by Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara), incarcerated since 1982 on San Quentin's death row
There are certain comforts we include in our life to make it enjoyable. I do not criticise anyone for that. Material things might bring some comforts, but when those material things disappear, or are not present - what you truly value must come from within. I recognised this early on in my prison experience, that no matter where I was housed or what I didn't have, my value stems from what I build inside of me. And no amount of incarceration or oppression is going to take that away from me.
If you draw water from a well and do nothing to replenish what you withdraw, the well eventually will become empty. It is the same with inner strength. If you don't build up reserves and perform rituals to expel the toxins that latch onto the subconscious and reinforce the essence of who you are on a daily basis, you will easily fall prey to the litany of vices that destroy the soul. I refuse to let that happen. I exercise regularly and meditate every day. I try to eat healthily, I read literature that illuminates, enlightens and transforms my mind. I check in on myself and take inventory of myself to make sure I'm okay.
We are social beings and need social interaction and stimuli to reinforce our communal spirit. Prison has a way of isolating you and decapitating human connections to the social world. The reality is, any person who serves a long period of time incarcerated will lose social bonds and relationships he once knew. People change and sometimes changes they make exclude you from their life. People will grow older and some will pass away. Sometimes people retreat into their own world and as time goes on you become a fading memory. Recognising this, I fight to renew my connection to the outside world. My writing has facilitated this prospect.
Writing is like breathing for me. It allows me to explore the inner region of my soul and discover new things about myself. Writing, like reading, allows me to travel without moving. Im able to escape the circumscribe mantle of my confinement and connect to the social world Ive been separated from. Every day I wake up with a central purpose that motivates me to keep moving forward.
Anytime you create or produce something like a poem or writing, naturally, you want it to do well. the fact is, I can't control or determine the outcome of my work. My job as a writer is to create the best writing I can and let the rest take care of itself. I hope for the best, but I can't be attached to the outcome.
Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara)
Talk by Steve Champion at exhibition of art & poetry from San Quentin death row - King's College London
20th - 23rd November 2017 - King's College, London
Between 20th and 23rd November 2017, An exhibition of art & poetry from San Quentin's death row, curated by ArtReach , was displayed at King's College London by the King's College Health + Humanities Society who celebrate the diverse communal interests between health and the humanities. On Thursday 23rd November, there was an evening of talks at King's College, as well as an opportunity to view the artwork & poetry. Steve Champion (aka Adisa Kamara) gave an introductory talk via prison phone from San Quentin - telling a little bit about himself & his creative process as a writer - and also about his fellow inmates, the artists incarcerated on death row. You can listen to his talk here:-
At the end of his talk, Steve recited a poem "Beyond the Walls" which he wrote whilst in Solitary Confinement. The poem in full is below:-
Beyond the Walls
The dream hovers
where even the senses can’t touch it.
Separating itself from the mind,
it dances upon the moonlit surface.
Like art, unfathomable in its reach,
rising like the morning mist,
only to disappear somewhere in the vastness.
Dancing to the mystic mind.
Reaching, beyond the walls.
Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara)
by Steve Champion - incarcerated on death row San Quentin since 1982
Below is an excerpt from a chapter of the memoir “Dead to Deliverance: A Death Row Memoir” written by Steven Champion, a former member of the Crips street gang who is on death row. Tom Kerr, associate professor of writing at Ithaca College, edited and published the book.
The public, with its hunger for revenge, does not want to hear about personal acts of atonement by people who have been sentenced for a crime. Acts of atonement by the condemned are usually viewed as a ploy to save his or her own life — not as a genuine act of redemption.
People on death row are deemed the lowest of the low. Many people believe death-row prisoners cannot be “reformed” because they are “unformed” as human beings. Executing the condemned is not viewed the same as killing a human — it is chalked up to society’s attempt to rid itself of its toxic waste.
Proponents of capital punishment freeze condemned-to-die criminals at the worst moments of their lives; to justify their execution, they must be barred from redemption. But history is full of individuals who have made major mistakes but manage to turn their lives around and make significant contributions to humanity.
Many religious people have mixed emotions about whether a murderer can be redeemed. But when it comes to biblical figures like Moses, King David and Saint Paul, they are quick to make exemptions. In fact, these figures are highly revered around the world precisely because society has determined that their contributions to humanity outweigh their crimes.
Why are some people worthy of redemption while others are denied it? Why are death-row prisoners damned as unrepentant criminals incapable of transforming their lives? Redemption is not reserved for some. Redemption is a road map for reconnecting to one’s humanity. If redemption is not meant for people who have lost their way and hit rock bottom, then the word ought to be stricken from every dictionary. Redemption means regaining something you have lost through improving your life. Many people, in and out of prison, never atone for anything; they go to their graves defiant and unrepentant. A person who has the courage to look within himself and decide to transform his life ought to be encouraged, if not applauded.
Some recent recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize were not always seen as champions of peace. In 2001, both Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk became Nobel Peace Prize laureates. De Klerk was the head of an apartheid government that openly oppressed, discriminated against and murdered blacks, and considered Mandela a terrorist. Mandela once headed the guerrilla wing of the African National Congress, which believed in armed violence. In 1994, both Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East. Prior to receiving the Nobel Prize, Arafat was labeled a terrorist. Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister of Israel and sanctioned violence against the Palestinians. All of these people were viewed unfavorably in their lifetimes, but were able to transcend their mistakes — because society accepted the fact that they were not the sum total of their mistakes.
No one is.
The transformative power of redemption can change anyone who is sincere about changing. It makes no difference if a person lives in a temple in Tibet, an ashram in India or a prison cell on death row. Your location should not diminish the value of your redemption.
Steven Champion has been on California’s death row for 36 years, since he was 18 years old.
Originally published by the Ithacan in 2010
By Gerard G. Schultz Jr. #R55165, Pontiac C.C., PO Box 99, Pontiac, Illinois 61764
For over a decade now, Gerard has been in Illinois DOC solitary confinement & supermax prison - locked down for 22-24 hours per day.
Unable to be perceived by the outside world and sometimes unable to be perceived by our own selves. We are an estimated 2 million, but the sound of a pin falling to the ground makes a much louder sound than 4 million teardrops, incessantly falling every second of every hour of every day for the “phantom souls” that are entombed in their purgatory state of existence inside correctional facilities across the United States.
We are “phantom souls”: the men, women and children incarcerated from all realms of life. Yes, it can be said that we’ve made mistakes and wrong choices in our lives’ quest. It can be said that in more cases than one, we deserve to be imprisoned, some of us for the rest of our lives. It can also be said that many of us have disappointed and let down the people of our own communities, but has it been said that we are human beings too? Has everyone forgotten that we, too, are your parents, spouses, children, relatives and friends? Has it been said that we, too, still bleed and even breathe the very same air as the rest of the world does? We still bleed! We still breathe! Unfortunately, the world has immediately forgotten our presence and existence as soon as the iron gates slam and cell doors close.
