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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Alcatraz of the South, Part 6: When the Dreams Began – The Dance With Death

By Michael Lambrix

To read Part 5 click here

It shouldn’t have been this cold when it was barely October, at least not here in Florida and yet there I was awaken in the dead of the night soaked in a cold sweat.  Instantly wide awake, I had been all but violently catapulted back into this realm of reality by the first nightmare that I could recall, and even to this day more than a quarter of a century later, I still remember it only so well.

It was early October 1986, and I had recently been moved to another cell, one just vacated by the condemned man who had hung himself from the ventilation duct in his desperate attempt to escape the reality that was “Death Row”.  I’m not the superstitious sort and never put much stock into “ghosts,” at least not until that night.  Over the years I’ve heard my share of stores that would probably make most shudder and been awaken many nights by the screams of another prisoner who claimed to have seen something – some even claimed to have been physically touched.

I suppose that is should be expected, given the violence and inhumanity that hangs like a wet blanket over any prison. Especially one with the dark history of Florida State Prison, where far more have died a violent death than have been put to death by state sanctioned execution on the infamous “Q-wing.” At the time I could see it from the distant catwalk window from that particular cell I then occupied.

It was strange, and yet familiar, as most dreams can be.  Shadowy shapes crowned by featureless faces that could not be recognized. But there was a part of your inner consciousness that knew who they were.  Each detail was branded into my steel bunk, the well-worn mattress soaked in my own sweat and now stinking of urine and other bodily fluids I don’t care to contemplate, and I lay as still as a trembling man might, staring anxiously at the small steel-grated ventilation duct, as if I perhaps if stared long enough, I would see what something within me believed to be there.

Time becomes irrelevant when one remains trapped between what we might dare call “reality” and that world in which our mind plays when we dare to drift off to sleep.  You know what I’m talking about. We have all been there in our own way.  Only, this was my first trip to that abyss where my own consciousness balanced precariously between those two worlds.

I could not bring myself to look around for fear that it was not a dream.  I could only lay still, willing them to go away.  But they didn’t leave.  They had come for me, the cruel trick of a twisted mind.  I would be deprived of those last few days and hours I had mentally come to count on.  They would rob me of those moments in which I could convince myself I had cheated death, reminding me of that truth we all try to deny: that when it comes down to it, nobody really cheats death.  In the end, nobody gets out alive – nobody.

In this nightmare, my time had come and now all that remained was stolen time that would soon expire.  But it was only a dream – a nightmare, or was it? In that moment, it seemed so real that it had to be real.

I felt myself reading upwards until my hand touched the top of my head in a desperate attempt to reassure myself, as we all know only too well that they will shave the condemned man’s head before that final hour.  Something within me involuntarily screamed as my sweaty palm ran its way across my head, realizing to my horror that it was shaven and so it had to be real, and my fear rose to a new level.  Like a trapped and cornered animal, I felt that panic within me and turned to face that voice of that angel-of-death that now stood before me, dressed in black as if it was the Grim Reaper himself.  It was the prison warden and he looked back at me with an emotionless stare, while all but chanting those few words no condemned man wants to hear… “It’s time to go!”  He had been through this many times and had long ago become enslaved by the strict routine – or as they call it, “protocol.”

Behind the warden stood the prison chaplain.  Desperately, our eyes momentary locked as I stared into his soul, hoping to find even the slightest hint of mercy and compassion, and yet my stare was met only by the graven gleam of a man only too willing to deliver my soul into the very pits of hell himself, and that ever so slight smile that ripped apart his cracked lips confirmed that I would find no measure and mercy from the man of “God”…and I should have known better than to expect such.  I have never known a prison chaplain that had anything but uncompromised malice towards all condemned prisoners.

Nowhere to run, no on to turn to, I felt myself rising from that bunk, moving in a crab-like crawl towards the black wall and unable to go any further, unable to escape….and they stepped forward towards me.  I could not get away. I was hopelessly trapped and apparently the only one who didn’t know it.  With nothing more than a nod of his head, two faceless guards came towards me.  I felt that need to struggle, to fight, but I didn’t…I couldn’t.  They knew what to do and without hesitation, they grabbed me by my upper arms from both sides, all but immobilizing my body with their seemingly superhuman grip.  Within me, I screamed, I struggled, but my own fear had paralyzed me into complete submission.

Almost dragging me from within that relative sanctuary that was my solitary cell, I pled with my captors as they pulled me into that brightly lit hallway. If only I had a few more minutes, just a little bit more time, I would win a reprieve.  They didn’t have to do this, I argued.  But my pleas fell upon calloused ears and again all became silent as I was physically pulled towards the open solid steel door that led beyond and into the fate that awaited me.

In that silence that can only scream from within, my mind continued to struggle and beg with my captors and yet those words within me wouldn’t come out.  My body numbly continued forward as I felt so utterly helpless, so completely alienated from all that was being played out.  It was not really happening – it could not be happening, and yet, it was.

