Friday, October 13, 2017

Yard Time With The Animals

By Joseph Dole

“Animals.” For people in prison, that single word can evoke powerful emotions. As an adjective it is often used to dehumanize us. The vast majority of people in society will assume you are referring to “criminals” when you talk about the “animals” in prisons. It is often society’s favored derogatory term to employ against us. Rarely are we considered people anymore.
The word “animals” can also spark all types of positive memories and countless conversations in here. The childhood pets, horseback riding, visiting a farm. Those who haven’t been to prison may be surprised to learn that there are often actual animals in here as well. Sometimes we encounter them in the cell houses, but more often than not it’s while we are on the “yard.”
For some, the encounters can be frightening. For others it is pure joy. For everyone though, it seems to help connect us to the rest of the planet in the face of society trying to erase us from it.
When I think of “yards,” I no longer conjure up images of manicured lawns with sprinklers being annoyed by happy children. Now I think of two things, concrete and animals. This may seem incongruous, but let me explain. The majority of my “yard time” over the past 16 years has been spent in a concrete box. Nevertheless, most of my interactions with wildlife during those years have occurred on the yards of various Illinois maximum- and supermaximum – security prisons. 

- Menard -

After processing into the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) at the Joliet Correctional Center (which was shuttered shortly thereafter and had a starring role in the TV show “Prison Break”), I began my perpetual prison bit at Menard Correctional Center (Menard). At that time (2000-2002), I was housed in East House, and we received recreation, or “rec,” three times per week. We were allowed access to the gym once and a large yard twice. Each rec lasted about two to three hours, and the yard could accommodate hundreds of men.

All things considered, Menard’s yard wasn’t bad. It had a quarter-mile track encircling a field of grass sufficient for both volleyball and softball games. Once in a while, we would even play mini soccer. There were also basketball and handball courts, which I never used. The weight pile was your usual rusted affair, which I used a lot in any type of weather.

There’s a common misconception that people who lift weights in prison do so to bulk up and appear more intimidating. While this may be true for a few, I believe most guys do it for the same reason that I do – to relieve stress, maintain my health, and quickly burn a lot of calories, which we over-consume by stress-eating junk food from the commissary.

That entire yard in Menard abuts a rock bluff due to the fact that the prison basically sits in an old rock quarry looking out on the Mississippi River. From the surrounding woods, deer would occasionally emerge to look down on us. I mean this literally, but often I would wonder if they were joining society and it were true figuratively as well. Seeing the deer always reminded me of wandering the woods as a kid with my grandfather. Whenever we would see deer, he would mentally mark the spot intending to set up a blind for when deer season came around.

What I enjoyed most about the yard in Menard was that in the summer I could always find myself a pet. Garter snakes, frogs, and turtles would often break into the prison grounds. Cats and raccoons roamed the grounds as well, but you could hardly hide one in your cell. At night, I could look out the window and see more than a dozen raccoons hanging out on the roof of the storage building, planning their assault on the chowhall dumpsters.

Once I smuggled a baby turtle the size of a quarter back to my cell. Its shell was so dark green it was nearly black. Its legs were mottled yellow and black with soft needle-point claws. I built a small aquarium out of Styrofoam trays and cellophane. Against the rules, I know, but with more than two natural-life sentences to serve for something I didn’t do, the only way you could have gotten me to follow most rules would have been to pay me. When guards would walk the gallery I would push the aquarium out of sight under the bunk. During shakedowns I’d cuff the turtle in my hand as I was handcuffed. Confused guards would destroy the empty aquarium and I’d have to build another. 

Everyone who saw my little turtle coveted it. My neighbors would often ask me to let them play with it for the day, and everyone would bring back anything they thought it might like to eat.

For an entire month, the gallery worker nagged me incessantly to give it to him. By the time I gave in, it had grown to the size of a silver dollar. I was sad to see it go, but I figured I could still see it daily as I went to chow. I knew it was safer with him. The guards would be less likely to take it from their worker.

I don’t know what ever happened to my little turtle. (Hopefully it didn’t end up as turtle stew). Nor have I seen another one thereafter. Soon after giving up custody of it, I was transferred to Tamms Supermax Prison (Tamms) where I wouldn’t touch a blade of grass for my entire stay.

- Tamms -

I spent the next decade of my life at Tamms (2002-2012), which would later be rechristened Tamms Correctional Center as a public relations stunt. Tamms’ “yards” were a misnomer if ever there was one. Like every cell, every yard was an isolation chamber. No more than a single person was locked in each at a time. The yards each consisted of a concrete slab for a floor the size of a tight-fit one-car garage. More solid concrete slabs, each about fifteen feet tall and eight inches thick made up the walls. The roof was one-half corrugated steel and one-half chain-link fencing.