That is why we are “phantom souls,” because no one can even see us or hear us, and if it were possible to do so, it would be like a bee’s wing falling onto your shoulder or an eyelash falling on your nose: hardly detectable. We have no outside effect at all. What we do have in here is something mentally, emotionally and physically corrosively debilitating, which none of us convicted felons would ever wish upon anyone else to ever experience.
As “phantom souls,” we are trapped in a purgatory state of existence with Hell’s fire already burning our feet. I’ve been locked in this purgatory state for over a decade, and I still have not gotten used to this burning sensation that never ceases, not even in my sleep! Animals in animal shelters, in a horrid way, are blessed. Because after seven days, if no one wants them, then they are morbidly euthanized. An inhumane, bittersweet luxury of a quick escape from this protracted nightmare we unfortunately cannot receive. For we “phantom souls” must endure the pain of life without parole sentences, with no rehabilitation or educational reform available, just left to rot inside supermax prisons.
Everyone eventually leaves your side—friends, siblings, parents, relatives, your spouse and, lastly, your own children leave you to stand utterly alone. Everyone scatters away from our lives like cockroaches scatter when the lights turn on. No more visits, no more collect calls accepted, no more photos, no more letters and no more outside financial assistance to purchase the bare necessities that are hard to come by in here. No more—nothing! That’s it! You are officially cut off from the very essential things that were giving your “phantom soul” the slightest hope by having to endure Hell itself, just to try to get back to its body, back to life and back to love.
This is when mental illness, violence, murder and the suicide rate in correctional facilities and their draconian supermax prisons drastically increases. Because a “phantom soul” with no help, no education, no vocational training and no proper rehabilitation, for the vast majority, with nothing to lose and no hope for the future, is better off dead. Actually, that is what a “phantom soul” truly is. For we are dead men walking. It’s a bone-chilling feeling to realize that.
Now, as a “phantom soul” loses itself completely, it then attaches itself to the prison atmosphere: its lifestyle, culture and methods of mere survival, like a leech to your inviting flesh, thirsty for your blood. It is nothing nice or positive at all! For we do not live in here, we must strive daily to survive in a cold isolated world full of pain, loneliness, anger, confusion and hate. It’s a menagerie where big dog eats little dog. Kill or be killed. Human snakes of all shapes and sizes roam this place with two faces, menacing glares and evil agendas, having to resort to convict criminal ingenuity to get by and survive. “Phantom souls” must condition themselves to be alert and ready at any moment for the instant danger reveals itself and chaos erupts.
For many, pride is sealed by tattoos. For others they are shields, for they shield many from exposing their true selves. Respect, acceptance, loyalty, acknowledgement, reputation, honor and authority are earned by the degree of corrupt mercilessness and violent deeds of ruthlessness against any other prisoner who violates convict code of ethics and by-laws: violence against rival gangs, racial enemies and against the guards. We cannot forget the guards. For they are the most ruthless, deceitful, dangerous, conniving, lying and cheating gang in the prison. For seven times out of ten, if a prisoner is assaulted, marked for death, unjustly persecuted, punished or even killed, a guard one way or another had his hand in the treachery. Sad but true.
Hate is the only way that emotion is expressed inside of this concrete bed of barbed wire, thorny roses that we reside in. Unfortunately, in prison life, jealousy, envy, deceit, gossiping and plotting against others without anything else to do, look forward to or lose is what many fall into. All other positive extracurricular activities are cut, only available to select few or are non-existent. The vast majority display acts of treachery and hate against one another, burning with boredom and lack of mental, emotional and physical stimulations that are positive and productive, all wanting what the next person is or has. As I’ve said, we are “phantom souls,” so we are never satisfied with who we are or what we have. Yet people out in society wonder why prisons become so rampant with gangs, violence, drug abuse, racism, hate and the mass deterioration of once good-natured souls.
Men die in here both physically and mentally, and it’s worse than any war or natural disaster because this is all planned. Oh, you think that it is the prisoners who do the planning? They are a problem, but it is the government and its reckless prison administrations and faulty judicial systems that do the planning to provide laws, sentences, stipulations, restrictions and budget cuts of prison rehabilitation, education, therapy, job training and recidivism prevention programs. It is hard for us not to fall prone to its negative backlash; in that way, we become prisoners cast off into this environment. I didn’t make these laws, and I didn’t create these fetid institutions and their mind-altering supermax prisons with no other purpose but to punish physically, torture us and break us mentally, emotionally and physically, creating the animals many of us unfortunately become. The government did this and planned this horrendous thing that is the greatest unknown atrocity in America, for all men are neither created nor treated equally. Like I said, we are “phantom souls,” and we are unknown. For a “phantom soul” is nothing but an institutionalized, lost sense of hope.
Every day when the guard comes by the cells to pass out mail, there are so many “phantom souls” literally trying to maintain their composure from the overwhelming anxiety and desperate hope of possibly receiving a letter. From whom? It doesn’t really matter, just a letter from someone telling you “that you are thought of and exist to the outside world.” In most cases, the letters do not come and the sadness creeps in, but it’s quickly deterred by anger and aloofness. A couple of curse words, reassuring comments and thoughts to tell yourself, “I don’t care if I get mail or not”. Well, it is a lie and if any “phantom soul” claims such, then he is a damned liar! But hey, everyone lies to someone, so why not lie to yourself, right?
If you do receive a letter, an answered collect call, or even a visit, for a brief moment of time one is not a “phantom soul.” He is once again a parent, sibling, someone’s child, spouse or a friend. He is a person, he is a human being; plain and simple, he is alive again. Oh, and it’s a Beautiful thing. You can literally feel the next man exhale a breath of relief and then inhale in a breath of hope to try to last until the next letter, visit or answered collect call comes again.
Do we “phantom souls” ever cry? Well…this is actually a touchy and controversial subject because, in essence, we are not supposed to, but my personal opinion as a hardened “phantom soul” is that, yes, everyone does, somehow, some way. Especially for us “phantom souls” in here who experience hurt, anger, confusion, loneliness and stress daily, we tend to hide it best. Sort of like an M&M candy: a hard shell on the outside but soft on the inside. Through one’s artwork, poetry or creative writing, tears are shed symbolically or secretly crying and muffling your sobs and hiding your tears into your pillow so that no one else is able to see or hear. I guess some of us even cry in our sleep. I can honestly say that I did once that I am aware of. One night, I awoke to find hot tears running down my face. I felt a deep, aching sense of sorrow and hurt. What was I crying about? I don’t even know, which astounds me.
There are those of us trying to do something for ourselves and rehabilitate back into our enriched flesh and bones. Well, just imagine the civil rights movement between blacks and whites, the United Farmworkers union striking against the greedy grape grower industry and immigrants trying to get a fair shake on the new biased and even bigoted immigration reform policies and laws. Intensify that a trillion times over and over: The government and its reckless prison administrations feel justified in how they treat and deprive our “phantom souls” from a transition back to life through any rehabilitation reform with light at the other end of the dark tunnel. For it is no secret that the government and its reckless prison administrations have literally cut back or cut off the means for prisoner reform through rehabilitation, education and vocational and job training. This is true especially for prisoners with lengthy sentences or who are sentenced to life without parole and have great influence over many younger prisoners and those with shorter sentences. Yet America gives away billions of dollars to supposedly help and aid Pakistan for whatever reason and has the audacity to question and look down its nose at countries like China over human rights violations. Meanwhile, America cannot or chooses not to fix its own.
