Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Living Dead

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By Tom Odle

I was sentenced to death at the age of 19 and sent to be housed with the State´s most notorious and dangerous criminals, as now I held the same title. There was no sense of impending doom or dread circulating in the air.  Even though it was Death Row, the fight for life was strong and hope was alive and shinning bright for everyone, and everyone that came to Death Row couldn´t help but adopt the sense of hope because it was that overwhelming.

Having lived a life full of despair and hopelessness in the outside world, I was sent to Death Row only to become filled with hope and the spirit to fight for life, which is so ironic since I had really no will to live and even tried suicide a few times.  Funny how life gives you these situations that you can´t help smile at and wonder about how things go full circle.

The hope that we all had to live and get off of Death Row became a reality about thirteen years ago when the then-Governor Ryan emptied out Death Row by commuting all of our sentences to natural life, meaning we were going to live.  That hope had prevailed in a place where only death was supposed to thrive and despair to breed.

The hope that coursed through me while living on Death Row has never left me.  It still is a beacon that lights my way as I journey through each day facing a sentence that means I am supposed to live my entire life here in prison.  Hope guided me past death and saw me to life, and it will see me free from these walls as well because I believe strongly in that feeling that carried me through the darkest of times.  As the guiding light shines for me and leads me forward, I can´t help but look around me and see who else is led by the light of hope, and also look back and see who is lacking or lost the light of hope.

Many of those I have lived with for decades never seem to age because not only do I see them every day, but they are active – active in reading, working out, playing basketball and basically fighting for a life that has been denied.   Others I see just occasionally, and sometimes can barely recognize them because they have aged drastically over these 13 years.

Many formerly sentenced to death have to learn to hope again since they lose their way as they realize that that the fight is not over. They need to find new reasons to motivate themselves.  They tend to become content just to stay in their cells, stop working out, stop playing basketball, and quit being active, period.  The grey walls of the cell have enveloped them like burial dirt on a grave and they won´t knock the dirt off of themselves.  It is heartbreaking to see people who faced death with such fight but live life with nothing, especially when I originally got my hope and fight from them and it has not waivered from me, only gotten stronger.

You wonder to yourself how something like this could happen – how could these people just give up and become broken in mind, body and spirit?  I actually wonder sometimes if being taken off Death Row was truly the best thing for a lot of them. On paper it looks good but the reality is that many turned around and gave up and became broken people.  Even from my own personal experience, when I was no longer facing a death sentence, people that I had been corresponding with stopped writing because now I had a life sentence and I guess they wanted to correspond with Death Row prisoners only.  I wonder why this is? So I am sure a lot of the men around me shared the experience I had, which left them feeling abandoned, weakened their mindset and led to lost hope.  Maybe they think nobody cares if you live, only if you die.

It is unsettling to think back on life and realize that when I was young I cared very little about my well-being and even tried to end my life until someone told me that I had no right to live and the attitude became one of “I´ll show you who has no right to live.”  I survived, only to watch those who instilled hope and fight in me fall away, literally become the walking dead, while I can do nothing but watch.  I wonder if people see the damage the system creates and where rehabilitation fits in.

Note from Dina:  Tom was on Death Row in Illinois for 17 years, until his sentence was commuted to life, which he is currently serving out.  He asked me to share with you that, based on his experience, lifers need pen pals as much as those on Death Row. Connections and support from outside the walls are vital to the emotional health of all prisoners.  

Several of the MB6 contributors are serving life sentences and would welcome a word of support from someone who is moved by their work.  

Additionally, I did a Google search and found this web site with a specific listing of lifers searching for pen pals.  I have no personal experience with this organization or with the prisoners listed on it; I offer it only as a starting point for those interested.  If readers have other recommendations, please leave them in the comments.  Thank you.

Tom Odle 

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Jeff C. said...

As a former prisoner who did 18.5 years I garnered many (somewhat) temporary and some permanent pen-pals through and a few other organizations. And as the main Twit(terer) for @MinutesBefore6 I see so many organizations advocating for the end of the death penalty, which I agree with wholeheartedly, but a life sentence isn't the answer. That's just a death sentence by another name, and after reading this moving short piece Tom Ogle and hearing the line, "nobody cares if you live, only if you die," I hope that more people learn to care about those warehoused in prison until they die. This is not the answer. (The answer is to, in my humble opinion, backed only by massively low recidivism rates and evidence-based research, the Western European method of rehabilitation instead of just punishment.) Regardless, a great piece talking about a little-spoken-of topic: the emotional impact of a life sentence sans hope.

Joana said...

I can never forget those ones who have no freedom...I wish there were a world with no

Joana said...

I think so much of these people whose freedom has been taken away ...I am so glad for all those who have the chance to start a new life ...I'd like to live in a world with no DEATH PENALTY

Anonymous said...

I am pleased to see this topic raised here. Too often natural life, or life without parole, is considered an appropriate alternative to the death penalty. While life is better than death, which Tom knows well, life in prison with no hope of release has social and emotional consequences that are not often considered. Less access to legal assistance, less public sympathy or empathy, less hope, as Tom says, that gives the drive and mental resilience to make a life within limited circumstances.

If anyone wants to read more about this sentence I recommend TooCruel, Not Unusual Enough. This is a group of essays by people serving this sentence, published by The Other Death Penalty Project, an organization of prisoners attempting to draw attention to this issue. There is a website, not often updated If you have access to HBO a documentary Tag Parole; To Live and Die on Yard A is available in their HBO On Demand documentary list. I highly recommend it for yourself and to show to other people. Attitudes change slowly, but one at a time, step by step, even fearful politicians and judges can see the cruelty in such sentences. The Supreme Court has made changes to LWOP sentences for juveniles, but what is the difference between 17 and 19, or 25?

You are a courageous man, Tom. Keep your hope, and try to tell others those other men there is movement for change. It's slow, and may not come soon, but it is being talked about and written about in a serious way.

urban ranger said...

The documentary mentioned above 'Tag parole: To live and die on yard A' is also available online on YouTube: