Words That Sustain Me: We’ll Fly Away – differences in death row experiences

“And maybe most importantly, it is a book that invites readers to ask the question: do I believe a person can ever be beyond redemption? My hope is that, after reading We’ll Fly Away, the only answer can be ‘no’.” — Bryan Bliss.

September’s book, We’ll Fly Away (WFA) by Bryan Bliss is a special book as our bookclub has combined with the TCADP book club to read it together. While reading WFA, I saw some differences in between Texas death row and North Carolina death row. I know WFA is a work of fiction and it might not be one hundred percent accurate in describing how things are on North Carolina death row. Even so, I wanted to share my thoughts on these differences.

I was sent to Texas death row in 1999. At that time we were at the Ellis unit. When I arrived the only group activity was recreation. At Ellis, there were three rows of cells, each row to being a rec group. And there were up to twenty one men in each group. Group rec was the highlight of the day as we’d all get out of our solitary confinement cells and come together to socialize. We could choose to watch TV, play chess, Scrabble or dominoes in the large day room. Or we could go onto the rec yard and play basketball or hand ball. The yard was large enough that guys could jog around it.

When Texas death row was moved to Polunsky unit group rec ended. We’re now in solitary confinement and if there’s enough guards to run rec, it’s a solitary activity in a day room. It has been like this for the past twenty three years.

IN WFA, Luke talks about going to rec with Eddie and playing basketball. He describes the other guys on the yard and the good times he has with others. He also writes about the potentially dangerous situations he has to navigate while out with the other prisoners on the rec yard.

It might sound like nothing to you, but having a group setting to socialize with other people is a big thing for prisoners in solitary confinement on death row. We’re all social creatures, it’s in our DNA to want to live in groups and share life together. I have memories of good experiences in group rec on Ellis unit in 1999. Out of that twenty one man rec group, one guy is alive today. Every other person has been executed.

Luke is not in solitary confinement. I’m not sure of the exact situation he lives in, maybe he has a cell mate or is locked in a cell at night. When he’s sent to solitary confinement, it’s different than his normal housing situation he’s in.

Luke writes to Toby, “a day or a week, you come out different.” And “you are bent in a direction you’re not meant to be.”

I’ve been in solitary confinement since May 1998, when I was arrested for a crime I’m innocent of. I’ve spent the best years of my life in a cage. As I’ve said before, when in an insane situation you sacrifice part of your sanity to keep your wits about you. One thing for sure, living half my lifein a cell the size of your bathroom is not normal.

Luke has contact legal visits with his appeal attorney Marilyn who comes to visit him weekly and they’re in a setting that allows her touch him. Also, Sister has contact visit/access to the prisoners on North Carolina death row and is able to touch, even hug them.

On Texas death row there is no contact visit at all. Not with attorneys nor with ministers nor family. There’s something humanizing in being able to touch those who come to visit you. Too often I feel unnatural because I never touch anyone. Somehow that lack of normal contact makes me feel less than human. Almost like a failed experiment because I was made for physical interaction but for a quarter of a century I’ve not had it.

Those some of the differences I noticed and the quality of my life would be improved if I had what Luke has on North Carolina death row.