By Alex M
Have you ever been deep in a forest before a thunder storm, when the air is green, electrified, smelling of ozone? That is akin to the environment in prison on the day of an execution, at least here at Greensville, the actual location where death is delivered on schedule, death conjured by the state as a reprimand for causing death. There is a sense of tension and danger in the air.
It is not the typical danger and tension, though. It is a ton of potential energy embedded in stillness. No one moves, but everyone feels set to run, even though running cannot save and there is nowhere to hide, or such is the feeling. Rather than a sense of impending conflict between residents, it is everywhere but intangible, respecting no factions. Everyone feels an unquantifiable danger from an unknown, nonhuman entity. Just like preceding lightning strikes, this produces strange bedfellows, foxes bedding down with deer beneath the boughs, Bloods sitting beside Skinheads on communal benches, docilely tuned out, staring at the pod television. There is an interesting actual peace embedded within this tension. In fact, contrary to the normal petty squabbles and ever-present fist fights, no one seems to get to that point on this day. Everyone is on their calmest behavior, even while on pins and needles. It is almost as if, in the presence of the ultimate violence, everyone reflects a little and instinctively seeks to avoid more, be it out of fear or sudden humility. Almost as if the danger could zap any of us if we draw too much attention this day. Things that would normally be said to assert dominance are left unsaid typically. If they are expressed, it is without gusto and often left to whither. The tension in the air saps much of the anger for daily interactions.
The quiet is almost oppressive. The usual din of many competing lives, like in a forest, is subdued. What is usually a clanging, shouting, echoing environment here becomes repressed, physically and auditorily, all day leading up to the nighttime execution.
This tense calm is oddly compartmentalized. It does not come up weeks or even multiple days before the execution. Guarded mentions do begin to filter in the week before, but they are only verbal. Just like that pre-storm forest, the local residents only sense it in the air when it is near enough to pose a threat. The aura does not last, gone the next day, but that day shows clear differences in tenor of the realm.
All day long, no one admits it, but everyone sneaks peeks at the fence line to try to see the potential protesters. Also, there are furtive glances towards the segregation building, where the death chamber resides.
Like the overall atmospheric tension, the specific topic remains mostly in the ether. It is on everyone's minds, but the actual execution is mostly unspoken about. Often, it passes lips only because it cannot be ignored, like when its occurrence pops up on the news of the pod TV. There is an entirely surreal feeling that occurs when this prison, where we are isolated and forgotten, never spoken of as human beings, suddenly shows up on the news that all the state's "normal" people watch.
Most of those who do bring up the subject do so with some timidity, unsure what perspective to take. From in here, there are warring perspectives on this subject.
On killing day, there is always a little, literally, gallows humor. Death nearby is unusual and unsettling for many, anywhere. Death on schedule right next door is particularly so. Thus, some of the men here, most of whom have not been taught tremendous emotional skills, cope by trying to laugh. Besides, wit is a highly respected skill here, where joy can be so tough to come by and no one can make more than 45 cents per hour. In this situation, those jokes are somewhat tortured in most cases. For instance, I have heard numerous references likening the executee to the upcoming week's charred "meat rock," the indeterminate meat substitute mush we eat so regularly here, again, despite the fact that it is no longer death via the electric chair. Once, I heard a couple of guys that day ironically singing Europe's, "Final Countdown."
Perhaps my most surprising observation has been the minority-- but surprisingly large number, considering-- of people behind bars who want to harshly, publicly judge the person being executed. Often, this involves exaggerated discussion of the alleged crime's details and even of the person's character and personality. This is sold as believable knowledge here slightly better than in most settings because a few here have been on death row and then brought back to simply life sentences (do you celebrate that, I always wonder?), and nearly everyone has been at a jail or prison with someone who ended up there. Still, most of it is hogwash, a way to guys to differentiate themselves, to be better than at least someone. That is the most shocking thing about prison, in general. It is, ironically, the most judgmental environment that I have ever encountered. It is true that, for some people who have no hope and no confidence, little family support (and it is exactly those people who judge the loudest here), putting others down becomes an act of public substitution.
There is even a very small contingent of people who use these executions to outright declare, "I may have [insert conviction here], but at least I never [insert details of executee's charges here]. Everyone who does that deserves to die. It even says so in the Bible." Not the norm, but I have heard that exact sentence a handful of times.