The only fixtures were a flood light, a video camera, and a solid red steel door with an emergency call button. The latter, if pressed, was habitually ignored by the guards. If answered, it was usually to inform the occupant that he would be written a disciplinary ticket if he pressed it again. There was no access to water or a washroom, and pretty much nothing to do other than calisthenics.

Fortunately, like Menard and so many other prisons isolated from society, Tamms was surrounded by woods and wildlife. This would sometimes be a source of entertainment for us. Out of the dirt-fogged slices of a cell window, we would often see hawks, turkey-buzzards, deer, skunks, raccoons, and other wildlife.

After about a year of isolation, I began to feel remorseful about keeping my little turtle captive in Menard. As a child, I always had lots of pets. Some store-bought, but most snatched from the wild and caged out of childish love. I guess I was sort of conditioned to believe that being human gave me the right to cage other living beings. Maybe we all are, and that’s why we call people who commit crimes “animals” – it makes it easier for use to cage them.

After a decade of isolation, I don’t think I could ever put any living being in a cage again. Society likes to portray “prisoners” or “criminals”; as all starting out as deranged little children torturing animals. This is just one of many ways they dehumanize us to try and sooth the collective conscience over treating millions of people so inhumanely.

The reality is that most people in here have never intentionally harmed an animal (nonhuman animal that is). I know I haven’t. I’ve always loved animals.

Often, when it rained, tree frogs would scale the wet cement walls to gain access to the Tamms yards. As soon as the sun dried the walls though, the frogs would find themselves imprisoned like us. Their repeated fruitless attempts to scale the wall, only to fall back down, depressingly reminded me of my repeated fruitless efforts to regain my own freedom though the courts.

The frogs were fun to play with, however. At first, they would try to hop away. After holding them for a few minutes, they would get used to me and seemingly lose their fear. Once that happened, I would sit them on my shoulder while I speed-walked laps around the yard. It would amuse me to see them placidly sitting atop my shoulder, bobbing up and down to the rhythm of my gait.

Before leaving the yard, I would gently loft them up so that they could grasp the chain-link half of the roof and escape. I’d often wonder whether they understood that I helped them get out. Were they grateful? Or were they ticked that I didn’t help them sooner?

Besides frogs, small birds would also come into the yards. They would nest in the hollows created where the corrugated steel lay atop the concrete walls, and inside the steel boxes housing the security cameras. Other than exchanging trills and whistles, we rarely got to interact with them. Listening to their chirps and getting them to respond was one of our few connections to the free world. Seeing them fly away made us yearn to do the same.

On the other hand, while we enjoyed their music, their feces tormented us. The yards were their litter boxes. It was like being locked in a pigeon coop, making the name “bird cage” apt. Designed and built for “jailbirds,” the yards were overrun by real birds. Guards refused to clean them and we were denied the implements and cleaning supplies to do so. Walls and floors were often covered in excrement, making leaning against a wall nearly impossible. Walking or running required scrubbing the soles of your shoes upon re-entering your cell. I used to have to smuggle sheets of paper to the yard to place on the ground so that I could do push-ups.

One of my best experiences at Tamms (“best” definitely being a relative term here as the place was pure psychological torture) involved those birds though. It occurred one spring morning when I was the first person on the yard.  I walked out and noticed something dart up towards the chain-link roof. It was one of the mother birds flying to safety. She zipped through the chain-link and landed on top of the far wall. Once there, she began to scream bloody murder at me. I couldn’t figure out what her problem was, as they usually just flew away. Frowning, I turned back to watch through the little plexiglass window in the door as the guards deadbolted it. When I turned to begin my 500 laps, I stumbled upon three fledglings huddled in one of the corners.

I slowly approached the fat downy little brown balls and they scattered. One tried to take flight, but only managed to rise a mere three feet. It bee-lined into the opposite corner. We’ll call it Birdie #1. The second birdie, Birdie #2, took flighty little hops out of my reach. Birdie #3 simply waddled around in drunken little circles like a dying dreidel.

I picked up Birdie #3 and to my surprise, it didn’t struggle to escape. I opened my hand, but it didn’t jump away. It just looked at me, seemingly confident that I, one of society’s alleged boogeymen, would never hurt it. I slowly placed it on my shoulder. Throughout this process, the pitch and intensity of mama’s squalls continued to rise.

After placing Birdie #3 on my shoulder, I walked over to try and pick up Birdie #1, who seemed the strongest of the three. Birdie #1 was definitely not cooperative. This forced me to set Birdie #3 down in order to give chase.

When I finally caught Birdie #1, it struggled fiercely and joined mama in making a racket. Trying to calm it down, I cooed at it and carried it under the corrugated steel into the shade. From there, I tossed it up diagonally towards mama and the chain-link. It flapped for all it was worth, but didn’t make it more than eight feet up before coming to a hard-kissing-hover against the wall and slid to the ground. We repeated this dance a few more times. Finally, Birdie #1 began to gain something – strength, confidence, desperation, who knows? – allowing it to reach the chain-link. After a few bumbling attempts, it finally succeeded in squeezing through a hole mid-flight. Exhausted, it cautiously hopped across the chain-link to mama’s side.

