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Letters from Prison

by Published on

IF I SHOULD DIE:A Death Row Correspondence.

134 pages. $10.95 (paper).

A few weeks before Christmas, 1990, inmate Andrew Lee Jones wrote his British “penfriend,” Jane Officer, that he wanted her to see a special issue of The Angolite, the award-winning newsmagazine of Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary. Officer had first contacted Jones through a Quaker program called Lifelines, established to communicate with death row inmates in the United States. “This one is very interesting – it tell you all about the electric chair – how the body be burn. It got pictures.” Seven months later, Jones would write, “I’m definitely hoping that I won’t be the last one to set in that chair. I got the feeling that they are trying to get one more before they put an end to it.”

The photographs Jones saw in The Angolite showed the burned body of Robert Wayne Williams, electrocuted in 1983. Attorneys at the Loyola Death Penalty Resource Center in New Orleans had attached the photos as exhibits in petitions challenging the constitutionality not of the death penalty itself, but of execution in Louisiana’s improperly functioning electric chair, arguing that it was cruel and unusual punishment, failing to meet “society’s evolving standards of decency.” (Two of the photos, said to show first-, second-, third-, and fourth-degree burns on the face and head, are reprinted in Life Sentences, a collection of essays by Angolite editors Wilbert Rideau and the late Ron Wikberg.)

The federal district court in New Orleans had ruled the chair’s use constitutional, Wikberg writes, but the Louisiana Department of Corrections asked the Legislature to consider switching over to lethal injection. The Legislature made the change in June 1991, but it would not become effective until September. On July 22, Jones did in fact become the last prisoner to be killed in Louisiana’s electric chair. “Death is death,” Jones had written to Officer a year before his own death, “no matter how it’s carry out – this state just believe in the death penalty.”

There were thirty-four men on death row at the time, Officer tells us in her introduction, each confined to “a six foot by nine foot cell and allowed out, alone, for one hour a day.” (In fact, Jones himself clarifies, the men were allowed onto the yard only three days a week; the other four days, “out” meant “on the hall.”) The names of some of Jones’ fellow prisoners recur in his account as their stories become intertwined with his own. He describes the emotional connection he has to them – “I’m use to not seeing my family but I look at some of these people here, who were use to seeing their family, I can see the hurt in their eyes” – but as a pragmatic matter, he keeps his distance: “I don’t have any friends here on Death Row. It don’t pay to have one because its no telling when he might get executed.”

The stories to which Jones finds himself connected form part of the invisible history which Jane Officer has helped to document here. One recurring name is that of Robert Sawyer. Diagnosis of Sawyer’s brain damage (possibly the reason for his aggressiveness) and of mental retardation (the reason for his language deficit) was presented before the pardon board; Jones notes the upcoming hearings and a series of execution dates. I attended Sawyer’s 1991 pardon board hearing, in which he answered a question about what pills he had taken at the time of the murder for which he had been convicted by saying, “I know the name, I’m just supposed to get it where it’s supposed to go.” Fred Kirkpatrick, whose name Jones also repeatedly mentions, lived for about a year and a half in cell next to Sawyer. Kirkpatrick once said, “At times I have been trying to help Robert understand things and it makes me think of someone that’s walking around a swimming pool trying to find the way to get into the pool…. You explain how to get in – then come back a little later – they can’t find it.”

In March 1993, Sawyer became the first man executed in Louisiana by lethal injection. Kirkpatrick was re-sentenced to life, but four other men named in Jones’ writings, in addition to Sawyer, have since been executed. Their names are listed at the end of Jones’ book. The last of them was handwritten into the proofs I received in January; it’s an ongoing story, of course.

And yet this is not a book about the “issue” of the death penalty; it is an unsensationalized look at the day-to-day reality of life on death row, largely ignored in the policy debates. Guards raise the razor wire on the recreation fence so that basketballs won’t get punctured. Jones shares reading material that Officer sends him with others on the tier: “You really put me out of this place” with A Journey through Wales, he tells her. He had been suspicious of her motives at first, because death row inmates often receive letters from people on the outside telling them that they should suffer even more, in his case for the rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend’s eleven-year-old daughter.

In addition to his letters, Jones keeps a journal, copies of which he eventually provides to Officer, telling her she can share his writings with others. He continues his journal entries when he is placed in the hole after another inmate flings shit at him; it’s called “the Hole,” he explains, because “It’s just what it is – a Hole.” While he’s in there, setting aside inedible food despite his hunger, he makes socks out of his shirt to keep his feet warm. Conditions in solitary are so bad that he becomes nostalgic for death row; back on the row he wishes he were still in the Hole. Meanwhile, he is so estranged from his family that he only finds out from the TV news that his sister had been murdered by her husband, who then shot himself.

There’s another aspect to daily life at Angola, too: “The cell that I’m in is right in front of the light and it stay on twenty-four hours. Since I been here, I have seen men lose their minds. I lost count on how many got executed.” But Jones’ principal worry about his own body is where it will end up. “Like, the only real problem I have is that if I do die here, would [my family] come and get my body? I don’t want to be laid to rest in a prison grave-yard…. I want my soul to blow free. So if there is a after-life, I won’t wake up looking at these bars.”

Jones was buried, at age thirty-five, in the Little Zion Baptist Church Cemetery in Lakeland, Louisiana. Between the time of his execution and burial, Angola prisoners began a work strike, when a group of them in the metal shop discovered that the table they were building was the new gurney for lethal injection. Protest spread from the shop to the fields of the 18,000-acre farm, where some 400 prisoners put down their tools. Guards confiscated a camera from Angolite editor Wilbert Rideau, who was covering the strike. Prison officials realized their error and contracted out work on the gurney. Prisoners went back to their routine, and six men have since died by lethal injection in Louisiana.

Perhaps it is inevitable that individuals remain invisible, even while the death penalty as an issue remains in the public eye. This year, the documentary The Farm: Angola USA, co-directed by the same Wilbert Rideau, was nominated for an Academy Award. But Rideau himself, once on death row and now serving a life sentence for a 1961 murder, dubbed “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America,” may be a victim of his own good publicity. He remains locked up despite repeated pardon board recommendations that he be freed.

On the other hand, supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal have gained international attention. Yet at a New Jersey benefit for the former Black Panther, now on Pennsylvania’s death row, the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine told a New York Times reporter that “if there was no question about Mumia Abu-Jamal’s guilt, we would not be holding this concert.” That’s too bad. Abu-Jamal deserves a fair trial, and he should not be executed – regardless of the trial’s outcome. (For information on supporting Abu-Jamal, contact: [email protected])

In a powerful afterward to If I Should Die, Sarah Ottinger, the attorney who handed photos of Robert Williams’ burned body to the Angolite editors, watches as Angola guards literally wash their hands of Jones’ body after his execution. “Jane, to these people here, they want us dead and forgotten. I know that they are trying to break our spirit but I won’t let them break mine,” Jones wrote. Several weeks earlier, he had mentioned that his mother might have found a way to get to the prison to visit him. “We are lost to the outside world. Right now they are working on a store to sell everything. The way it seem, they are just going to take us completely off the map.”

This valuable book can help keep them on it.

Mark Dow is researching a book about abuses in U.S. immigration detention centers. He lives in Brooklyn. He would like to thank Sarah Ottinger for helping piece together some of Louisiana death penalty history.

Contributions toward financial aid for law students who will practice capital defense in the United States can be made to The Andrew Lee Jones Fund and sent to Jane Officer, 1 Hemyock Road, Selly Oak, Birmingham B29 4DG.