death row visit – may 5, 2001

Death Row VisitMay 5, 2001

The following recountings are from my first visit to Death Row – May 5, 2001 – when I visited with Greg Capehart at the State Prison in Raiford FL.

There is something about it that reminds me of the Holocaust, and the culture’s blindness/refusal to see what it is doing …

Cinco de Mayo 2001

Driving west out of Starke, the houses are nice. Big, brick. Working with the Florida State Prison System, one can make a nice life. There is not much traffic on the road. I’m not sure where it even goes beyond the prison. The houses become poorer, trailers, and then the last thing I see is a very large Baptist church before the land opens up and beyond a field of cows I see the first set of prison buildings. They look like the whiskey warehouses of my hometown in Kentucky .

It is a fresh spring morning. The first set of buildings on my left are light green. Since I don’t know where I’m going, I turn in here. I am struck by how empty everything is. There are supposed to be thousands of inmates housed here, but I don’t see anyone. Not even in the Visitor parking lot, where there are lots of empty spaces. The morning sun glistens in the rolls of razor wire; little birds fly through its coil. Squirrels easily go in and out, through the holes of the wire fencing. I am struck by the silence of the place. It could be a monastery. There are a lot of nice flower plantings around. Though I can’t see anyone, I am aware that I am seen. Since everything looks well gated, I head over to what looks like an administration building. Alas, a friendly voice calls out from the tower, “you looking for FSP?” And then, like a Publix door, the gate opens for me, where I go into a holding pen, and then another gate opens for me.

I don’t know why, but this reminds me of the gates that they used to have on altars – altar railings. The priests and the Mass took place on one side, the people on the other. On the morning of my First Communion my father had been earlier at the Church, and it was arranged so that the gates were open and the children would go into the altar to receive the host. My father told me “the gates of heaven have been opened for you.” But it’s hard to tell now whether I’m in or out.

I go up some stairs and into a waiting room of sorts – only an old woman sitting there. I make a comment to her, but she signals that she doesn’t speak English. Off to the side is another room where I can see a guard behind a computer, who is talking to an Hispanic man (her son?), and several other guards eating donuts. I wait for while, and then approach the room with the guards. A very polite guard says that I need to wait for the guard behind the computer to help me. The guard behind the computer looks up, and I tell him that I’m there to visit Greg Capehart. He looks at my Visitor Authorization form and tells me I’m in the wrong place, that I need to go further down the road to the next complex, the larger one across the river. So then I’m accompanied out again by the very nice guard who explains where I need to go. I am impressed with how civil and accommodating everyone is to me. And how serene everything seems.

It’s easy to find the next complex. From the parking lot I can see a few people standing outside of the little building.

As I head for it, I catch sight of my reflection in the window of a car. I saw the image of my mother in my own face. I wondered what she would think of me, my radicalness as a teenager made her nervous (especially my frustration with the Catholic Church – she died when I was 21 years old.)

The men in front of the little building look like preachers or ministers of some kind. They are wearing tags with some kind of religious symbol. They are comfortable, relaxed, and point me toward a door around to the side of the building. This is where I register. There are a couple of women waiting outside the door; both are dressed like they are going to church. The two women guards inside are again most accommodating to me. It took me a few trips back and forth to my car to get myself clean for entering the prison. I can’t take my backpack, only my keys and $25 in cash. The key to my car has to be removed from the key chain. The money cannot include a 20 or 10-dollar bill. I have to have my driver’s license. The woman guard is not bossy or demanding; she is helpful, nice. Once I’m clean, the rest goes fairly easily. I go to another woman for a body search. I don’t have to remove any clothing, she just pats me down. I surrender my license, get a tag and get stamped.

And then another grated gate opens and I’m in.

Now I really don’t know where to go, so I follow the woman who went before me. She is headed down a fenced passageway for an outside picnic area. The day is breezy, lovely. At the entrance the guard looks at my paper and says, nope, you’re going to death row, and points me toward another long fenced passageway. Who would believe I’m in a maximum-security prison? It feels more like an amusement park.

This is a long walk. There is nobody else in it, nobody accompanying me. I notice again the silent, monastic nature of the place, and watch the squirrels scamper freely through the fence. The fencing goes across the top of the passageway, so it is more like a tunnel. The buildings of this compound remind me of the vestiges of buildings we saw at Dachau – rectangular, and laid out with walkways connecting them. Everything seems “squared off”. I don’t notice any obvious escape routes; it’s a pretty tight ship.

