Death down south


“Why Alabama?” This was an oft-repeated question that I was subjected to, being a Mexican kid from California and knowing nothing but the good life in the coastal states. It was a good question.

I had the good fortune of spending this past summer in Montgomery, Alabama, working for the Federal Defenders Office. I had never been to the South, I’m interested in federal law, and human rights work is my driving passion, so I thought doing death penalty work in the South would merge all these interests nicely.

Indeed it did, and that’s why I chose Alabama for my summer.

So off I went to “humid Alabama,” but it turned out to be not quite so humid. In fact, it turned out not to be many things that I was expecting. The many warnings I received about “life in the South” turned out to be pretty much unfounded. The people were friendly, the food was great, and the weather was actually nice. Not nice in a California sort of way, mind you, but then again, what is? The Federal Defenders Office turned out not to be what I expected either. Nice offices in the finest high-rise in town, well-paid attorneys who loved their work, and a motivated staff that never seemed overwhelmed or unhappy.

Montgomery itself turned out to be a slow-paced small city with charm. There is exciting legal work to be done down there – in addition to the Federal Defenders Office, there was a fellow intern from Harvard working at Equal Justice Initiative (which focuses exclusively on death penalty work) and the Southern Poverty Law Center is also based there.

Unfortunately, the nightlife in Montgomery was nowhere near as exciting as the legal work, but my inability to make my dance club rounds was remedied by the many great places close to Montgomery: great state parks; the bigger city of Birmingham; the Alabama-Florida beaches; and, oh yes, Atlanta and New Orleans. The work was great and weekends were a blast. Plus all the interns, lawyers and staff were friendly and nice. What more could one ask for?

Of course, death penalty work is not exactly a line of work that can be considered “fun”. One of the more memorable moments of the summer was my visit to death row. I don’t know what I expected going in – I had never met a death row inmate and only once visited a prison. I went with an investigator from the office, Heather Barrow, a fiercely intelligent woman deeply committed to death penalty work, to interview two inmates. When we arrived, a sense of foreboding filled the place. The towers with snipers in them made me reflexively more deliberate and careful, and the barbed wire fence added to a feeling of inescapability. This, despite being there as a legitimate visitor.

Once we were inside, what struck me most were not the septic-clean looking walls nor the prisoners wandering around freely to do the cleaning, but rather the complete detachment in the guards and staff. They seemed empty, almost lifeless, as if they were there in body but not in spirit. Their attitude toward us smacked, if not of hostility, of complete indifference, even annoyance, at our being there, as if we were the neighbor’s dog that had wandered in and had to be tolerated until someone came to pick us up.

I wondered how the two inmates would receive us and what we would talk about.

I have to admit to being a bit shocked when the first inmate walked in without any sort of restraints on him. I suppose if we’re there to help him there should be nothing to fear, but I guess I expected that a prison that conveys “abandon hope, all ye who enter here” would not be so casual in allowing convicted murderers to share a room, alone, with visitors. Upon having this thought I then felt a bit guilty about this apprehension, which made for an odd set of emotions. Here I am, feeling guilty about the fact that I’m concerned a convicted murderer I’m there to visit isn’t restrained! Am I there to be of assistance or to walk in fear?

Still, that was a brief, fleeting thought. Once the inmate walked in, I realized that here was a fellow human being standing in front of me, deserving of as much respect and dignity as anyone else.

I just had to try and not think of the crime he was convicted of.

It was nice observing Heather engage him in conversation, as she has the ability to establish a quick rapport with a person. She put the inmate at ease rather quickly, and made him feel like he was being listened to and that this visit mattered. The same thing occurred with the second inmate. Hearing both of them speak about their experiences, particularly about life on death row, really brought home how horrible prison must be.

The first inmate struck me as very polite, a bit reserved, with a sense of acceptance as to his current state. He didn’t seem worried nor did he seem ready to die; he just seemed like someone who knew why he was there, and while he would like to get out, if he did not, then that would be fine too.

The second inmate seemed energetic and outgoing. He seemed like someone who got into many fights as a kid, but who generally tried to do the right thing. He did not seem like someone who thinks of himself as a guilty man. I found some irony in a comment he made about how dangerous the city of Mobile has become, being as it was a comment that came from a convicted murderer. Still, it pointed to a self-view of someone who is not a murderer. Although I met many people who were clearly guilty of the crimes they were accused of, this inmate made me doubt whether the legal system always gets it right. Alabama has the highest per capita rate of death row inmates, many of them black and almost all of them poor. Every now and then one reads about an inmate being exonerated. I had this nagging feeling that somehow the system had failed this man.

The stories told by the inmates of playing basketball with the other inmates brought home how achingly hard and lonely it must be to be in death row, or in any part of the prison system. There is little room for human interaction and community. Playing basketball is probably one of the few pleasures the inmates find in that sordid place.

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