It is a struggle in every way, so we continue to remain “phantom souls”: lost, wandering, ghost-like souls between Hell and a hard place, in a purgatory state and soulless cells. Think about it, have you ever seen someone’s eyes that reflect nothing? It is heart-wrenching, and people say, “Oh, they deserve it for what they’ve done.” I feel sorry for those people because their souls are more lost than ours. Compassion and understanding are gifts that are attained, and the sad thing is that few people ever attain those gifts. As “phantom souls,” we have no voice to the outside world, but there are minds of great intelligence in here that could put an end to all issues that are deteriorating our Beautiful world. Many discussions in here of art, politics, religion, history, war, philosophy, economics, literature, hobbies and music are so baffling, people wouldn’t be able to fathom what we know, are truly capable of and are trying to express. Just imagine what we could accomplish with the proper rehabilitative and educational reform provided to all of us while incarcerated at all levels.
This is why people out in the free society are so astounded and even sickened by the fact that the prison system continues to corrupt and not help many young and first-time offenders who become repeat offenders and progress further into crime. Prisoners with long-term sentences and life without parole who are not being rehabilitated and positively stimulated become part of the virus that helps spread the disease to other prisoners entering and leaving prison. For as “phantom souls,” we become institutionalized through this deterioration and negative unreformed recidivism disease eating us alive!
We “phantom souls” experience a real travesty of loss, despair, anger, sadness, confusion and loneliness. What we feel is so intense, it can be described as that feeling in the movie Titanic when Leonardo Di Caprio drifts off into his icy tomb of death from making sure his true love Kate Winslet would be safe, or that first initial thought and feeling after the attacks on 9/11, and that feeling of anger and despair over the flooding of Hurricane Katrina and the errors made in the aftermath in New Orleans. Think about the first few seconds of each of those feelings. That is what we feel in our hearts, and our hearts pump blood, which means we still bleed and we still breathe.
This is not a “poor me” story, for I deserve to be punished for my crimes that I take full responsibility for, but I also need help to be better for myself, the prison I survive in and for society who pays taxes to the government to help and fix our society and those things to make it better and more productive and prosperous. This is something felt by everyone. Most, if not all, convicts will not admit it, but there is no fault in that. Because, in a crazy way, if we do admit it to ourselves that we are alive, then it all rushes in and the emotions are too much to bear. Prison is not always the answer for everything. Punishment with no reform and no proper educational rehabilitation is not the answer. Life without parole with hopelessness and nothing to lose or gain is not the answer. Long-term solitary confinement in draconian supermax prisons is not the answer.
Rehabilitation, love, education, understanding, hope and change are the answer. But how can it be properly applied so that it is not taken advantage of? I don’t know, but I sure hope that someone can find a way or a solid solution to this problem before this “phantom soul” completely fades away.
By Gerard G. Schultz Jr. #R55165
PO Box 99
Note Gerard: “I am an interstate corrections compact transfer from the Arizona Department of Corrections being warehoused in Illinois DOC for non-violence where I have been tortured, mistreated and had my constitutional and civil rights violated for over a decade in IDOC’s solitary confinement and supermax prison, locked down 22-24 hours a day which continues to this day.”
by Troy J. Clarke - Texas Death Row
My mind is a crime, it’s been beaten, robbed
and murdered of emotions, cast into the chaos
of Texas Death Row for a crime I’ve not done.
Waiting for the executioner to come;
feeding the death house with scarred souls,
I’ve seen over 300 men go, strapped to
the gurney, needle in their arm, saying
"Sorry for all the hurt and harm".
I’m on my last appeal and will soon get
an execution date.
For me it’s too late
But when it’s my turn to meet death,
I’ll claim Innocence with my dying breath.
I was blamed, framed, caught up in
a deadly game…slowly going insane..
Can you feel my pain?
Yet, I Remain….
Troy J. Clark, Texas Death Row
The Supreme Court has denied Troy's last appeal recently, and so it is likely that he will receive an
execution date in the near future
by Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara)
It doesn't matter if on the day of an execution, the morning forecast is sunny and warm. A turbulent storm is brewing on the inside, and humidity on death row is always high. The feeling is both eerie and sickening, as if some mysterious, awful sore is about to discharge itself.
Execution day is the quietest day on death row. The usual early morning banter, pots and pans being hustled about by guards preparing to serve breakfast, the morning ritual of "roll call" as someone shouts good morning to friends, sounds of TVs and radios being switched on—all are stilled: the impending doom sucks sound right from the air.
The silence on death row can be deafening. And on any other day, silence is a welcome break from the monotony of the screeching noise. One would assume the silence is a result of people becoming more introspective, more contemplative about the reality of their situation. In some cases this is true, but the opposite is more likely. Most people are in bed asleep trying to escape. Anytime there is a scheduled execution the entire prison, including all programming, comes to a complete halt. Everything ceases while San Quentin moves into high security, standing patient and poised to snuff out another life. Prison officials stroll the tiers, peering into the cells at us, as if they're seeing some rare and disgusting animals on the verge of extinction. Many of them support the death penalty and gleefully rejoice when we are pronounced dead. Nothing is exchanged during these observations but hostile glances.
Most people on death row will be glued to their TVs or radios listening intensely as news reporters interrupt daily programming to give updates on the pending execution. The gathering of anti- and pro-death penalty groups will assemble in front of the prison gate with picket signs and a conviction that their cause will prevail. A phalanx of prison guards standing in full combat gear will be stationed in front of the prison gate forming a prophylactic shield, like serfs protecting the fortress of their feudal lord from invasion.
The attorneys for the condemned man will be scurrying around throughout the day, both in front of cameras and behind the scenes, making last ditch efforts to save the life of their client. They'll work overtime trying to convince us that there is always hope, that we should not give up. But we who have been on death row know this to be a lie, because a last minute appeal to an apathetic court or a politically driven Governor (who rode in office as a pro-death penalty candidate) is like asking a hungry, angry bear not to bite you.
Death penalty opponents will give fiery and spirited speeches throughout the night, trying to create a hopeful and optimistic atmosphere in the face of something diabolical. The tug-of-war between the death penalty supporters and opponents will rage on, but in the end no one wins. A reporter will announce the menu of the condemned man's last meal, and the small separate gatherings of true believers and preachers of hate will stand juxtaposed. The silent prayers and candles of the night vigil are as loud as thunder and as bright as lightening.
Death row prisoners are attuned to everything going on. We understand that whatever the outcome, our situation is amplified. None of us are exempt from the execution, none of us walks away unaffected, and many of us stay up to the last minute, hoping the attorney unearths some new evidence that will alter the court's ruling, or in a temporary fit of idealism, hoping a judge who acted too hastily in an earlier decision will change his ruling. We are always disappointed. But hope, as fleeting or false as it is, is all we have at this level.