As a group, with my body still firmly gripped at each side by the muscular guards, we stepped into that death chamber and there only a few feet in front of me, I came face to face with that seemingly surreal chariot of death they proudly proclaimed to be “ole Sparky,” Florida’s infamous inmate-built electric chair.  There it sat in a state of inanimate, deathly patience as it awaited its next victim and in that distorted reality of which the worst of dreams are made, I could feel that tangible presence of pure evil that this heavy oak, three-legged wooden beast was.  It was alive as only the monster of beasts could be, its unquenchable thirst for the soul of the next condemned man felt by all within its presence.

The entourage continued to step forward into this unnaturally cold chamber of death, delivering my body on to that perverse altar of state-sanctioned sacrifice.  Consumed by an overwhelming fear that only a condemned man about to be executed could understand, I could only stare ahead in wide-eyed terror as every minute detail became forever branded upon my brain and yet in a surreal sort of way, I could see nothing at all and felt trapped within a freeze frame picture show as if I was somehow separated from my body and looking upon the events, yet another witness to my own imminent execution.

I could see my own body as the guards brought me up to the very presence of this man-made monster and only then ordered me to turn around so that I could be seated and as my body obediently complied. I then felt that first touch of that cold wooden oak chair as the unyielding hands of the only too eager guards guided me down upon it and without further hesitation commences to firmly secure my limbs to that chair.  I could feel the cold, clammy leather straps as they were deliberately pulled tight around each of my wrists. I briefly dared to look into the eyes of one of the guards as he lowered himself down almost as if kneeling before me to then secure each of my lower leg about where my calf was to this solid wooden beast, and I was taken aback by that empty, emotionless absence of a soul of a man and just as quickly turned away. It was like looking into the very eyes of evil itself, and I only felt again that distinctive tightening of another leather strap as that wide black leather restraint was pulled tight around my waist and I then became all but one with that chair, helplessly immobilized and unable to resist any further even if I could have found the strength within me to do so and in that moment in time, I knew that my fate was sealed.

Behind me not more than a few feet away, I could hear whispered voices instructing an unseen executioner, each word thunderously echoing within and yet strangely muffled so that I could not make out the actual words – and yet although not comprehended audibly. I knew what each word said. Lost in that momentary struggle to focus on the voice, I unexpectedly felt the cold steel of the heavy electrode as it was pushed almost violently against my inner ankle as yet another belt-like leather strap was pulled tight to keep it in place.  I could feel the weight of that heavy black wire now firmly attached to my leg and as I looked down, I could see how it snaked its way along the beige faux-marble tile floor only to disappear somewhere behind me.

Without warning, my head was forcibly pulled upward and back by these same strong and determined hands and as it was, I felt the two parallel blocks of wood which would immobilize my head between them, and yet another clammy leather strap was pulled across my forehead and secured tightly behind the chair and just that quickly I could no longer move my head at all. I still felt myself struggle to do so, but it could not be done.

Frantically, with only my eyes free to move, I looked directly forward only to see what appeared to be my own reflection looking back at me from the glass window panes that separated that chamber of death from the spectators that had voluntarily gathered to watch me die this day.  At first, for what seemed to be an eternity, I remained transfixed to that reflection of myself and could now see the fear within my own eyes as if I had myself become one of those spectators and waited now to watch myself die a deliberate and violent death.  As these fragmented thoughts raced through my head, I could feel my own hear thumping louder and louder with each thump-thump reverberating through my entire body and then violently echoing in my head like powerful waves continuously, yet methodically, crashing upon a rocky shore.

Beyond my own reflection, I could see the shadowy shapes of the statuesque figures of the witnesses that sat silently in the gallery beyond.  That glass panel that separated their space from the death chamber was a world away and the dim light beyond played tricks with my perception.  It seemed as if perhaps it was nothing but carefully arranged mannequins. I could detect no movement and try as I might to look into their eyes, desperately darting my own eyes from one to the next, not one made any movement at all, but simply stared at me with a blank, stare reminding me of a sinister oil painting I had once seen. The perception of time passed seemed to cease for me.  It could not had been more than a minute that passed.

I felt a hand as it touched my shoulder and the warmth of another’s breath near my ear.  It was the prison chaplain, asking if I had any last words.  I had many words and wanted so much to say what I felt in my heart, and yet, I could not say a word. I became imprisoned in that prolonged silence as I mentally struggled to utter a sound, any sound.  And I know that I didn’t want that prison chaplain anywhere around me, most especially at the time of my death.  It felt like an unforgiveable act of betrayal that at the very moment I so desperately needed to know that God had not abandoned me, the only representation by anyone acting as a man of God would be a man that I knew held nothing by contempt for true spiritual faith.

But I was nothing more than a state-sanctioned circus and each of the clowns had their own part to play. My part was to die and it was expected that I would not stray from the script.  If I played my part well, then once I was gone, the group of guards and prison administrators would congratulate themselves on what a fine and outstanding job they did.