Birdie #2 took a while longer. I first had to keep tossing it straight up in the air to get it used to flapping its wings. Then I repeated the same process I had used with Birdie #1 until it too was free of both the yard and its giant intruder.

I returned to Birdie #3, replaced it to its perch on my shoulder, and took a few laps around the yard. I’ll admit that I was very reluctant to help it escape. I was having a lot of fun and didn’t want it to end. I really wanted to bring it back to my cell to see if it would make friends with my pet mouse. (Several months earlier, a half-starved baby mouse slowly wandered into my cell. It didn’t even try to run, it just nuzzled under my leg as I sat cross-legged on the floor by my door. After building it a home with an old sliding Q-Tip box, I spent several days nursing it back to health. I surmised that its mother probably got caught in a glue trap and the babies finally wandered out of the den in search of food. Months later it would still return to the Q-Tip box every couple of nights or so). Unfortunately, my conscience would no longer allow me to cage another living being, not to mention the incessant guilt trip mama was currently laying on me, so I wasn’t going to incarcerate Birdie #3 with me.

I was starting to worry though. My yard time was quickly evaporating and Birdie #3 was much weaker than its siblings. I knew that if I couldn’t help it escape soon, there was a good chance that a mentally ill inmate or guard would come out there after me and kill it. Birdie #3 would not be the first or even the second bird a guard at Tamms stomped on while checking the yards.

So, with mixed emotions, I put Birdie #3 into my open palm and started jogging laps, letting it spread its wings and flap them. After that I began dropping it from greater heights until it was hovering more than plummeting. With increasing trepidation and urgency, I started tossing it.

It was never as strong as the others. There was never a circuit flown around the yard. Nor did it ever stay aloft for long, even with what I imagined was familial encouragement. This one was taking too long. “Clank.” I heard the deadbolt being thrown on the door. I hadn’t even heard the guards come into the wing.

I now had just a few seconds to help Birdie #3 escape as the guards remotely opened the yard door ordering me back to my cell. Frantically, I tossed Birdie #3 straight at the chain-link trying to gently catch it each time it fell back down. I heard the lock – “pop, pop, pop” – and kept tossing. Three tosses, four, the damn bird would not squeeze through. “Dole, exit the yard!” I kept throwing. “Dole, this is a direct order, if you don’t return to your cell immediately, you will be written a disciplinary ticket for disobeying a direct order!”

I ignored him, and kept trying. Finally, I tossed it up just right and Birdie #3 couldn’t help but to sail through the chain-link to freedom. Exiting the yard I smiled. The lieutenant and major stood at the plexiglass door to the wing yelling, “We were just about to order the Tac Team to suit up, smart ass!”

That day was an aberration though. Most of my time spent on the various little concrete “yards” of Tamms were uneventful. No animals or birds to entertain me, I would run in depressing little circles packing down the bird feces, never able to gain much speed before having to turn another corner every two to five strides. Running on cement in cardboard-soled shoes was hell on my ankles, knees, and lower back.

The worst days were when a guard, either intentionally or inadvertently, would leave the floodlight on all night. I’d go out the next day to find myself accosted by hundreds of insects. Occasionally, I would encounter an interesting moth the size of my hand with bright orange and yellow velvety fur. This happened only a handful of times over a decade, but they were fascinating. I was always amazed that they fit through the chain-link, and will never forget how soft they were.

Those were the only interesting insects though. Mostly it was pure torture. Hundreds of mosquitoes, spiders, millipedes, you name it. A couple of times I went out to find myself trapped with a hundred or more locusts, all screeching some high-pitched mating call. It was like being locked in a pen of squealing pigs being slaughtered for an hour or more.

- Pontiac -

When I finally escaped the torture of isolation in Tamms, I was transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center (Pontiac). I was housed on the old Death Row to go through the “step-down program” (2012) [1].   The yards were a complete culture shock.

For the initial 3-month phase of the program, we had to go to yard in the same cages used by people who were both mentally ill and classified as high security. The “yards” consisted of about 20 individual cages sitting atop a cement slab. Each cage measured about eight feet by fifteen feet. They were constructed of rust-red, pencil-thick, steel rods woven into an immobile mesh that left two-inch square openings throughout. Although you could see through the walls, these yards were much more confining than the cement tombs in Tamms. The roof was just eight feet above the ground and made of the same mesh. These boxes are commonly referred to as “dog runs” in prison parlance. 

