Often times when I inform people that I am an organizer for an anti-death penalty organization one of the first questions I typically receive revolves around my visitation or involvement with Tennessee’s death row inmates. While I write some prisoners and am hoping to visit one in the New Year, I always feel somewhat disappointed when I inform folks that I have only been out to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution once and that was for an execution. This past Thursday I had the very special privilege of handing out gift packages to a number of prisoners at Riverbend. (photo above is Harmon Wray taken by Daniel Dubois, Harmon was a frequent visitor of Riverbend)
First, I have to admit something. There is a stretch approaching Riverbend on Cockrill Bend Blvd. that winds around and is dimly lit. Both times I have driven along it I have felt a tinge of fear in my spine. I can’t fully explain this, but there is just something about going to the grounds of a place where you have explicit knowledge of people’s lives being taken. Also, on this occasion I was nervous about conversing with prisoners as a free man. What would we chat about? My apprehension though dissipated as I saw the warm faces of others handing out presents in the lobby of the visitors building, including the Visitor on Death Row coordinator, Susan McBride. After signing in, passing through the metal detector, and receiving a pat down, we were ready to greet some prisoners and hopefully bring some holiday cheer into their lives. Also, an important realization helped to ease my tensions. Why on earth was I worried about myself and how I would act? These men are worried about their families and loved ones and all they can do is wait for their next visit or communicate via phone and letter. My worries were meaningless and bringing them inside the prison grounds would only compound the inescapable gravity of being an inmate in a maximum security prison.
I presupposed that the inmates at Riverbend would be happy to see us. I imagine that any departure from the daily grind of being prisoners would be welcomed. I was surprised though to see how happy and appreciative of our 3 hours they all were. The first prisoners we interacted with were a line of fellows that greeted us as we entered the chapel. I shook hands with them and wished them a Merry Christmas, just as I will when I see my father in Seattle, or my friend tomorrow. After some snacks provided by the prison cafeteria we headed to the first housing unit to hand out presents. When we walked into the open area of the housing unit I looked at the cells and saw eyes peering out curiously from almost every cell. I too was curious to see what their lives were like.
I spent on average 10-15 minutes talking with 6 different prisoners, one in particular I remember well. His name was Frank and he was from Memphis. Frank had a nice southern drawl and his small cell was clean and organized. When the doors were unlocked I handed him his gift package and we shook hands. Frank immediately asked me what my ethnicity was. I told him that I was half-Korean and half-Caucasian and I was then surprised to find out that he was too. As we conversed about football and CSI, I couldn’t help wondering what had happened in his life that resulted in him committing a crime worthy of decades in prison. Where had our two lives, as fellow biracial half-Koreans diverged? I reminisced on my childhood—caring parents who were involved with every facet of my life, the affordance and privilege of going to college. Did Frank ever have a chance or was he like many of his fellow inmates, born into a system that marginalizes the poor and punishes them for their mistakes.
They say that one of the simplest ways to judge a society is to view its treatment of its outcasts. I won’t place much judgment onto the actual conditions of the prison (although the cells were tiny and no lunch is served on the weekends), but instead I hope that when people read this they ponder this important notion. Prisoners are human beings just like free men and women. They laugh and cry; they have families; they like sports and television; they are capable of expressing gratitude. Each and every prisoner I had the chance to meet was so incredibly grateful of the time we were spending with them; the look on their faces was something I won’t soon forget. Just 15 minutes of conversation. 3 hours total. To them, it was so much more. Thinking back, to me, it was much more as well.
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