And when that is gone . . . .
Men who normally don't pray will find themselves asking God to exert his powers and intervene to save a life. We usually get our answer just after 12:01 a.m., when the person has been pronounced dead, we're let off lockdown, and the prison program returns to "business as usual."
**the last execution in California was January 2006
When Hope Dies
By Craig A. Ross
When hope dies in prison, nothing is left.
When it lies withering on the visiting room floor,
or shattered in the isolation of a cold cell, nothing is left.
When hope dies you cannot see the brightness of the sun,
nor feel its warmth wrapped tightly around you like a lover's arms.
You cannot hear the song of the ocean in your bones pulling you with ancient rhythms towards the moon.
And you cannot move, you cannot breathe, you cannot think straight because your whole being is numb,
suffocating in the invisible,
When hope dies in prison there is nothing left.
You don't think about pleasure, about fucking, about kissing.
Skin against skin,
You forget likeness, oneness, sameness,
of looking into eyes that hold the promise and sweetness of tomorrow,
of smiles weakened by despair and cast adrift upon wave after wave,
after wave of secret and intimate gestures.
There is nothing left when hope dies in prison.
And you forget I, Me, You, We, everything.
There is no leftover memory of pressing someone else's body close to yours -
chest against breast -
stomach against belly -
face lingering in the groove of softness that the neck offers.
Everything is gone, when hope dies in prison.
There is nothing left.
You are always being consumed by fire,
becoming ashes, becoming mute echoes of an inner voice claiming - "Everything is gonna be alright".
But nothing has the same consistency, except, for emptiness which settles on the heart like bricks.
And the prison walls are higher than any dream you could ever dream,
because everything is beyond your reach, beyond your imagination.
And you struggle with obsolete reasons to struggle because your soul refuses to play the game, anymore.
And if nothing is left, you can pray to every single God in every single heaven and not be heard.
And you could be reborn but it wont matter,
it wont matter because in a windowless cell,
everything is artificial.
When hope dies there is nothing left.
And if you scream who will hear you... who will stand up and shout: You are not alone!... You are not alone!...
You are not alone.
When hope dies in prison
Who will hold onto you in the darkness as you slip further and
of your ever fading and disappearing world?
Who will restore mind and body?
Who will breathe love and life into a broken soul?
Who will fling open the gates of no return?
Who will come forward when there is nothing left?
When hope dies in prison,
I wonder, in the silence of silence can I create something someone else could feel,
And I wonder, if I raced against time will I find hope concealed in every hour,
in every minute,
in every second?
Will I be able to drag it back to the surface only to discover my own madness inside my empty hands?
When hope dies in prison there is no laughter, no comforting breeze, no memory.
There is no looking forward, or looking back. And the only familiarity, is the familiarity of dying.
When hope dies in prison.
There is absolutely nothing left.
Craig A. Ross
San Quentin State Prison
An account of a young man's last day before being executed.
Craig A. Ross
I could see myself in the dark mahogany coffin. How I had gotten there and why was something I couldn't remember. I could hear the hum of an organ playing softly in the background, as mourners began filling the pews of the small church. Most of the faces I didn't recognize, but there were a few mugs I was happy to see, homeboys from the old neighborhood-Big J.T., Lowdown, Spoony, and Spoony's little brother, Klepto, who, at the ripe old age of ten, was already a professional thief. I thought it was strange that they were wearing white dinner jackets and carrying serving plates. Then again, these were guys who'd wake up in the morning and smoke weed for breakfast. They probably thought there were going to be some eats after the funeral. I didn't blame them; these things can be pretty boring. I saw my family seated in the front row. My lawyer, with his secretary, Dora, was sitting behind them. My mother, who never dreamed she would outlive any of her children, looked on, stricken. I felt a pang of guilt.
The sound of the organ began to fade and the faint hush of whispers among the mourners slowly subsided.
Whack! "Now put that back!" I heard Spoony say, as he popped Klepto upside the head. Then they all began to stare hypnotically at the dark-robed figure standing ominously behind the wooden podium. His face was obscured by a large hood, and his hands were gloved. Man, this guy is straight outta the comic books, I thought.
When he spoke, his voice seemed to resonate off the walls of the church, sending icy chills through my skin like an arctic breeze.
"Let us all rejoice in the holy offering!" he bellowed
Offering? What offering? I thought.
"Let us give thanks to the blessed one," he commanded, as everyone in the church began nodding their heads in unison and shouting, "Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Lord!"
Whooooaaaa! Back up, mister! What fucking offering? This is my goddamn funeral, not a-
"We shall partake of the sacrifice!" he thundered on, followed by another joyous chorus of "That's right, Lord. Thank you, Lord!"
Hey! What the hell is going on here? I tried to scream, but couldn't make a sound. He then beckoned to everyone to gather around the casket, and I could feel them pressing and pushing up against the sides, peering in at my lifeless body, lovingly . . . almost hungrily. Panic set in, and I tried to get up and run, but I couldn't move. Aw, c'mon-let me outta here, I pleaded. I ain't no offering.
I felt hands caressing and poking my body. Then I saw my little sister and Klepto licking their lips and my lawyer's secretary wiping off her silverware. The dark figure walked to the head of the casket and pulled back his hood. His face was hideous: there was no skin, just bone and pieces of rotting flesh. His mouth was twisted and mangled as he grinned, displaying rows of sharklike teeth, and his eyes were only gaping holes filled with maggots. I frantically looked around and saw everyone changing into grotesque and disfigured creatures. My mother was barely recognizable as she grabbed me by the throat with a clawed hand and began to lift me straight from the coffin. Filled with the horror of what was about to happen, I tried to close my mind to the gruesome scene. . . . I couldn't.
"Now! Let us all feast!" the robed thing said, as he snapped off one of my arms like a chicken wing.
Noooooo! I screamed in my mind, just as the thing that used to be my little sister dislodged one of my eyeballs from its socket with her easybake oven fork and greedily gobbled it down.
My eyes flew open and I quickly sat up in the bunk to survey the small cell. Everything was still. "Damn!" I whispered to myself. "You gotta get a grip, man." Dreaming is one thing, but this shit is ridiculous. Some would claim this was guilt eating away at my conscience . . . fuck them! I bet that prison shrink would have a field day analyzing my dream. Fuck him, too.
I looked out the small window directly in front of my cell. It was dark outside, making things seem almost peaceful. But that was an illusion. There was nothing peaceful about prison, nothing serene about death row, and at that very moment certain preparations were being carried out that placed me at the center of it all.
My name is Nathan Cole Walker; Nat Cole for short, a nickname my grandmother gave me on account of her fondness for the singer Nat King Cole. Personally, I can't hit a note and rap music is my thing. I must admit, I did have a smooth style that infatuated the young ladies. But that was eons ago and a helluva lot has changed since those days.
In less than twenty-four hours it will be my twenty-fifth birthday, but there will be no celebrating, no party, no happy nothin'. Because I'm not gonna live to see it.