Though they possessed a pull-up bar, a novelty after Tamms, I was immediately advised by both staff and inmates, to not touch any part of the boxes with my bare skin. When I asked why, I was informed that there were a lot of “shit-slingers” who occupied the dog runs in the morning prior to us. Other guys promptly smuggled a pair of gloves to me.

My first trip to the yard verified these claims. The crevices were filled with dried excrement. Empty ziplock cocoa and coffee bags encrusted with it were crammed under the frames by the ground. Plastic bags that still held the remnants of bodily-fluid cocktails hung from the razor wire around the perimeter.

Instead of just cleaning my shoes after yard, I would come back to the cell and wash every article of clothing with contraband bleach. I would also scrub my entire body as if I were a surgeon with OCD.

A few months later, I graduated to the larger yards while in Phase 2. These were six larger yards located about twenty meters away from the dog runs. They felt like they were in an entirely different universe. Each was basically the size of half of a basketball court. Two even had basketball rims. Another had a weight bench and curl bar. All were just slabs of concrete surrounded by chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Nevertheless, they felt incredibly spacious after the bird cages and dog runs. 

Once, when I first arrived at Pontiac, I was being escorted to the cell house, clanking along in shackles, a waist chain, and handcuffs encased in a black, steel padlocked box. Nonetheless, despite the noise, a large rabbit jumped out of the hedges along the path, and passed right between my legs brushing the shackles.  It wasn’t even startled. It didn’t jet off down the sidewalk out of fear like you’d expect. Instead, it just hopped along a foot ahead of us keeping pace with us for a good dozen steps before disappearing back into the hedge.

The yards for the second phase of the program were as close to petting zoos as I think I’ll ever experience in prison. While the wildlife avoided the dog runs like the plague, a mere stone’s throw away I could hand-feed ducks, rabbits, and even squirrels right through the fence.

Once, while I was on the yard located at the end of North House running laps, an incredibly fat squirrel sat atop a horizontal pole that ran behind the fence in the shade of the building. It watched me run around and around. I had forgotten to bring food to feed the animals, but I had a few pieces of hard lemonade candy. When I finally tired, I walked over to the squirrel and pulled a couple out of my pocket. The first, I unwrapped and popped in my mouth. It watched transfixed and became visibly excited. I offered it one through the fence. It attempted to grab it, but couldn’t quite reach, so it hopped down, squeezed under the fence, and nonchalantly sat on my foot. Smiling I slowly bent down and handed it one, thinking it would then scurry away with its treat. Instead, it just sat there on my foot and chipped away at the candy while staring up at me. I couldn’t believe it. I grew up around squirrels and had never seen one so docile. Two days later, I saw the same squirrel sitting on a guard’s knee eating elephant peanuts out of his hand.

- Stateville -

I left Pontiac a month or so later and arrived at Stateville Correctional Center (Stateville) (2012-Present). Here the “rec” schedule for the “quarter units”  is insane. There are two little yards with small grass patches and basketball courts; a gym with decrepit, mostly inoperable, weight machines held together with twisted garbage bags and bed sheets; and a large yard called the “South Yard” with a meager, rusty weight pile, telephones with cords too short to allow people to sit or stand, and a quarter-mile track encircling a patch of grass large enough to play soccer on. We rotate among each yard/gym once every two weeks.

Stateville has neither ducks, nor rabbits, nor squirrels. There are no frogs or turtles. It does have at least one fox roaming the grounds though, and dozens, if not hundreds, of groundhogs. We feed the groundhogs daily when they aren’t hibernating, which makes them incredibly fat. They know the pulse of the prison. They’ll often ignore us as we walk to chow, but upon exiting, they will line up along the walks waiting for handouts. The administration constantly tries to eradicate them but is never completely successful. Most of us hope they never are, as they constitute our only pets.

My first time on the yard at Stateville was also my first time being on any yard with another human being in more than a decade. I was excited to finally play soccer again. Softball would have been more fun, but all of the equipment was now considered contraband and had been confiscated. Unfortunately, soccer was out of the question as well because we were relegated to a small yard. So I spent the time feeding the groundhogs through the fence.

When I finally made it to the South Yard a month later, I cobbled together a couple of teams to play some quick pick-up games of soccer on the lumpiest field imaginable. Running full speed while looking up field can easily mean a broken ankle when the ground drops out from beneath you. I took many painful, smiling tumbles that day.

Resting on a hill afterwards, an old-timer described how the yard was years ago. Hundreds, instead of dozens, of guys would be out there at once. He said there used to be a Lifers’ Shack [2] where they sold pizzas, sodas, ice cream, and more. In its absence we now have to smuggle food and drinks out to the yards.