At the end of the long tunnel to the death row building there is another gate (this is starting to sound like a dream, isn’t it?). Nobody around, so I just push it. A buzzer sounds and the gate gives. There are a couple of doors into the building. I look into the first one, and see some guards behind glass who wave me in and point me toward a door on my left. I go to this area, another holding area, and am again confronted with 2 doors. One says “contact visitors” the other “non-contact visitors”. I don’t’ know which I am so I go toward the contact one. It opens, and I enter a room with lots of people gathered around tables. I give the guard my paper, and he says that my table is #14.

Table 14 is like the rest of the tables, metal and built into the floor with metal seats around it that are also built into the floor. There are 10 tables in each of 2 rows down the long room. On one side are little windows, on the other are vending machines, and doors to 2 inmate bathrooms, an inmate search room, visitor bathroom, and a long glass where you can see the “non-contact visitor” booths. The tables are mostly full, all of the inmates identifiable by their bright orange shirts. It is a little after 9AM . Visiting hours had begun at 8.

I am struck by the very “normalness’ of how everything seems. This could be any visiting room, anywhere. There is a feel of happiness in the room. The inmates look “normal” to me. Like they could be doctors, lawyers, businessmen, students.

Soon Greg emerges from the “inmate search” door. He kind of draws back toward the wall, then sees me, and smiles very happily. I don’t remember what we first talk about, I don’t even remember if we touch each other. I just remember that from the very beginning it is easy to be with him. Whatever worries I had had that he would be psychologically difficult to relate to were unfounded. He was anxious to talk, almost bubbly. There was a “jivingness” about him, a common relapse into a sort of background soft laughter. There was a balanced willingness to listen and willingness to give in our conversation. There were little lulls in which, out of the corner of my eye, I would notice his countenance fall into a deep place of pained worry.

So, for the next few hours, interspersed between trips to the vending machine for God-awful food (why can’t they put real fruit in those things?) I heard the story of Greg’s childhood, his family, the crime he was accused of, his trial and conviction by an all white jury, his life for the last 14 years in a 6 by 9 foot cell, his feelings of abandonment, despair, his attempts at prayer, his suicide attempt.

For a person like me, it is a lot to hold, a lot to know. Just knowing Greg, having sat in his presence, changes things for me. Oftentimes during this visit, I could feel something in me urging me to turn away, saying look what you’re getting yourself into now, you’ve got to forget this if you’re ever going to see life as a good thing again. He’s just a poor black motherfucker (literally – as a child his alcoholic mother would use him for sex.)

The prison ministers tell him that all he needs is his Bible and his God, and he can make it. If he just prays hard enough.

I don’t think so.

We talked about hope. Hope for somebody (besides God) to hear him.

Several times one of the 4 guards, who paced up and down between the tables, would shout “recount!”, and all of the men would have to leave their tables and line up against the wall while the guards counted and recounted them. I noticed the feigned meekness in which the inmates did this. They were not going to cause trouble; there was no way that they were going to jeopardize this precious time with their loved ones. But there was resentment as well – “why is this necessary?”

The guards do not seem overly tough; in fact, in my time there they seemed to go against the stereotypical image of extreme rigidity.

There is also a cautious honoring and obeying of the rules on the part of the inmates and their families.

There is some kind of fierce dynamic being played out between the guards and the inmates. I sensed a very fragile truce being held that at any moment could catapult out of control. As if the very sense of calm and serenity of everything was indicative of something eruptive that was held at bay.

As the day wore on, I knew that I would stay the full time – until 3. There was no way that my need to get home “early” was more important to me than being able to give Greg a small reprieve from his cell. The last hour we played checkers. I didn’t notice anybody else leave before 3.

Precisely at 3pm the guard called out something, and the prisoners went to one side of the room, and the visitors went to the other. I noticed that Greg had left his jacket (he had brought it for me to sit on, because he thought the seats would be too hard for me). I grabbed it and went to the prisoner side of the room to give to Greg, but I couldn’t’ find him amidst the orange uniforms. Another inmate found him for me.

I joined the visitor side. The women blew kisses and love to their men as they were led, one by one, into the room where they were searched and then handcuffed and shackled. I waved to Greg and he smiled broadly. We waited to go, into the holding pen and then out to the long fenced tunnel.

Walking back there was no talking amongst the visitors, but I felt a kind of bond with them. We had to be searched again, and then were released. I went to the bathroom in the registration area and by the time I came out everyone was gone. It was still delightfully warm and breezy as I walking to the empty parking log. And very, very quiet.