Six years ago, I was sentenced to death. The whys don't matter now, and the particulars aren't important. Today I have run out of time, destiny has come kicking at my door, and I am scheduled to be executed promptly at eleven thirty Wednesday night. It is now Wednesday morning... my last day on Earth.
I tried to shake the dream from my head, before beginning my routine of pacing the six-by-ten cell. It's a mode of controlling the rage of the half-man, half-animals we've become. A silent way of expressing our malediction at being caged. It is never escape-respite, maybe-but never escape.
"Anything wrong, Walker?" the guard who was posted outside my cell asked. He had been watching me from the moment I woke up, jotting down his observations on paper.
"Naw, nothin' I can't deal with," I shot back in disgust.
"What time is it?" I asked the guard. He glanced up from the Playboy he had stashed between the pages of a National Geographic, rubbed his eyes, and looked at his watch.
"It's almost six thirty." He yawned. "Just about time for me to be gettin' outta here," he added, with apparent relief. Six thirty was the shift change; another guard would be taking his place for second watch in a few minutes. I resumed my pacing.
Anyone put on death watch is provided with around-the-clock security and scrutiny, compliments of the Department of Corrections, just in case you decide to skip the scenic route to the gas chamber, in an attempt to cheat the state out of its judicial duty to personally kill you. The guard who would be coming on for second watch was named Ford. I had known Ford over the years; he was okay, as guards go. Sometimes we'd get in a game or two of chess, or shoot the breeze to break the monotony. When you're waiting to die, the boredom alone could kill you.
I could hear Ford locking the door.
"How's it going, Ford?" I said, still looking up at the ceiling.
"Not too bad, Walker. And you?"
"Same old tune." There was silence for a moment.
"You wanna get in a game of chess later?" he asked, trying to sound cheerful. We both knew we'd played our last game.
"I don't know-maybe."
"Well, if you do, just holler." He turned to his paperwork and I shut my eyes in a futile attempt to shield out reality. My mind was like a movie screen.
"Nigger, you got somethin' to say before I end you black ass life?" I didn't say a word as I watched the cop pull his pants leg and reach for the gun that was strapped to his ankle. I let the Glöck slide easily down my sleeve and into my hand. By the time the cop realized a gun was pointing at him, it was too late. The first bullet tore through the front of his neck and the second one entered his right eye. He died before hitting the ground. The scene repeated itself over and over. After all these years, that one event still seemed like it happened yesterday.
The ringing of the phone brought me back. "I'll ask him, hold on. Walker, it's Chaplain Graves," Ford said, with an ear-to-ear grin. "You wanna see him?"
"Fuck him!" I said. I sat up on the bunk and grabbed a book from the pile on the floor. It was Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. I could relate to the main character, because all my life I've been invisible to folks. The only time they seemed to take notice was when I got into trouble. No one really knew me, not even my family-hell, I didn't even know myself. Everything I did brought me close to death, toward this very moment. I once read somewhere that desperate men are always running out of time. Well, right now, I must be truly desperate.
I must have read for almost an hour before putting the book down. I was just about to close my eyes when Ford asked, "Say, Walker? If you want, I can call the Muslim chaplain or something. I mean, in case you wanted to speak to someone."
"Thanks, but no thanks."
"Well, I just thought you might want to talk to somebody who can understand-well, who can relate to-you know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean, Ford."
"Say, Walker? Are you afraid of dying? I mean, I can't even imagine how I would feel in your place."
I thought about it for a moment, but I already knew my answer.
"Naw, I ain't afraid of dying. Dying is something I've been doing all my life. But when you know when and how it's gonna happen, all it takes is that one step over the edge inside your head-then bam! That's why most men are able to walk to their execution. They're already dead inside their heads."
"That's a helluva way of looking at it, Walker."
"I don't need to get nothing off my chest. And if there is a God out there, then he's gonna have a lot of fucking explaining to do when I reach the hereafter."
We both laughed; then there was a long pause. Empty of anything else to say, we both went back to what we were doing. I was tossed back to old times, and it wasn't long before I dozed off.
"Hey, Walker! Walker!" I heard my name being called from far away.
"Whaaat . . . " I mumbled, still half in the dream state.
"Walker. Someone here to see you," Ford said apologetically.
"Who?" I demanded, fully awake now.
"Doctor Cohen?" I tried to place the name. Cohen was the prison shrink. This was his third visit; the first two times I simply ignored his ass.
He pulled the extra chair from the desk and planted it in front of the cell. We were face to face with the cell bars between us.
"What's up, Doc?" I smiled.
"How are you feeling today, Walker?" He always started off with the same stupid ass question, trying to sound as sincere as possible.
"Well, you caught me in a good mood today, Doc. I was just about to start playing with my dick . . . but what can I do for you?"
"I came by to see how you are doing."
"For cryin' out loud, all of a sudden everyone is concerned about my fucking welfare. What gives?"
"I'm just doing my job, Walker," he stated matter-of-factly.
"And what is that, Doc?" He looked at me, puzzled.
"Well, to talk, mainly."
"About emotions you're feeling, about things that may be going through your mind, or dreams you may be having." His mention of dreams caught me off guard, and I wondered if I had talked in my sleep.
"Dreamt I walked on water, Doc," I said sarcastically.
"Walker, I understand that under the circumstances it's normal to feel anger, but you don't have to be confrontational."
"Wrong! That's my style, man, plus I like testing seersuckah-suit mothafuckahs like you, just to see that geek look you get on your face." I burst out laughing; he just sat there, turning beet red. His mouth opened and closed, as if he were trying to find something to say.
"Okay, Walker, you crazy bastard!" he whispered through clenched teeth, trying vainly to maintain his clinical composure. "If you want to play fucking games-"
I immediately stopped laughing and sprang to my feet, cutting him off. I had him and he knew it.
"Game! Naw, this is far from a fucking game, Doctor. Here the stakes are much higher."
"Well, then, what would you call it?"
"I call it . . . my personal responsibility to upset bullshit mental tacticians like yourself. You waltz in here doing your friend routine, thinking you'll become famous at my expense by getting me to expose the juicer morsels of my brain-so you can jump in front of the camera seconds after I'm dead, claiming you were the only one I would talk to, the only one I trusted."
"Walker, that's not true," he said, nervously shaking his head. "I would never do anything like that."
"Tell me, Doc, when were you planning on cutting a book deal-while the dirt was still moist on my grave, or after it dried?"
"I'm telling you, Walker, no such thing has ever crossed my mind. Nothing that's mentioned here will go beyond these walls. I'm a professional doctor, for Christ's sake!"
"When you look at me, all you see is an experiment . . . some data that might make you famous. But you sit there confident, grinning inside, never realizing that by trying to look into my head, you incriminate yourself, just like all the others who will watch me suffocate, watch me slowly, painfully, pass into nonexistence. My death will render me not guilty, but it illuminates your guilt, your savage necrophilia. I'm every bit as human as those who seek to strip me of my humanity."