I asked him why the field is so uneven. He told me it used to be flat, but then one day a backhoe showed up while the prison was on lockdown and started digging up the field. Rumors started to spread that a swimming pool was being put in. It was short-lived though, once everyone saw the news reports. The backhoe was brought in to dig up the remains of a dead body. An inmate who was long-believed to have escaped in the 1980s had actually been murdered, butchered, and buried piecemeal out there. In the 1990s, another inmate finally spilled the beans. They never bothered to smooth out the field again.

When the old-timer left, I sat alone on a hill and began eating some cookies and granola bars with peanut butter. A groundhog popped out of a hole by my feet and startled the hell out of me. I don’t know if it had heard the wrappers or smelled the food, but it clearly wanted in on my picnic. Not wanting to be rude, I gave it a granola bar. It delicately held it in its front paws and stood up like a Meerkat to eat it. When it finished, I gave it a packet of squeeze peanut butter, and watched as it chewed off the top and ate it like a Push-Pop. I quickly ran out of food, which did not please my picnic companion. It began climbing on my lap looking for more. All I could think to do to get it off my lap was to offer it some water from my bottle. I lured it as far away as I could by holding the bottle at arm’s length. When it got off my lap for a drink, I stood up and walked off sacrificing my water bottle so I could escape 

Some guys here are scared of the groundhogs. They are mostly guys from the inner city who view most animals as giant rats. The administration is terrified of the possible lawsuits if someone gets bit and sues. For most part though, both the inmates and guards enjoy having them here. 

It’s nice to be around other living beings that aren’t constantly trying to demonize us. 

Unlike society, the animals in here are not instinctually terrified of anyone labeled a “prisoner” or “criminal.” They’ve been confined with thousands of us for years on end without being harmed. The animals are actually capable of judging us by who we are now to determine if we pose a threat. I find it ironic that the actual animals in here, which are defenseless against us, are able to make those individualized judgements, but “humanity,” which distinguishes itself from the animal kingdom by our ability to reason, cannot (or at least won’t).

We, “prisoners,” are often called “animals” to dehumanize us and further ostracize us from society. 
Whenever we complain about inhumane treatment, the arbitrary reply is always, “well, if you didn’t act like animals, we wouldn’t treat you like animals,” a statement which misunderstands both incarcerated people and animals and how society treats both. 

Maybe it is society that should start acting more like the animals in here: They should start making individualized assessments of who we are now and stop painting us all with a broad stigmatizing brush. Maybe then society will finally stop treating us inhumanely and stop keeping hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated for life, long past the time they cease posing any threat to society, practices which are both unjust and incompatible with keeping society safe and returning people to useful citizenship.

[1] In Stateville there is a giant cell house that was divided into four. These are now known as the “quarter units” – B House, C-House, D-House, and E-House

[2] Lifers Groups are now banned as an unauthorized organization, and with them went the Lifers’ Shacks.

Joseph Dole K84446
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, Il 60434
Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Joseph Dole moved to Illinois when he was 8 years old.  In 2000, at the age of 22, Mr. Dole was wrongly convicted of a gang-related double-murder and sentenced to life-in-prison. He continues to fight that conviction. Since incarcerated, Mr. Dole has authored two books, A Costly American Hatred and Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat. In addition, his essays have appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Truthout, The Journal of Ethical Urban Living, and The Columbia Journal, where he tied for first-place in the winter 2017 writing contest. Check out more of his work on his Facebook page or contact him directly at the address above.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

In Memory of Tool

In Memory of Robert Pruett
Executed by the State of Texas
October 12, 2017

I've been around this world
Yet I see no end
All shall fade to black again and again
This storm that's broken me
My only friend

In this river all shall fade to black
In this river ain't no coming back
In this river all shall fade to black
Ain't no coming back

Withdrawn I step away
Just to find myself
The door is closed again
The only one left
This storm that's broken me
My only friend

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Date With Death: Contemplating My Last Words

By Michael Lambrix

What if someone approached you today and told you that you only had two days to live - and that you had to spend your remaining days in solitary, away from all those that mattered to you. Alone, you slowly count down each moment of every day, each tick of that clock, drawing you closer to a date with death.

You will be allowed to say a few (and only a few) “last words”. Whatever you decide to say is what you will be remembered for (or forgotten, if all you do is waste that last breathe of life).

That is where I am today. As I write this, it is Friday, September 15, 2017, and I am in Cell One, formally known as Q-2101, only feet away from Florida's execution chamber. And in the early evening of October 5, 2017, at precisely 6:00 p.m., the State of Florida intends to put me to death for a crime I did not commit.

After 34-years on Florida's Death Row, I've become familiar with how this process unfolds. I’ve seen many others where I am today (please check out “Execution Day- Involuntary Witness to State Sanctioned Murder”). I've survived three previous attempts by the state to take my life, but I know that this time is different. This time, the odds of surviving this date with death are significantly stacked against me. I don't expect to make it out alive. The Governor is running an election for a tightly contested U.S. Senate seat, and he needs to rally the votes by executing as many as he can. To him, all my life is really worth is the hope of winning a few more votes. He has already sent more people to their death then any other Governor in Florida’s history and, after he kills me, he will move on to his next victim.

