and tells me behind that door is the execution chamber. When the time comes they will come and get me. If I can’t walk, they will carry me, but either way I’m going. He tells me the chaplain will be here soon.
The chaplain comes and tells me, while I’m on the gurney he will be there holding my ankle to offer comfort.
As these people talk to me, I know they’re people, but at the same time I think of them as something else or, in a bad way. As these thoughts just seem to hang there and it seems to be getting dark but it’s the middle of the day and there’s lights everywhere. Then I see the door that the ambulance will back up to, to pick up my body and that’s when it strikes me all over again, “this is it”. There’s no way to describe the pressure I feel as I pray they’ll hurry up and get it over with.
Every time the walkie-talkie bursts to life, a door slams, the phone rings, I nearly jump out of my skin. This is almost constant for six (6) hours. The chaplain tells me that if I hear rustling and movement in the back, he says It’s just the execution team getting ready and for me not to be “alarmed”, (they’re just coming to kill you. Don’t be “alarmed”! H.W.S.). They kept me “alarmed” for those long hours of torture.
I talk to the chaplain some while pacing the cell. I’m thinking I’m going to have a heart attack before they get me onto that horizontal cross with needles in my arms instead of nails. I’ve been broke out in a cold sweat for 2 hours. Can’t think. Just pace, pace, pace. Back and forth, back and forth. 3 ½ steps [The full length of the holding cell]. I can’t remember the subjects or details of anything the chaplain said, just a bunch of words.
I eat some of my last meal but I can’t taste a thing. I just look down and see that some of it is gone.
Six o’clock comes. Nothing. Pace, pace, pace those 3 ½ steps. Seven o’clock. 8 o’clock. Same thing. My mouth is so dry no amount of water can wet it. I know they’re going to open that door any minute and confront me with that gurney and those needles. This is it. This is it. Every time I blink the sweat out of my eye I see it open, I think, that door.”
– Billy Frank “Sonny” Vickers. Billy survived an execution date on December 9, 2003. He waited until midnight (time when the death warrant expires) in a death watch cell next to the execution chamber at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Billy Vickers wanted to share his experience with as many as possible. Billy and Hank Skinner were in cells next to each other and Billy no longer had the strength to write. He asked Hank to transcribe their conversations about the last weeks of his life, between two execution dates. Billy was executed on January 28th, 2004. The full text of Billy Vickers’ narration, “Three and A Half Steps”, can be read on Hank Skinner’s blog here (Death Row News).
“WHEN I GOT TO the Walls unit everything changed. They were exceedingly humane to me and I was grateful for that. I had issues with Chaplain Hart but we talked about it and settled it amicably. I’m not convinced that my concern about their practices weren’t valid but the solution he offered suited me fine and otherwise he was a very helpful and calming presence there in the domaine de la mort (domain of death).
They’d told me I could get in my last meal only what they had on hand in the kitchen (…) Chaplain Hart told me prisoners prepare the last meals. I asked him to be sure and tell them how much I truly appreciated that food. I ate as much of it as I could and if I had gotten another hour or two, I’d ate it all. I was hoping the Supreme Court wouldn’t rule until about 8:30pm-9:00pm. Then either way, I’d a really been fat and full. That was the best spread I’ve seen since I went on bench warrant in 2005. Even at that, what I ate in 2005 came out of a restaurant on the way to Amarillo and this last meal was all homemade. It was the best food I’ve had in 13+ years, hands down. My eternal thanks to the convicts who cooked it. (…) ’m told that most guys who go over there can’t eat their last meal. Too nervous. I was calm as a cucumber. I truly felt like I had God’s hand on my shoulder. I can’t say why but I also had the idea that there were thousands of prayers being said for me, all over the world. Like I said, I had God’s hand on my shoulder and all the love and support in the world to back me up, so I was ok. I think some of the guys who’ve died over there all alone and it makes me want to cry. There is definitely a spiritual pall, an ethereal darkness over that place. I can “see” shades and remnants. I brought their psychic spoor back here with me. For the past 3 days I’ve slept a lot and dreamed of many who died there; all of whom I knew and whom I called an associate or friend.”
– Henry “Hank” Skinner. Mr. Skinner’s execution has been halted by the US Supreme Court minutes before he was to be put to death by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas. Mr. Skinner is currently expecting a court decision on whether he is entitled to have DNA testing performed on evidence used at his trial. Mr. Skinner has always maintained his innocence. Visit his website for more information on his case.
“IT’S STRANGE when they near your cell. You lose all your strength and you are like this. You lose all your strength as if a rope is dragging it out of you. Then the footsteps stop in front of another solitary confinement cell and when you hear the sound of the key turning you feel relieved.”
– Sakae Menda, who spent 34 years on Japan’s death row before he was found innocent and exonerated.
“FROM THE MOMENT you are in that cell, when they tell you you’re going to be electrocuted, you contemplate it all the time. It never leaves your mind, and they never let it leave your mind.”
– Jay C. Smith, who received 3 death sentences for a triple murder he did not commit, acquitted after spending 6 years on Pennsylvania’s death row.
“SOME CAN’T STAND being in the tank where deathwatch is kept. You see your friends and everyone march to their deaths from there. That’s your and my ‘REALITY.” Three months is not enough time for a person to really set his life and prepare his loved ones to say goodbye. If you care you have to be strong and endure and learn to live with this reality on your shoulders and all that bravado talk of going out fighting is another joke. I’ve seen all sorts of men march or be carried; hard solid men as well don’t waste your time in such fantasies. You’re different? Maybe you wont understand while you face death through anger. I’m not a saint nor weak, a real man is telling you this. Why? Cause there is people that will be affected by everything that happens to you and as long as those people are in your life you will at the end remain as a human and not an animal with no emotions. When a person really doesn’t give a damn fuck its very rare and that person becomes numb/hollowed inside, no joy, no tears, nothing. When you reach this level you can then say you don’t give a damn. If you get visits or mail it completely wont matter. So if you stand at the door or yearn for a date that someone has told you they’ll visit you. You do give a damn.”
