My Life on Death Row
NOTHING IN YOUR PREVIOUS life prepares you for living on death row. You’re like a head of cabbage in a garden: planted, forced to lead a static existence, every day exactly like the last and the next. Unlike the cabbage, though, your life is without purpose. You are a cipher merely holding a place, awaiting your turn in the execution chamber. Until that day comes, perpetual misery is your condition in life, and your reward for surviving today is that you get to suffer tomorrow as well.
On April 11, 1962, I was cuffed, chained, and transported to Louisiana’s death row. There were twelve other men living in the fifteen available cells. Roaches scattered as I entered Cell 9. It was about the size of the bathroom in a typical middle class American home: six feet wide by eight feet deep.
Restlessness went with living in such a small space. There was room enough only for push-ups, sit-ups, and squats, insufficient to exercise all the body’s muscles. We were allowed out of our cells and into the hallway—one at a time—for only fifteen minutes twice a week for a shower. We spent years like this, always indoors, with no sunshine.
Worse than the physical toll exacted on our bodies was the toll on our minds. Death row was bedlam—an unending chorus of flushing toilets, curses shouted across the tier by feuding inmates, petty arguments over virtually anything, and competing radios trying to out-blare one another. Most of the pandemonium on death row was a result of men being driven mad by monotony, severe emotional deprivation, and the lack of normalcy.
We were like human animals in one of the old-style zoos, before society realized it was inhumane to confine a large beast in a cramped cage. And like the tiger that obsessively bobs from one side to the other of his barred cage, we would pace back and forth over the small patch of floor beside our bunks. Four steps, turn; four steps, turn; four steps, turn, for hours on end, stopping at the bars of the cell to stare out at nothing. On occasion, a man might bang his head against the steel bars so he would draw enough blood to be sent to the hospital for the criminally insane, where conditions were better and the insanity label protected him from execution.
We were a motley lot with little in common save that each had committed a crime. We were lumped together against our will, and life devoid of the pleasantries that prop us up in the outside world was disorienting. Most people seldom think about the trivial social interactions that fill our everyday lives: from the clerk in the grocery who wishes us a good day, to our fellow passenger on the bus who nods a morning greeting, to the co-workers or cleaning crew with whom we routinely exchange small talk. But these “meaningless” social relations are part of the glue that holds us together, that lets us know we have a place in the world. Cut off from them, and often abandoned by friends and family, men can become unmoored.
That is what happens on death row. You lose the sense of yourself as part of a larger whole, a context in which your being has meaning and makes sense. You begin a struggle to keep your sanity. You must be on guard against magical thinking, the temptation to indulge in non-rational cause and effect, like thinking that the prison served red beans twice this week because you willed it, or that a judge will reverse your conviction if your horoscope continues to show the stars in a favorable alignment.
On death row, where there is no meaning, your mind tries to create meaning out of nothing, and this can lead you to confuse fantasy with reality.
Besides fighting to stay sane, every day you must justify your existence to yourself, justify why you continue to live when you’re merely waiting to die, when the whole world wants you dead.
Books were what saved me. I turned to them just to kill time and to give my mind something to fasten onto so I wouldn’t go crazy. It turned out that reading connected me back to the world in a more positive way than I had ever been connected before.
Gradually, I grew and matured and shed the ignorance that had driven me to death row.
I wasn’t unique: Most of the guys on death row took up reading or studying or corresponded with good Samaritans and became better than the worst thing they had ever done.
I realize every day just how fortunate I am to have survived death row. Stanley “Tookie” Williams wasn’t so lucky: The co-founder of America’s premier street gang, the Crips, reformed himself in prison and wrote books to deter youngsters from following in his footsteps. No matter. California executed him in 2005 after he’d spent twenty-five years on death row.
To the state, Tookie was less than a head of cabbage.
Wilbert Rideau is author of “In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance,” a memoir. While in prison, he became a journalist and won some of America’s most prestigious journalism awards, including a George Polk Award and the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel.
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