ut Death Row Death Row’s Degradation By Philip Brasfield Tennessee Colony, TX FOUR YEARS HAVE passed since that May afternoon in 1977. That afternoon, following a 30 minute stay at the Diagnostic Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections, I was locked in cell ,number 216 on Texas’s death row. I was the 77th man to come and stay awhile waiting to die. Since then, I’ve had a reversal, a new sentence of Texas’s death row has more than doubled, as has the nation’s. There are now over 1,000 persons under sentence of death, nation-wide. We often think of other nation’s condemned as being political prisoners. In our country, however, we are more prone to believe that the man or woman condemned to die somehow deserve their sentences. We tend to believe that they are guilty because they have been declared guilty by a jury of alleged peers. It’s been my experience, however, that regardless of the evidence against an individual or the lack of evidence, a person condemned to death is little more than a political pawn. When the careers of both public defenders and prosecuting attorneys are built on the sensationalized capital cases and, when county and district judges are re-elected on emotion-laden cries for safer streets, less crime, and swifter, harsher punishments for offenders, the taint of the political arena enters the nostrils of those sniffing for justice for the offender and those members of society he or she has allegedly offended. Marie Deans of Amnesty International is quoted as saying that Texas’ death row is the worst she’s seen because, in part, Philip Brasfield’s prose and poetry has been published in numerous journals and periodicals. His life sentence for a second conviction of murder is on appeal. of its sterility and its lack of accommodations that would help make the often long waits for death less emotionally devastating for the condemned. I’ve never seen other varieties of death row. I remember though, that the 27 months spent in the concrete and steel embrace of Ellis Unit were the worst months of my life. It appeared that each facet of death row and the officers assigned there were specially tooled and trained to remind one of his or her lack of human worth. The condemned are, after all, the ultimate rejects of society . . . so valueless or threatening to the rest of us that they do not deserve to live. Once, when attempting to receive dental work, I was flatly told that I “didn’t need good teeth to die.” It was not until I was returned to TDC that the dental work was done . . . a year and a half after that dismal day. Not allowing relatives, friends, lawyers, or any other outside visitors to come into physical contact with the condemned further isolates them from feeling human. Being strip-searched before and after visits or short durations of “recreation time” tends to give the unspoken message that because one is on death row, he or she is not to be trusted and in fact, might be secreting a weapon of some sort on his or her person. Unit disciplinary reports will reflect the facts that death row inmates are far less likely to cause disturbances than the general population. Housed in squalid 9′ X 5′ cells devoid of any personal embellishments allowed by the administration, men and women are forced to endure years of seeing nothing but the grimy cement walls and floors of their cages, and the bars and thick reinforced “bullwire” that blocks the electronic pacifiers of wall-mounted television sets left blaring 14 to 16 hours a day. Adding the voices of others shouting conversations to one another and the radios with volumes vying for supremacy over the noise and you have a mere idea of the visual and auditory bedlam of death row. The routine is not even leavened by educational opportunities for the condemned or by occasional religious services. One might conclude that, because of their sentences and the “public desire” to kill them, these men and women we continue to warehouse for death in ever-growing numbers do not deserve learning to read and write \(as some cangospel might bring them with its possibilities of redemption. The human degradation is almost complete when one really thinks about those years spent in the tiny confines of a cell where you must sleep and endure hours of loneliness, fear and boredom; where you must eat your meals that are tasteless and often cold and contaminated by dirt and human hair; where you sit and hear the elected officials of this land say that the death penalty is a deterrent or that those condemned are “not like the rest of us . . .” or, “deserve to die.” And all the while you see the rest of the world go about its mindless business of preparing for global suicide, where death is schemed upon and calculated on a mind-boggling scale of premeditation. I hope that Marie Deans, Rose Styron other like them will continue to visit death rows across the nation. I hope that Amnesty International, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and other human rights groups I’ve been associated with and reinforced by in my struggle for justice will keep driving home the point Deans made so well in a Texas Observer article last spring: “What we are saying is that there is no justification for taking a human life.” \(TO, begin to affirm life by putting an end to the barbarity of death rows and capital punishment directed against individuals and whole countries, then we will have come one step further away from the cave and its darkness. In doing less, we only perpetrate the growing body count of these times. El THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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