I struggled to speak a few incoherent words. Even I could not make out what I had said. In that ghostly reflection of the glass I could see the chaplain almost smiling as I felt his hand gently pat my shoulder, and just as he did, the guard standing behind the chair suddenly pulled down a leather mask over my face.  Although serving its purpose of hiding my face from those who would be horrified if compelled to watch the involuntary muscular contortions as they would soon rip through my facial tissue, I could still see light coming from both sides of that leather mask, and was by no means blinded myself.

Continuing the ritual with the precision of a properly trained drill team, I felt a heavy weight at the top of my head as unseen guards moved quickly to now attach that metal colander atop the leather scull cap and then the heavy wire to that single brass screw.  I felt water running down my face and the smell of salt – and the unmistakable scent of previously burnt flesh – and found myself wondering why they didn’t at least use a new sponge, as we all knew that they would attach that piece of natural sponge soaked in a saline solution so as to serve as the conductor between the electrode and my shaven head.

That apparatus affixed to the top of my head was secured by yet another leather strip with a crudely fashioned small cup brought down to my chin and pulled unnecessarily tight, so tight that it forced my teeth together in physical pain.  I knew that my last moments were now all but exhausted and in a moment of sudden calmness, that blanket of fear that had hung over me as I played my own part in this twisted ritual of death was suddenly lifted.  In that moment of clarity of thought and consciousness, I felt as if time had suddenly frozen altogether, even the whispered voices echoing in an otherwise unnatural silence seemed to cease and all was quiet, even too quiet.

But just as quickly that overwhelming fear returned with a forceful vengeance and somehow I knew that within those next few seconds my nightmare would take its final twist.  I continued to stare straight ahead, eyes wide open looking forward into that darkness of that black leather mask. I was stricken by a violent physical force that ripped through my body with an unimaginable pain as if ever molecule of my being was simultaneously being ripped apart, and I could feel that warmth of my own urine running down my thighs and puddling in the recesses of that chair, and my body violently strained against the straps that held me and swithin the very depths of my soul I felt myself scream as only a man being electrocuted could and it wouldn’t stop. I remained fully aware of each pulse of electricity that was shoot through my head down into my back and through my left foot and out that electrode attached to my ankle.

As my body arched in unnatural contortion, I felt my fingertips desperately dig into each of the arms of that heavy oak chair, molding themselves into the slight recesses previously imprinted by past patrons of this infamous chariot of death and forever continued to slip slowly by one eternal second after another, and that unspeakable pain wouldn’t stop, cutting through me like a dull knife, ripping my organs apart with its shear force and all the while I could hear the distinctive sound of a phone ringing and found myself wondering why nobody would answer the phone….

And then I awoke.  It was so cold, as if death itself, and yet my body was soaked from head to toe in sweat, and I lay there motionless, trembling uncontrollably and yet willing myself not to move lest they realize that I am still alive and proceed to put me through this again.  I could still hear that phone ringing in the distance, and as I slowly awoke I realized that it was coming through the window out on the catwalk, where just a few feet away a phone hung on the wall for the recreation yard crew.  But why would anyone call that number in the middle of the night when nobody would be out on the rec yard at that hour?

That was but my first dance with death, and although as the years dragged by I would have many, too many other similar dreams of my own death, not one remained branded within my very being like that first one was.  And when I would awaken on other sleepless nights vaguely aware that I must have been dreaming again, I found that the dream I remembered would always be that first nightmare that I had back in the early fall of 1986 and it would continue to haunt me with a determination that only the angel of death could possess.

As the years passed, Florida did away with the electric chair and banish that three-legged monstruosity  to an undisclosed warehouse where it would remain as a piece of history that would come to be looked upon just as today we look with morbid fascination upon the relics of that dark history of humanity’s past.

For as many years as Florida continued to use that electric chair, at least in those years that I have been here now, they have adopted use of a gurney upon which the condemned man would be strapped and rendered physically immobilized in that same chamber of death as a lethal dose of drugs would be pumped into his (or her) veins until death was inflicted.

And yet in all those years since the use of lethal injection replaced the use of that chair, not even once have I ever dreamed of my own death by lethal injection, and to this day when I do awake knowing that I yet again was visited by that nightmare of so long ago, it is still always a death by electrocution in that chair and no other.

That was October 1986 and although a lifetime ago and in a cell at another prison, (in December 1992, Florida opened the then newly constructed “northeast unit” at nearby Union Correctional Institution to house the majority of death-sentenced prisoners), that nightmare is never far from my consciousness and I know without doubt that others around me have had similar nightmares of their own death and yet we do not dare talk about it.  And no matter how many more years might yet pass, I know only too well that that one night in October 1986 will always be part of who I am, and that I can never escape the trauma inflicted upon my very soul and know that if the day does come when I am to be put to death, I will not find the real experience as frightening as that first nightmare.

To be continued....



Michael Lambrix 482053
Union Correctional Institution
7819 NW 228th Street
Raiford, FL 32026


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