He sat there looking like a kid who just got busted bang with his hand in the cookie jar. If I had been in doubt, his eyes convinced me that my words had hit their mark.
He stood abruptly, began to walk toward the door, hesitated, and then left. I lay back on the bunk with my hands behind my head, staring at the ceiling.
"What time is it, Ford?" I called out.
"Ten twenty," he called back.
He was the only person I still cared to talk to. "Ten twenty," I said to myself. You're gonna be a statistic, Nat Cole, in less than fifteen hours.
I lay there for about thirty minutes. I had already resigned myself to the fact that the courts weren't going to give me any action. All this waiting around was starting to make me edgy.
The phone rang. Ford answered it.
"Walker, your attorney is here. They're on their way to pick you up."
"All right, thanks."
Two guards escorted me to the small room where they allowed me to visit. When I walked in, Duncan Brock stood up to greet me. We shook hands warmly, then sat at the small table. He looked tired, and I knew he had probably slept only a few hours in the last four days. His otherwise immaculate suit was rumpled, his hair halfheartedly combed, and there were noticeable dark spots beneath his eyes.
"How are you holding up, Nat?"
"So-so, but you look like you been mugged." We both smiled. Duncan was one of the few people left in the world I truly respected. Over the years we'd had our share of differences but always managed to work them out. It made us respect each other as persons, as friends. I felt sorry for him. He had done his best, yet I thought he was always going to feel that there was something more he could have done. Even in these final hours, Duncan was optimistic.
We talked about how my family was doing, and about the people outside the prison protesting my execution. Then he began to tell me about the legal strategies he was trying.
"Listen, Nat, I filed a new writ with the Ninth Circuit Court challenging-"
My thoughts began to drift, and images floated through my mind. "Son, where are you going?" "To basketball practice, Momma-"
"I talked to one of my law professors and he thinks-"
"Momma, Nat hit me-"
"-also the Supreme Court could-"
"Homeboy! Nat Cole is straight crazy-"
"-other options that legally-"
"Mrs. Walker, we've arrested your son for-"
"-the main thing is the constitutionality of-"
"You are hereby sentenced to be put to death in the-"
Like a motion picture the scenes came and went, until one thing remained; the words The End.
We sat there exchanging small talk until a guard showed up at the gate, announcing it was time for me to go back. We stood and embraced each other.
Then the guard motioned me to him. I walked over, turned around, and he put the cuffs on and opened the gate to escort me back upstairs.
"Take care, Duncan," I said.
"I'm not going to give up, Nat!" he said strongly. I didn't answer. I knew this was the last time we would see each other.
Back at my cell, it was a little after four o'clock. The phone had been installed right outside, a direct link to my lawyer for good news... or bad.
It was almost six o'clock when Ford called to me. At first my mind couldn't compute the reality of his question. I was stunned by its finality, even though I knew they would ask me.
"Walker, the warden wants to know what you'd like for your last meal."
I didn't say anything. My mind locked on the question. The concept loomed like a giant neon sign, pushing all other thoughts to the side, until it alone remained. Last meal! Hell, how in the fuck was I supposed to enjoy something like that? My stomach did some gymnastics and I knew there was no way I was going to be able to eat anything. The very thought of crapping on myself while choking to death was enough to deter me from eating. When they pulled me out of the chamber, my drawers were going to be clean.
"Fuck that, man. I don't want nothin'!" I told Ford.
"Absolutely. I don't want shit!" I could imagine the warden's expression. He'll probably try to send that shrink over here. But I doubt he wanted to see me again. I got off the bunk and began pacing again. I also started singing every song I knew in my mind, but after a while, I would sing the first verse, then nothing . . . hum a few notes, then nothing. It was like the words were just vanishing from my memory. Verses got mixed up, songs became intertwined. I finally gave up.
"What time you got, Ford?"
"I need to use a pencil and paper."
"No problem." He went in his desk and got out some sheets of paper and a small pencil that had been broken in half, for my supposed safety.
I rolled my mattress back so I could use the flat steel bunk as a table. I was going to write one last letter, but instead found myself just sitting there, staring at the paper. After about an hour of scribbling on several sheets of paper and tossing them into the toilet, I finally wrote something. I titled it A Seminar in Dying. It was a poem, the kind only a desperate man could write.
Imagine seeing the flash of a camera, and in that same instant you
witness the most violent and brutal scene of your life.
Imagine seeing a contorted face, broken limbs, blood flowing.
Imagine the terrified screams, the unbearable pain, the pleas for help, the tears.
Imagine death, as you fall to your knees, embracing a dying body... your body.
Imagine that last look , that last word, that last touch . . . that last breath.
Imagine life the day after, the week after, the year after . . . the hereafter.
Imagine seeing that camera flash in your sleep and your waking moments
...over and over, every second, every minute, every hour, in your mind.
Imagine seeing the end . . . your end, every day, until you die . . . imagine.
It was all I had left in me. I folded the paper, got an envelope from Ford, and addressed it to my lawyer.
"Make sure he gets this after-you know, when things are over."
"He'll get it, don't worry."
Sometime later, the phone in front of my cell rang. I just stared at it, uncertain of what to do.
"Answer it," Ford said, enthusiastically. I reached gingerly through the bars and picked it up.
"Yeah?" I whispered.
"Nat?" It was Duncan. He sounded exhausted.
"Yeah?" I whispered again.
"Nat, the courts turned us down, but-"
I put the phone down, not hanging it up, just laying it on its side. I could hear Duncan still calling my name, but there was nothing else to say, nothing else to hear.
"What time you got, Ford?"
"Eleven-o-five." Just then, the phone on his desk rang. The sudden change of his expression told me everything.
"Walker," he said solemnly, as he hung up the phone.
"Yeah, I know." They were on their way to get me. This was it-time to face the matador.
"You want some more orange juice or something, Walker?"
I just looked at him. I knew he was trying the break the overwhelming sense of dread that had started to condense like storm clouds around us. I looked down at my feet. I didn't recognize them. They seemed like independent machines separate from my body, and they would of their own volition lead me right to the gas chamber. Looking away, I thought, I would hate to have to whack you guys off. I put my shoes on and splashed some cold water on my face. I took a piss, washed my hands, and combed my hair-but as I was combing it, I was struck by the realization that everything I was now doing would be my last time doing it. I suddenly felt completely alone; my heart started to thump somewhere in my throat.
"Walker, it's time to go." The warden and two guards were waiting like stone sentinels. I walked over to the bars, consciously controlling each step. One guard put the cuffs on through the tray-slot. Ford opened the gate and, as I stepped out, I nodded to him slightly. He nodded back. I walked slowly, my breath hard. The sound of it echoed in my head like giant waves. I turned to the warden.
"Do me a favor, Warden?"
"What is it?" he asked, bewildered.
"Well, do you think we could make this long walk short?"
"How?" He looked even more confused.
"By running!" I said and burst out laughing.
They all looked at me like I had just snapped, Ford included. They stood there, uncertain of what to do next.
