Inmates often write to our organization with varying requests, sometimes asking for us to help prove their innocence or provide legal advice, but more often than not, just asking for our newsletter or looking for someone to share their story with. As an intern, it’s been one of my responsibilities to sift through this mail and determine an appropriate response. When I first attempted to address the stack of letters, on my second day on the job, I came across this poem written by a man who goes by “the Death Row Poet.”
Yes, even as a little boy,
I brought more tears
than I brought joy
And yet it seems
like such a bad dream
But that’s the life,
the life I’ve seen.
– excerpt from “Little Boy”
It arrived in a crinkled envelope, printed in the top left corner of the page. The rest of the paper was filled with a handwritten, personal message in sprawling, hasty-looking blue letters. They conveyed the earnest hopes of a man seeking to be heard, but as I read through them, my eyes kept returning to the poem. I was struck by it’s sadness. In so few words, there is an immeasurable pain. It paints the story of a victim of circumstance, like so many others on death row, born into a world that rejected him, led him down the wrong paths, and brought him to death row, where the violence and tragedy of his life will eventually be ended with the savage brutality of a public execution. As I read his letter, I realized, maybe for the first time, that the death penalty dealt with real people.
The other work I performed for my internship would help me become better versed in the logic-based arguments surrounding the death penalty—cost, innocence, mental illness, racial bias, unfair trials, and botched executions, to name a few—but the lesson I gained from these letters, and the sense of humanity I could see in each of these people, remained my driving force as I became more and more invested in the abolition movement.
I began to feel aware of the shameful, emotional weight that came with taking the life of another person. And over the course of the summer, my work began to feel more imminent, pressing, and dark. Secrecy laws surrounding lethal injection drug sources quietly appeared across the country. Executions in different states were conveniently scheduled on the same day, with three occurring in a single night in one instance, diffusing criticism and making it difficult for us to give adequate attention to each case. A man with seemingly legitimate claims to innocence was executed without consideration of new, possibly exonerating evidence. And, after a long campaign raising awareness of the dangers of drug secrecy, we were unfortunately proven correct with the botched execution of Joseph Wood.
But despite this disheartening and grim series of events, being at NCADP always provided reminders that there were real bodies behind the news, people were deeply affected by these tragedies. One morning, as we were preparing for the execution of Eddie Davis in Florida, we received a two dollar donation from an inmate serving a life sentence. Some of our staff gathered to read his message and contemplate this gift, a small sum to us, but a generous sacrifice from someone with almost nothing to spare. It was humbling, sobering, but so reassuring, reminding us that people really, really cared about what we were doing.
I never thought before starting here that I would find myself in a situation where I was fighting to defend the life of a convicted murderer, and never thought I would be so sad and shocked to see him die. I might have expressed regret at the idea of an execution, but it would have been, to a degree, mitigated by the knowledge that the inmate had committed unspeakable crimes. But after coming to NCADP, there was no semblance of this dynamic. I learned from the people at this organization. All of them are incredibly committed, dedicated, and driven people. They never let the charges leveled against an inmate cloud their vision of justice or make them forget that they were still a human being. And that lesson has been invaluable to me. It extends beyond just death penalty issues.
I am leaving here feeling unburdened of any notion of vengeance, looking only to give mercy and forgiveness where it is needed, and convinced that this is the only true deterrent to violence and crime. A person who commits a violent act is not a walking incarnation of evil, they are humans, often victims of horrific circumstances, often mentally ill, the subject of a tragic story, a source of suffering to many beyond themselves, but still a person. In order to move beyond criminal activity, rather than replicate the very things we are correcting, we should demonstrate compassion, empathy, and respect for everyone’s most basic human right: life. Without those things, we do not set an example, we do not hold ourselves to a higher standard, and we do not live in a more meaningful way.
Thank you, NCADP and everyone else in this movement, for the work that you do.
From NCADP Staff: It has been an absolute pleasure working with Ben (aka the office “Meme King”)! He is a tremendously hard worker who has consistently gone above and beyond in completing any project we’ve assigned to him. We genuinely appreciate his insight, creativity and cheerful spirit. We will miss having him in our office, but look forward to seeing him step into, what is sure to be, a wonderfully bright future. Go get ’em!