The Warden came down to Death Watch the other day and asked me why I'm doing a hunger strike. I explained that I am protesting the injustice of putting me to death without allowing all readily available evidence substantiating my innocence, including DNA evidence, to be heard. He responded by sharing with me that in all the years he has worked in prisons, he has never seen a hunger strike actually accomplish anything. 

Continuing our casual conversation, as if the set of steel bars that separated us didn’t exist, the morning sun now shining through the windows behind the Warden, I offered my observation that, from the prisoner’s perspective, it's not about actually winning whatever issue compelled you to take that drastic act. I don't expect a tangible result. 

Rather, in prison, a person has extremely limited options available with which to protest perceived injustice. Even the slightest hit of expressing anger on the part of a prisoner escalates the situation and punitive sanctions are a standard response.

By the time most get to where I am today, they are already broken. The long journey from being condemned to death, to confronting that date with death is, itself, a deliberate process intended to slowly erode your will to do anything but passively submit to state sanctioned execution.

When that time comes, I am expected to walk into the execution chamber and those waiting within that room will gently, without even the slightest hint of malice, assist me as I climb up on to the gurney where a moment later they will then firmly pull the straps down to render me motionless and unable to physically resist, so they can proceed to expeditiously insert needles connected to long I.V. tubes in each of my arms at the inside of the elbows.

Then the white curtain that separates me from a panel of witnesses safely seated behind a single pane of polished glass will be pulled open. I will quickly scan that small group of people, not more than ten-feet in front of me, desperately looking for a friendly face, or at least a familiar face, but likely to be met with blank stares by most gathered, who have waited many years to watch me die.

Then, in a predetermined and all but imperceptible gesture, the executioner hidden behind a nearby partition will push that first plunger down, forcing a presumably cold lethal liquid into my veins.

It's a ritual, and every aspect of that ritual has been planned to precise detail, and everybody performs their part. And I will too.

But I don't want to just lay down and die, exterminated like nothing more than a glorified cockroach.

And, so, I am doing a hunger strike. I don't expect to gain anything but to protest against this deliberate injustice, and that, itself, is my only objective. It is my way of saying that I accept that I am powerless to change the outcome, as this cold machinery of death grinds its gears.

For now, though, I sit in this solitary cell. Twenty-days to my date with death doesn't seem to be that long, and yet I find it to be way too much time. I find myself trying to pull up the memories of the life I once had so long ago, as a means of escaping the thoughts of my relatively imminent death.

But try as I might, like the invisible force of a blackhole slowly consuming the universe around it, I am pulled in again and again, dragged back to envisioning what that last moment of my life will be - and what my last words will be.

Part of me wants to put all I can into a concise statement that will be something to remember. But no matter what I try to say it, I imagine it will be forgotten. Nobody's coming to witness my execution to hear what I have to say. They’re coming to watch me die.

I think a lot about the young woman's family. They lost their daughter and, through all these years, have believed that I was the one who took her life. Their need to seek justice can only be satisfied with my death. This has given them the strength to cope with their loss. But I didn't kill their daughter. 

I've prayed for them, that they might find the strength to forgive - not because the person responsible for taking the life of their daughter is worthy of their forgiveness, but because carrying around that much hate towards any other person for so long is like a cancer that will eat at their own soul.

Maybe my death will bring them peace and, if it does, then I can go knowing that there was a purpose in all of this.

Years ago, I tried to reach out to them, to explain the circumstances that transpired that night, and how much I wished I could take their pain away. Their response was to contact the prison - they found it offensive that I wrote them and demanded the prison punish me.

But still, as the years have passed, I’ve kept them in my prayers, wishing that I could turn back the hands of time and change it all. I do that a lot, escaping the reality of this place by picking my memories apart and trying to identify that one point in time, so long ago, where it all went off the tracks. 

Maybe I should use my last words to ask for their forgiveness, even though I didn't kill their daughter. Maybe they need that. Then again, maybe their need for vengeance has consumed so much of them that they cannot forgive under any circumstances, and anything I may attempt to say to them at that time would only make them suffer more. I don't want to bring any more pain into their lives. I wish I could take all their pain away. My death won't accomplish that. Only they can make that decision to let it go.

Then there's my family. They've committed no crime, but they've suffered just as much. They will stand by helplessly as their son, their father, their brother, and their best friend, is put to death for a crime that they know I am innocent of. 

Those in my life who have been there for me through the years have been the “Wind Beneath My Wings”; nurturing my hope and sustaining my strength. I have been so incredibly blessed by these who sacrificed so much to be a part of my life. I know it has not been easy. They have suffered along with me, at every setback, and felt the pain of injustice with each appeal denied.

