Talking poetry on death row

An Irishman’s Diary: No ordinary book club

‘Serious and very basic questions are being asked about the death penalty all round the US. People are beginning to hope that the end of the death penalty may be near. Perhaps that is the best sign of hope for Ray?’

‘Serious and very basic questions are being asked about the death penalty all round the US. People are beginning to hope that the end of the death penalty may be near. Perhaps that is the best sign of hope for Ray?’

Thu, Oct 3, 2013, 01:00

It could almost have been a book club meeting. But no ordinary one. Six men discussing a book of poetry from their individual cells on a landing of a US maximum security prison.

I had sent them the book, so naturally I was pleased when I heard they enjoyed the poems. Favourite lines were read out and shared. I should have sent more than one copy of the book. Now it had to be passed from hand to hand. From cell to cell.

The six African-Americans were under lock and key in tiny claustrophobic cells – 8ft x 5ft – on death-row in one of the southern states in the US. I am friends with one of the six; I know Ray (not his real name) well. We have been corresponding since 2005.

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes was the name of the book. Long before I sent the book, Ray knew about Hughes, an African-American whose poetry affectionately portrayed the black people of the US.

Ray was born in 1977. Not a day passes but he doesn’t think back to that horrific day when his impulsive street violence left one man dead. Both the mother of the dead man and the trial jury pleaded with the judge not to impose the death penalty but to no avail. Remnants of old customs linger – in a few states the judge can still override the jury.

Ray sent me a book from death row. “Read this book and you will learn what kind of a life I had when I was young. The book is yours now. When the officers search our cells they just scatter our books and letters all over the place. Do they not realise that we have nothing in this world but our letters and books?”

Manchild in the Promised Land is probably the most chilling book I ever read. The author, Claude Brown (1937–2002) told of a harrowing Harlem childhood spent among killers, drug addicts and prostitutes. Published in 1965, it put the spotlight on the lives of urban blacks.

So far in 2013, 23 people have been executed in seven states by lethal injection – including one woman, Kimberly McCarthy in Texas. Eleven executions make Texas the most active death penalty state, then Florida (four), Oklahoma (three), Ohio (two) and one each in Alabama, Georgia and Virginia.

Andrew Lackey (AL) and Robert Gleason (VA) voluntarily withdrew from the appeals process and were executed without further ado. In Texas Billy Slagle took his own life. Ray knows that he must stay strong in this place he calls “hell” and he writes in one letter, “If my time comes, I hope I will be able to man up to it”.

At present serious and very basic questions are being asked about the death penalty all round the US. People are beginning to hope that the end of the death penalty may be near. Perhaps that is the best sign of hope for Ray?

For the past 17 years Ray has spent 23 hours of every day locked in his cell. He spends the 24th hour on the basketball court. This summer the weather was hot and clammy in the prison which has no air conditioning and where one can have a shower only every second day. Ray hasn’t seen a flower for years. Around the edges of the basketball court there are puny straggling weeds.

He spends much of each day lying on the thin mattress of his bed. His only company are cockroaches. “I haven’t seen a rat for some time now!” He can’t spend all day reading, so he counts the bars of his cell – again and again.

His mother and sisters comes to visit whenever they have the petrol money. The visits are bitter sweet. Ray wrote, “I have not to look back once I get my last hugs and kisses. One time I looked back and saw my mother’s face. It crushed my whole insides.”

Now Ray has just one appeal left. “I must have hope – without it I have nothing.” Nothing except the poisonous needle.

Here are Ray’s favourite lines from As Befits a Man, a poem by Langston Hughes: “I don’t mind dying – but I’d hate to die all alone/I want a dozen pretty women to holler, cry and moan.” Next month he will be told the result of his appeal.

Seán Ó Riain is co-author with Ray of Condemned Letters from Death Row (Liberties Press)

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