Thursday, May 15, 2014

From Death to Life

By Tom Odle

On January 11, 2003, former Governor Ryan announced to students, abolitionists and former Death Row inmates at Northwestern Illinois University that he was commuting the sentences of everyone on Death Row in the State of Illinois to natural life without the possibility of parole. I was 35 years old and had spent 17 years, 6 months and 7 day on Illinois Death Row.

During those days prior to the announcement there was a fury of clemency petitions being filed in the hope that Governor Ryan would grant them, as he had granted a moratorium in 2000 which halted all further executions because so many people were being found innocent and sitting on Death Row waiting to be murdered by the state for crimes they did not commit.  There were more people exonerated than executed, it seemed, and thus the moratorium and talk of clemency.  

As the announcement was being televised, all the TV’s on the condemned unit were blaring loudly and all I could here was the governor saying what we wanted and waited to hear: that the death sentences of 167 men and women in Illinois were commuted.  The cell house erupted into cheers.  Officers who were watching walked off the gallery – some angry, some did not care one way or the other.  But we, the men on Death Row, were overjoyed.

Within the next few days, we signed our commutation papers and began evaluations with social workers and counselors to determine if we were able to go to General Population or sent to a “Special Treatment Center.” There were some mentally ill people housed with us who really belonged hospitalized instead of locked in a cage with minimal mental health care.  

As these evaluations were taking place, the reality of actually not having to worry about being placed on a gurney and wheeled into a room while people watched me take my last breath chained and strapped down began to sink in.

Hope took root and began to grow because life was gifted back to me. Hope on Death Row is something you don’t allow yourself to have because Death Row is a barren place full of unbeatable challenges and people waiting to die.  No human being should be deemed beyond hopeless or left without it.  What is the purpose of life if not to grow and change?

As days passed, we were no longer moved with handcuffs and shackles.  Previously at visits we were chained and shackled to chairs.  Imagine the look of loved ones when they see you chained like a wild animal, caught and subdued.  You see the pain in their eyes even as they try to hide it.  Illinois Death Row prisoners were fortunate in that we had contact visits but those chains caused great discomfort.  Once the death sentence was lifted, I was released from chains and, funny as it may seem, I didn’t know what to do with my hands after growing accustomed to having them cuffed for so many years.  Do I put them in my pocket?  Do I swing my arms when I walk?  I’d forgotten how to move about without restricted limbs.

General Population (GP) panicked when they learned we were joining their ranks.  They began writing to wardens and anyone else who would listen that they didn’t want to be housed or celled with former Death Row inmates.  Those of us who stayed at Menard (Death Row prisoners were housed at either Menard and Pontiac at that time) were celled with each other and those who went to Stateville, which is where I was sent, were met with little static from GP.  Although my first cellie was leery of me once he learned where I came from.  He would literally jump out of bed when I came off my bunk, as though he feared I’d attack him, which was surprising, considering that he was twice my size.

As we integrated into GP, staff supervised to ensure we had no problems. We stood out because we had red ID cards while everyone else had white or blue.  For the most part, the staff at Stateville was really nice about everything and would ask regularly if we needed anything or were cool with our cellies.  They made the transition easier and I was eventually able to get a good friend from Death Row moved into my cell when the first guy moved out after a few weeks.  We were cellies for a few years and maybe celling us together was not such a bad idea after all.

Another challenge in GP was the crowds. I was not used to being around so many people at one time.  I was always watching people – trying to figure out where I could go without causing any waves.  Most guys knew where I came from so they were forgiving of transgressions and I learned quickly and created a routine.  I was never scared, I just liked to stay out of the way and be left alone because that is what prison and solitary confinement conditioned me to be comfortable with.

After adjusting to GP, I was transferred to Med-Max facility, a step down in security from the Maximum Security prison, allowing me more unrestricted movement, programs and more job opportunities and hope began to flourish. I marveled at all the new options available to me.  Facilities like Stateville had no programs, but at Med-Max, I was able to enroll in college.  I was elated because it was something I always wanted to do but Death Row prisoners were denied such privileges.  Why educate the dead?  

I took Philosophy and Religion as my first class and thought I would breeze through it as I had in high school. Boy, was I wrong!  I failed my first of three tests and I then decided to give it my all because I had come too far to play games and if I was going to fail, it wasn’t going to be because I hadn’t applied myself. I made A’s on the next two exams and ended up with a B for the class.  I never failed another exam and graduated college with an Associate Degree in General Studies with honors.  I got a job working floor care, stripping wax off and reapplying it to maintain gloss for years, and I was also one of three people chosen to paint murals for the facility. 

I began painting on Death Row as a way to redirect my anger and stress.  Some guys who knew how to paint guided me and I was off and running.  I have been the featured artist in several prison art shows and really just enjoy painting as a creative outlet.

Once I did all that I could in the Med-Max facility, I was transferred again to a Med facility (another step down in security) where I now work and am involved in a peer education program.  I tell my story and try to get the young kids coming in to change their ways before they end up in my shoes, with about 30 years in prison to show for a life.  Before I came to Dixon I was stagnant.  I had no life and no hope. Now, I am hope in full bloom and I can think beyond these walls to dream of tomorrow and to work to become the person I’ve always wanted to be. 

I am 47 years old, with 11 years off Death Row and even though I still pretty much live a solitary life in prison because that is what prison is, I live a much different life now that hope has been restored. Hope has given me the key to life.  

Tom Odle 

1 comment:

A Friend said...

The following comment was sent in by a reader named Heather:

Tom, firstly, I am so heartened to read that after your long struggle, you have hope. Without hope we are nothing but a shell going through the motions of pretending to live. Thank you, too, for reminding of that great speech by Governor Ryan – and what it meant for Death Row in Illinois. To read about the inmates reaction to it, although predictable, is very moving; and reminds me of what hope it gave me (and many others, I’m sure) that the days of Capital Punishment in the US were numbered. Governor Ryan spoke of the frustration he felt with a system that refused to reform. Well - who would have thought – 11 years later, we still are in the same predicament; people being found to be innocent on Death Row, after years of incarceration – and the refusal by politicians and the legal system to act. What does it take, I wonder? A botched execution? It seems timely for the New York Times to reprint Governor Ryan’s 2003 speech. You see, I still have hope that if enough Americans are made aware of the full facts about the Death Penalty, it will cease to be used. Action against it will be taken. My hope is underscored by the recent comments by Oliver North, a long-time opponent of the Death Penalty. [K. Williams, “Oliver North, a Warrior Against the Death Penalty?” Politisite. May 14, 2014] Thank you, Tom, for reminding me of how important it is to hope. My best wishes to you.

Townsville, Australia