Most families quickly fade away, and all but forget you once you cross over to that death row life. And, as the years passed, there's been times that my family did too. But we always were drawn back together, and are now stronger than we've ever been. Having to go through this Death Watch process and endure our last visit will cause them so much pain.

Maybe my last words should be to tell them how much it has meant to me to have them in my life. 

Not only my family, including my children, but also the small group of friends, spread out across the world, that have been there for me.

What would I say? What few words could possibly convey what I feel in my heart?? When they visit, at each visit I hug them like I never would let them go. Like I knew that this day might come.

I can no longer hug them. Once my execution date was set, my contact visits were immediately terminated and restricted to non-contact. They still come, now more frequently, driving many hours, even through the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, to spend a few hours of communion with me. We talk, and I try to make them laugh, but I can see in my mother’s and my sister’s eyes how hard this is for them.

There are the moments of silence, when I see the tears forming in their eyes, and I quickly work to find something to talk about, to get their minds off what lies ahead.

They are worried about my health, fearing that this hunger strike will only cause me to suffer more. Just as with the Warden, I patiently explain why I feel I must do this. But nothing I say is enough to comfort them. They beg me to eat. They are allowed to purchase sandwiches and snacks from the prison canteen, which the guard will then bring around to me. But I  refuse, and then they refuse to eat too.

I explain that they do not have to worry. The nurses check on me each day, taking my weight and blood pressure. As of today, I've only lost 17-pounds - and, truth be told, I really needed to lose some weight anyways. 

When I return to my Death Watch cell, I lay down and put my MP3 player on, and then relive every moment of the visit to prolong it, as if it never had to end. But my moment of meditation is broken, as someone on the floor above me is kicking at his solid steel door.

I get back up, and look at the pile of old cards and letters I've stacked against the wall of my cell. As the days pass, I slowly go through them, rip them up and throw them away. Some I've had for many years, some not as long. But each was saved in the very limited room I'm allowed for storage of personal property for a reason. And now, I find myself destroying the things that I treasured the most. 

I must do this before I'm placed on “Phase II”, and all my property is removed from my cell to ensure that I cannot cheat the state out of its intended act of murder by committing suicide. I still cannot destroy so many. And the stack of what means too much to throw away soon grows high. I've accomplished nothing.

The pictures are much harder. In my world, it's the photos of the smiling faces of those you love that keep you going. And photos of the past, of family and of my children, and of my grandchildren.

I go through them one-by-one, remembering each as if I just received it yesterday and, in the end, I throw very few away. A few years back, I lost all my pictures, so what few I have left are part of me and I cannot bear to toss away the memories reflected. Many are of visits I've had, and each photo allows me to think of that special day.

Try as I might to think of other things, that one thought keeps pulling me back - my last words. I find myself becoming consumed. What will I say?

I think of my spiritual advisor of many years, a man who gave up a successful career in law to become a Catholic lay minister devoted to Death Row prison ministry. Dale Recinella has visited me more times than I can begin to count, and is family too.

Before me, he has been there for many others, patiently listening to their words and offering an inspiration of spiritual comfort. When my day comes, he will be here. Contrary to movies, they will not allow him to walk with me into the execution chamber. But he will share time with me in the hours before my execution is carried out, and they will allow him to join the panel of witnesses to watch my execution.

He has witnessed many executions of those he has come to know and provided spiritual comfort to; not only us in our final hours, but to our families too. (Dale Recinella has written numerous books relating to his death row ministry that can be found at

Although long disillusioned by what contemporary Christianity has become and those who claim to be Christian, I have never doubted my spiritual faith. I find strength in it. 

So, when that final moment is upon me, and the opportunity to express what will be my last words I will ever utter in this life arrives, maybe I will say the Lord's Prayer. Nothing I could come up with could possibly be more profound than that. 

I sit silently at the edge of my bunk and look outside the window on the other side of the cell bars. Not more than ten-feet from where I sit, the green grass of a lawn that stretches from that window to the distant perimeter fence begins. A few days ago, a lawn mower outside that window came so close that I could smell its distinct exhaust.

I can smell the grass. Only a few feet away in another direction, the execution chamber patiently awaits me. I can close my eyes and imagine laying out on that grass - preferably at night, so that I can see the heavens above and count the stars, and, if by chance a shooting star passes, even make my wish.

Maybe I won't die. That's the thing about being down here and facing that date with death. As each day draws to a close, you find yourself thinking about how these are your final days, your final hours, and your final minutes. It becomes real. No matter how much you try to think of anything else, you cannot escape those persistent thoughts that this won't end well. 

I've been down on Death Watch now for two weeks, and I have less than three weeks to go. So far, my lawyers haven't been able to do anything to stop my execution. Hurricane Irma (what they are now saying is the worst hurricane in Florida's history) shut everything down across the state, including my lawyers’ offices and the courts.

