The faces I see
By Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara)
Whenever I enter the Death Row yard I always try to see it from a different perspective, and after 34 years you would think I’ve seen it from every angle. But I haven’t… no one can. A person can spend almost an entire lifetime somewhere and come to think they know everything about the place and faces. Then one day, all of a sudden, like gunshots shattering the quiet calm, the person realises they don’t know the place or its faces at all. Death Row and its faces are like that.
The mosaic of faces that litter Death Row yard are reflections of urban life. They speak of marginalised social conditions, of emotional and psychological baggage, and of a thousand other life deformities that painfully contort the face in unfathomable ways. These faces pace the small yard in rectangular or circular patterns that unconsciously define the limited parameters of their lives, where a single basketball, a deck of cards, and a chess set symbolise the nothingness and powerlessness that’s always felt, and always present.
Many of these faces attempt to conceal private pain, holding it back like a failing levy. Many faces are those of children, not yet fully grown men (but men enough to be executed). There are husbands and sons who have never experienced the gauntlet of confinement and who are straining to overcome their vertigo. There are the blank faces hardened by concrete enclosures, stranded on a deserted mental island, unable to return. But all of the faces, including mine, struggle to deal with the common thread that joins us more closely than we care to admit, death.
When I observe people engaged in conversation, I watch their facial expressions to see the undercurrent of interior feelings rushing beneath the translucent surface. Sometimes I catch a face staring at me, giving me that jagged penetrating gaze, as if we’d once been mortal enemies, or as if I remind the face of another face it once knew. I disarm it with a smile – the other looks away – and in that brief space of time I have articulated a profound message. Sometimes I feel the urge to walk up to someone whose face shows particular signs of confusion and ask “What’s wrong?”, but prison protocol prevents me from making such an intrusion, which can be tantamount to invading the sovereign airspace of a foreign country. The result? War.
What do you do when you see a face experiencing what you have gone through? Well, on Death Row, you do nothing, nothing but watch in silence as the faces go from one extreme to the next. A perfect re-enactment of Greek tragedy, where death waits patiently to close the final scene. If I say to someone “How are you doing?”, I am met by well-honed defence reflexes aimed at protecting the ego and erecting a wall around insecurities that are too vulnerable to be exposed. I understand it, so I just observe, face after face, made bitter by time and scarred by living, forged in a season of defeats that have moulded a battered soul. Truly, it’s a burden to have to go through life with a phantom face.
When yard recall is announced, I return to my cage, bringing those faces with me, and I meditate, tapping into the realm where every face becomes one.
Later, when I finish meditating, the faces return with all of their contradictions, and I wonder what expressions tomorrow will bring.
Poetry, writing & Lessons in Life from San Quentin death row