At the same time, when the topic is broached on state killing day, it also sometimes involves responses of measured clarity and reason that follow the jokes and judgment, almost always ending discussion. While those negative references tend to be made with somewhat nervous energy audible in the tone, these responses come in calmer, firmer tones. They typically come from the quieter guys, but men whose word comes with greater cachet. Often they are men who have educated themselves and had careers. They do not bring the topic up-- one, Mr. Grooms, explained it was tacky to do so but that he couldn't ignore the ignorance he heard-- but when they respond the discussion is usually put to rest. There are a handful of people here whose words are almost never directly challenged, and they are often those that speak most sparingly. On this topic, such prison sages almost invariably, regardless of their demographics or views, speak of the ills of the state's system. Thus is the one thing that the most leaders here agree on: that the death penalty enacted in our home is an unfair, unjust travesty that never gets applied to anyone but the poor. Other arguments are sometimes made, but that is the common crux. This is not the majority making such reasonable points, but those widely considered the "best." It actually takes much courage and confidence to not judge while in prison.
On execution day, things are so different that it affects every level of this setting. Even guards and staff treat us differently, with greater decency and deference. The officers who usually come here on power trips, spouting demeaning words every chance, stand around quietly, not saying much. Those who generally have some kindness wear an aura of almost sympathy. Whereas most days there is staff pride in refusing to let any residents know anything about what is going on, that standard is relaxed slightly. Any upcoming lockdown is usually denied vociferously up until the moment it occurs, and then never explained. In contrast, this last time, a humane lieutenant here came in to the pod hours before and not only reminded everyone that lockdown was coming for the evening, but she gave guys extra time in the last minutes beforehand to finish using the microwave, phone, and shower. Overall, during the course of these days, before the overnight lockdown begins at six, the general treatment is markedly better. There are almost no whistles blown, we get everything we are supposed to get in the dining hall without argument. Everyone who works here is on their best behavior.
However, it does inevitably involve being caged in our cells all evening, starting hours before the event. This began many, many decades ago because the actual event had historically produced sudden surges of reactionary rioting, especially in highly charged, unjust cases. Thus, it always comes with a degree of punishment for us all, a reduced opportunity to bathe, socialize, and call our families. This interruption almost forces us to therefore have to eventually explain and discuss with those family members. This feels macabre.
They, the old heads, claim the lights throughout the prisons (elsewhere, not here) flickered when the reaper came knocking. That is no longer the case, I've concluded after being neighbor to three executions, though some here say it still happens. I don't know why it would since it's by injected drugs now. Likely some folks here very understandably want to maintain some supernatural elements to this thing none of us can fully comprehend: death on cue next door.
Just a little bit before the appointed hour, it becomes utterly quiet. It's more still and silent than any other time here beginning at around 8:00 pm. Then, in the last few minutes leading up to the actual time of the execution, you can hear a pin drop. Rather than the usual rounds the guards make through the pod, we are for those couple hours left entirely to ourselves. When the appointed time comes, or as close as we can determine, there is an eerie emptiness. Hardly even any talking within the cells, so far as I can tell. Focused on our books or TV shows, we attempt to remove ourselves from this reality. Under normal lockdown circumstances, the slightest stimulus produces regular banging on the steel doors and shouting out the skinny strips of windows, a natural enough response to being caged in like an animal. This is usually heightened when anything tense occurs. On this night, though, this does not happen. Occasionally there has been a single man who banged once right after it was over. While such expressions otherwise would escalate, the stillness here almost swallowed it and no one responded. Immediately, the silence returned, and so it remained that night and so it remains every execution night, even after the event.
It stays that quiet even in the cell, at least for the most part. The attitude is, “I do not wish to focus too much on it because it is, literally, too close to home.” In some cases, once the evening news pops up with the story and a quote of the last words, it may be temporarily broken. I had one cell mate who made mention of it at that time. This led to some brief philosophy, mostly aimed at the unfairness of such a system, the inhumanity. The risk feels too personal to conclude anything else. Likewise, the topic, if it comes up, quickly dies, too. There is not much to be said about death on cue right down the boulevard. The only exception: this can entail some oddly nostalgic waxing about past executions and different routines and speculation about guards liking it.
The next day, it is like it never happened. Literally overnight, the threat from the storm has passed and the forest returned to normal roles and operations. It is not spoken of again, period. Like it never happened, even though every single man here holds distinct memories of every time he has been here when it did.
Alex M is a brother who is currently incarcerated.