"Aw, c'mon guys, it's a joke," I said. "I'm just trying to ease the gloom. Hell, the way you dudes look, a person would think you're the ones about to get x'ed out."
"Walker, how can you joke at a time like this?"
"Yeah, you're right, Warden. So when do you think would be a good time for me to joke?"
Then, looking him straight in the eye, I asked him seriously, "Warden? When was the last time you been to a circus?" But I didn't give him time to answer. "Let's go," I said. "There's one waiting for us."
We walked out into a long, narrow hallway.
The warden stuck a key into a slot where the buttons should have been and turned it. It took a few seconds for the door to open and I could hear the elevator lumbering toward the top. The door opened suddenly with a whoosh, and we all stepped in. The guards positioned themselves behind me, while the warden remained at my side. It had all been rehearsed, their roles, the parts they would play. I imagined them practicing it. I wondered who they got to play me.
The elevator stopped and the door whooshed open. We stepped into a smaller hallway, made a right, and walked toward a large green steel door. I thought I could hear a murmur of voices on the other side and I imagined rows of people drinking soda, eating popcorn, and chanting, "Kill him, kill him, kill him!"
The warden pressed a button this time, and a few seconds later the door popped open. As we walked in, my entire body grew hot and the palms of my hands started to sweat. The first thing I saw was the gas chamber.
Everything became dreamlike and every second was an eternity. My mind went numb, my throat bone dry. This was my first real look at the chamber-I stood there, my eyes transfixed on the cylindrical shape and the chair sitting directly in the middle. The feeling of déjà vu hit me again, this time much stronger. Now don't get the wrong impression-I didn't all of a sudden get religion. But when dying is the central theme of your life, your perspective on things can change. I don't think it's an issue of whether or not we're afraid of dying-it's more like being afraid of not having existed, you know what I mean? I guess that's why people tend to believe in things like reincarnation, heaven, and transmigration, because those things offer a sense of continuity or immortality. Hey, life after death sure beats ashes to ashes.
"Let's go, Walker," the warden said, taking hold of my arm. We walked to the door of the chamber. One of the guards pulled open the door and, as I stepped in, the air was stale and oppressive. I swear I could sense the men who had gone before me-that somehow I could feel them still in that room. If my mind was playing a trick on me, it was a damn good one.
I sat down hypnotically. The chair was hard and cold. The two guards began immediately to strap me in, wrists first, then my waist and legs. My eyes were wide, alert, as if trying to suck in the last images of life. They darted around the chamber seeking anything . . . everything. The cubicle was spotless, almost as if all trace of reality itself had been vacuumed out. It was the only place I had ever been inside prison where there was absolutely no graffiti . . . no "Kilroy was here," no "Jesus loves you," no gang writing, not so much as a scratch. I guess anyone coming in here ain't in a position to do nothing but die-and the only thing that will ever deface these walls will be the souls of dead men. The warden double-checked the straps after the guards had finished. Then in a well-practiced monotone, he asked, "Do you have any last words, Walker?"
Ignoring his question, I swallowed the large lump that had formed in my throat and stared straight ahead at the dark glass window in front of me. I knew there would be people sitting on the other side, waiting to watch my death. Well, enjoy the show, folks, I said to myself. The warden asked me again if I had any last words. I said nothing, still staring at the window. He then proceeded to tell me in the same flat voice how the sentence of death was being carried out by order of the court. When he had finished, he and the two guards left without looking back. I heard the latch locking the door, and except for my breathing, there was absolute silence. I pulled against the strap-nothing. I knew it was useless at this point, but still...
I could feel my muscles tightening, as my pulse vibrated throughout my entire body. An eternity seemed to pass as I sat there, waiting for something to happen. I kept thinking that they were going to come through the door at any second. My eyes were frantically searching the window for any movement. Finally, I closed them and let my head fall back. I felt some sweat or a tear rolling off my cheek. I opened my eyes just in time to catch it falling from my face, and as I watched it fall in slow motion, I suddenly tasted something bitter and acidic in my mouth, and my lungs seemed to ignite into flames. Without even thinking about it, I quickly held my breath and, at that very moment, I knew that once I let it go, it would all be over.
With each second, the pain in my chest grew more unbearable-inside I was on fire. I began spinning and tumbling, my head falling backward and forward. I could feel the explosion in my chest heaving upward, as the pain began to burst into a billion pieces of light . . . and then I was falling, falling toward the sky, higher and higher, until I could no longer see beneath the clouds, until darkness began to engulf me. It was almost over. "C'mon, Nat, warp speed, man." Yeah, I thought, I do have something to say... then I felt the rush of warm wind, and I breathed out.
Craig A. Ross
by Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara)
A few days before the murder of Shaka Sankofa, I had this intense feeling of dread. I couldn't shake it. It was like witnessing a horrible accident or being told a catastrophic secret and then told to forget what I'd seen and heard. I felt nauseated, as if I needed to purge myself of something fouling up my insides. I always get this feeling when something sinister and insidious is on the horizon. I know what was bothering me. I know the source of my feelings. But I was thinking maybe, just maybe, this time I was wrong. I really hoped I was.
June 22nd 2000 was probably the longest time I had listened to the radio without interruption. I was glued to KPFA and transfixed to the announcements like a person waiting to see if his lotto numbers would be picked. What I was listening for was news about the pending execution of Gary Graham. Every time his name was mentioned, along with tidbits about his case, I could feel the moisture condensing in the palms of my hands. I was in a state of high alert and every piece of news only heightened my sense of anxiousness.
Like Shafa Sankofa I've been on death row for 18 years (now 35) hearing and reading about men and women being ushered to their execution. It has always left a bitter taste in my mouth. But no execution gripped me like the events unfolding around the Gary Graham drama. I couldn't understand why it captivated me so much. You would think after being in a place that executes people over and over again I would be desensitized to the ritual by now. I'm not. State sanctioned murder is something I'll never get used to.
I think what captivated me was not only were Shaka and I around the same age, but we had been arrested the same year, we both were sent to death row on the questionable testimony of one witness and we both resurrected ourselves from a pathological coma.
I knew Gary Graham. I knew him, because he symbolized black youth who grow up in the charred and rubbled neighbourhoods of America's disenfranchised inner cities. These youth long forgotten in census counts and used as social scapegoats for failed social programs, have their checkered and convoluted histories paraded about as titillating statistics by nightly news programs, and become political fodder for get-tough on crime laws.
Gary Graham was depicted as the poster boy for criminal behaviour, but Gary Graham died when Shaka Sankofa was born, much like the person who undergoes a spiritual transformation, casting off their old self to become reborn in a new identity. It was Shaka the warrior, the lion, who roared and struck a chord in me. His indomitable and unassailable spirit pulled at me like a recurring dream. I couldn't avoid Shaka's spirit any more than I could ditch my own shadow.
Shaka represented the essence of humanity because he found something many people never find: "knowledge of self". Under the most gruelling oppression he was able to transcend who America said he was and reconstructed an identity commensurate with his true nature. He was a revolutionary because he resisted and refused to cooperate with injustice, and in his own words: "I'm gonna fight like hell.". And fight he did, defying his executioners at every stage, right up to the moment he was lying on the gurney, he resisted, and challenged all of us to do the same.