– Miguel “Paisa” Paredes, Texas Death Row inmate #999400.
“OUR SITUATION here on Death Row is a cruel dilemma indeed. We don’t want to die, but at the same time, we don’t want to continue having to live like this for the rest of our lives neither. The thought of giving up has frequented my life on several occasions. It is a natural tendency in an abnormal environment. Every element of our circumstances are bent towards breaking us. The concrete, the steel, the bland colors of our surroundings, the bitterness that accumulates amongst the men living with you, the sensory deprivation (ie: no touching or being able to just talk with someone when you want or need to), the lack of spiritual guidance, etc. The psychological blueprint of this place is meant to drive one insane, or to the point of wanting to die. That is all they want from you: insanity and then death.”
– Randolph “Amun” Greer, Texas Death Row inmate #999042.
“I MISS THE STARS. You know, I haven’t seen the stars in years and years and years. I miss the rain. I miss food. I miss all these things. But what it comes down to the most — and this is the thing that will scar me the most and that I’ll carry with me as a scar the longest — the thing I miss the most is being treated like a human being.”
– Damien Echols was exonerated and released from Arkansas’ death row after spending nearly two decades behind bars.
“THE TRUE REALITY of life on death row is that every day is a life of fear, regret and humiliation. As a death row prisoner, my every day is consumed with the stress of waiting to die. Every moment is a countdown awaiting a court decision. I’m on edge every time my name is called for a legal visit. I’m afraid of receiving that letter stating that another round of my appeals has been denied, bringing me closer to that final moment. This is no life of leisure.
I am a man who is not trusted. Not believed. I am always a suspect. When an infraction is committed, I have no presumption of innocence. I’ve lost friends and associates in society who now view me disgracefully as a convicted murderer unworthy to live. I’m housed in a special management unit solely for the condemned.
I don’t enjoy the privileges that most general population prisoners are allowed. While most are allowed contact visits, all of my visits are behind glass with absolutely no contact. While other prisoners are allowed frequent telephone privileges, I am permitted one 10-minute phone call a year to my relatives. There are no rehabilitative programs to occupy my time like other prisoners are allowed. No AA, educational classes, no jobs.
Instead, I live in a cell the size of a bathroom. My window provides a view only of the prison. I am allowed no more than two cubic feet of personal property, and my every day is spent literally waiting to die.
Since I have been here, I have witnessed many men escorted to the death chamber over the years never to return. Mr. Hembree has no idea what it’s like to witness this walk of no return, and the hushed terror stamped into the eyes of every face that sees it.
This is no life of luxury, and I am no gentleman of leisure. I live every day with the fear of standing before my God and accounting for my deeds. My days and nights are filled with regret. Regret for the hurt I have caused and the lives I have ruined, including my own.
Any comforts that I have been afforded, whether it’s the privilege of being allowed to watch television or being protected from the elements of the cold or heat, are mercies that I am grateful for. Not something that I am audacious enough to say I deserve, but a mercy waiting for someone to die.”
– Michael J. Braxton, Raleigh, North Carolina. Michael Jerome Braxton, 39, was sentenced to death for the 1996 killing of another inmate at the Caledonia Correctional Center in Halifax. At the time of the killing, Braxton was already serving a life sentence for the killing of another person in a 1994 robbery in Wake County.
MAY 22, 2013 – I have 21 days left to live. The fickleness, the arbitrariness, the fleeting nature of life itself is on display daily throughout our world but as good an example as any occurred here on Monday morning when, as I was being dressed out here on Q-Wing for a visit, a sudden radio call brought the wing officers rushing upstairs where they found a prisoner (non-death row) hanging in his cell. After 20+ years in prison this guy (Earl) had finally given in to the utter hopelessness that can seize the heart and spirit of any man mired forever in an American maximum security prison. The irony wasn’t lost on me that while 3 of us on death watch are fighting to live, this poor soul, living just 10 feet above us, stripped of all hope, had voluntarily surrendered his life rather than continue his dismal existence. When nothing but a lifetime of suffering lays ahead – with no hope, no promise, no opportunity to change your fate – the idea of utter annihilation can come to look appealing in contrast. When everything has been taken from you, the one thing you have left, that nobody can take away, is the decision to live or die. In that context choosing death can look like freedom…
Today my neighbor, Elmer, went on Phase II of death watch, which begins 7 days prior to execution. They remove all your property from your cell while an officer sits in front of your cell 24/7 recording everything you do. Staff also performs a “dry run” or “mock execution”, basically duplicating the procedures that will occur 7 days later. This is when you know you’re making the final turn off the back stretch, you know your death is imminent, easily within reach, you can count it by hours instead of by days. Right now I’m on deck; when Elmer goes I’ll be up to bat (that’s enough sports metaphors for now)…
– William van Poyck, Death Row Diary. William Van Poyck was executed by the state fo Florida on June 12, 2013. Van Poyck’s case garnered international attention because he published three books and maintained a blog while on death row. He regularly wrote to his sister about his life in prison, and in recent years she published his letters to a blog called Death Row Diary. In these letters, Poyck wrote about everything from the novels and history books he was reading and shows he had watched on PBS to the state of the world and his own philosophy of life–punctuated by news of the deaths of those around him, from illness, suicide, and execution.