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
Poetry, writing & Lessons in Life from San Quentin death row