Shaka Sankofa symbolizes the historic struggles that African people have endured since being ripped from the bosom of Mother Africa and forced into cargo ships to the American shores. He's a link in a long chain of freedom fighters who fought, bled, and died for what they believed in. The murder of Shaka (because that's what it is), is the murder of a generation of Black men. It is a disheartening sign that lynching is still legal in America, and the need for a liberation movement is even more urgent.
I can't forget Shaka Sankofa, any more than I can forget Harriet Tubman or George Jackson. He transformed himself and rose through the muck and mire to declare his quintessential African essence; a spirit refusing to be caged, engulfed by a hundred shackles, suppressed by numerous lies, and written out of classroom textbooks. He was able to grasp the truth and evoked the names of Malcolm and Martin, like Gandhi evoked the Lord Rama's name before the assassin's bullet silenced him.
I knew the chances of Shaka getting a reprieve was thin. Yet, still I prayed. I crossed my fingers hoping the combined presence and efforts of personages such as Jess Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Bianca Jagger, Minister Robert Muhammed and Danny Glover might, just might, buy him some time, perhaps even a week...perhaps, even his life. But who was I kidding? We're talking about Tex-execution here; a place where the Alamo took place; the last place where black people found out they weren't slaves anymore; a Texas State Board of Pardon and Parole that decides people's fate via fax machines, and we not forget, a governor who smirks and boasts of overseeing the execution of 134 people people, and still counting. With odds like that, Shaka stood a better chance of a firing squad missing.
I went to bed early that night thinking I'll catch a couple of hours sleep and get an update of what happened when I awoke. I slept soundly throughout the night, something was telling me that I'll need that sleep. I woke up early the next morning, turned on the news, and immediately they announced Shaka Sankofa was pronounced dead at 8:49 Texas time. It felt like a pipe bomb exploded in my chest, and my mind felt like it entered a black hole that was spiralling into another universe. I didn't even try to make sense out of what happened, because I knew I would only end up at the same place I started; looking for justice, where none can be found.
It was reported that Shaka Sankofa died with one eye closed and one eye half opened, even in death he told us to always keep an eye on the real enemy. We will prevail. We will keep marching. Keep marching, black people. Black Power.
c 2000 Adisa A Kamara
Steve Champion C-58001
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974
Shaka Sankofa (born Gary Lee Graham) (September 5, 1963 – June 22, 2000) was a Texas death-row inmate who was sentenced to death at the age of 17 for the murder of fifty-three-year-old Bobby Grant Lambert in Houston, Texas, on May 13, 1981. He was executed by lethal injection on June 22, 2000 in Huntsville, Texas
"Walking With Demons"
by Craig Ross (Ajani Kamara) – 2005
Twenty three years.
That’s how long I’ve been here (*at the time of writing). Surrounded by the same colors, the same sounds, the same faces, the same smells, the same routine. Twenty-three years on death row and I’ve watched more men commit suicide or lose their minds than I have seen executed. No matter how I do the math I realize statistically, either way I could be screwed. So I made an uneasy alliance with this nocuous environment in order to survive, straddled between life and death, I decided to walk with my demons and not give them control. If I did, I would like many others, be a prime candidate for taking the little pills that make you sleep or stare at the TV all day, or worse, a guard could find my lifeless body at count time dangling from the cell bars. The battle for self-possession is a solitary struggle and inside the isolation of prison the turmoil must be nullified alone.
Without blinking I faced my demons head on. There is no other way to do it. Those afraid of transparency take refuge behind a mask. And what is a mask if not the inward reflection of the face behind it?
Death row is fertile ground for personal demons, they roost in the ugly walls and beneath the scalp causing desperate thoughts to claw at the mind like the elongated fingers of a corpse. The lines of sanity aren’t fluid, the bend and curve like twisted metal, so it is easy to take the wrong turn and end up in a disfigured reality, a reality where emotional deformity is the only narrative. I have sensed the dark and paranoid impulses move inside me, pulsating to a primal instinct. I feel but I don’t act. I hear but I don’t answer. I visited the images that terrorized my waking moments. I went as far as I could to the edge without plunging into a schizophrenic psychosis and becoming lost in the dark matter. The key was, not to identity myself with or cling to what I saw, instead I sought the calm ocean that sits at the epicenter of the psyche. Getting there wasn’t easy. The trip was filled with demons from my past who tried to trap me in the wounds. They are always there, always waiting for a chance to surface. They breathe nihilism and despair. Their incessant voices, like razorblades, make small painful incisions on my mind that scream blood and death. It is a lesson in psychological warfare. A lesson in psychological resolution.
I once wore chaos like a second skin. Everything was disposable. But the navigation of pain and trauma can transcend the rawest of scars, offering the possibility of a new beginning. I took the journey in my own way. I’m far too active for sitting meditation, and the traditional religious avenues don’t speak to me. So everything I did became zen, ritual, prayer, focus. I did not have an epiphany. I arrived at my center by the sheer force of my will. Spiritual reconstruction wasn’t cathartic for me. It wasn’t meant to make me feel better about anything. It was meant to acquire strength needed to descend into the mental darkness to face the madness without being consumed by it. I am still flawed. Still bruised. Except now I know who I am at every level. If I fail at something, I fail. That’s all you can ever ask of yourself.
I have this reoccurring dream: I am in the gas chamber strapped in the chair. My feet are disintegrating, turning into vapor. I could stop if I want to, but I don’t. I draw the vapors of myself deep into my lungs. The feeling is beyond euphoric. My legs dissolve next, then arms, and torso, until finally, I consume myself and exist only as pure consciousness without any memory of ever having been alive. When I awaken I have the distinct sensation of having been somewhere I can’t explain. Somewhere minus the spatial boarders that confines us in corporeal form. I think the dream means that I am my own demon, my own god, and no matter how much I try to purge elements of myself, I am whole only when the essential parts, both good and bad, are forever fused together.
I have watched many men set adrift in chronic depression, imprisoned in a private wasteland. They create the paradox between façade and interior in a futile attempt to escape from themselves. But we cannot hide or separate ourselves from the duality of our nature, we have to bring a vital balance to it. We have to be willing to look at our demons and not flinch. As long as we’re willing to do that, we won’t get lost in the fog.
Craig Ross (Ajani Kamara)
* Craig Ross has been incarcerated on death row San Quentin for 35 years.
Craig Ross (also known as Ajani Addae Kamara) was raised in South Central Los Angeles. A Crip emeritus, he has been incarcerated since 1981. While in the hole—ten years in San Quentin‘s Adjustment Center—he began to study psychology, mythology, African and Asian history, and follow a spiritual path. He is now a recognized writer and mentor. In 1995 he won the Pen Prison Writing Award for best short fiction: “Walker‘s Requiem,” a riveting account of a young man‘s last day before being executed. Presently he is completing his memoirs, The Road to Purgatory. He continues to inspire others with his words.