I talked with them yesterday, finally, but they can't get up to visit me until next week. By then, we will have two weeks left. That clock continues to tick. This time is lost forever.

I've already had numerous appeals pending. The two still before the United States Supreme Court could even result in my exoneration and release, if only the court would grant a review. But that's a long shot. I know, only too well, that the Supreme Court only looks at a handful of cases of the many thousands filed each year.

My lawyers continue to believe that the most favorable issue is the challenge to my illegally imposed sentences of death. The jury did not unanimously vote to sentence me to death. But, by marginal vote, the Florida Supreme Court decided that only those illegally sentenced after June 2002 would be allowed relief, and that those, such as myself (and almost 200 others), sentenced to death prior to June 2002, are still to be executed.

If the Supreme Court agrees with my lawyers, that this is unconstitutionally “arbitrary” and that my death sentences must be vacated, then I would have my sentences reduced to “life” and become, almost immediately, eligible for parole. 

I struggle to keep that hope alive. I don't have faith in the court doing the right thing.

Maybe that's just what I should tell them, as they so deliberately put me to death for a crime that I did not commit. I should tell them that they are committing an act of murder, and quote Socrates by saying “To which of us go the worst fate, you or I?” And then breathe my last breath.

Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Date With Death: Weeks One and Two

By Michael Lambrix

Date with Death – Week One: Execution Scheduled for October 5, 2017

Shortly after 7:00 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, September 2, 2017, I watched my first sunrise in well over a quarter of a century. I had forgotten just how beautiful an early morning sunrise could be, and how it had its way of drawing you in and mesmerizing you. At first it barely peaked over that distant horizon and then, ever so very slowly, it grew from that first orangish glow into a sudden explosion of even brighter, almost crimson, radiance spreading to each side. A few clouds accented its majestic appearance and I stood silently in awe of this event that I never thought I would see again. It´s been a long time since I last saw a sunrise.

In that moment, I forgot where I was, despite the fact that to see the unexpected sunrise I had to look through a single set of steel bars and then the seven-pane security window about ten-feet away. For nearly 34-years, I´ve been on Florida´s Death Row and, late yesterday afternoon, I was taken from my regular death row confinement cell to the bottom floor of Q-Wing.  Once again, I was placed in Cell One (please check out the PBS documentary “Cell One”, featuring me, at The Florida Governor has rescheduled my previously stayed execution and now I am counting down my last days. If the State of Florida has their way, at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 5, 2017, I will be securely tied down on a gurney with numerous I.V. tubes attached to my body and, with a barely perceptible nod of Warden Reddish´s head, an unseen figure behind a partition will then push the first of three plungers down. This will force the sedative “Etomidate” into my body, with the intent to render me unconscious, before they then flow with the second drug, “rocuronium bromide”, which is a paralytic that will ensure that, even if they screw the execution up (as they have too many times before), I will not be able to physically react. I will lie there experiencing incomprehensible physical pain until the paid executioner pushes that last plunger down, sending that lethal dose of “potassium acetate” into my body to cause a cardiac arrest, terminating my life.

I know exactly what will come as my final days count down and there´s not a damned thing I can do about it. This is the fourth time I´ve been placed in Cell One and watched as the clock counts down what are to be my final days. In late 1988, I had my first death warrant signed, scheduling my execution for November 30, 1988. I came within mere hours of being executed. Back then, Florida´s method of execution was the electric chair, and as I sat in this very same cell so long ago, I could feel that distinctive hum, accompanied by a low vibration on the concrete floor, as not more than 30-feet away they put “Old Sparky” through tests to make sure that it would work properly when they planned to kill me early the next morning.

By late afternoon of November 29, 1988, the Florida Supreme Court rendered a decision on my first post-conviction appeal, denying our demand for a new trial by a marginal 4 to 3 decision – refusing to address the numerous claims supporting my consistently pled claim of actual innocence because my legal counsel (who was only assigned to my case after the Governor decided to kill me) failed to “properly” present the innocence claims to the court (see, Lambrix v State, 534 So.2d.1151 (Fla. 1988)). The Florida Court subsequently found that the Supreme Court´s refusal to address these claims was unprecedented and in clear error (Order of May 12, 1992 by U.S. District Judge William Zloch in Lambrix v Singletary, case no. 4;88-cv-12107-WJ2).

But the Florida Supreme Court did grant a 48-hour stay of execution, to allow my lawyers to pursue an appeal to the Federal Courts. As I anxiously waited in “Cell One” for word, the hours ticked down, and with each tick of the clock my hour of death grew nearer. For days, I remained in that excruciating state of limbo, not knowing whether I would live or die, and overwhelming exhaustion set in, as I desperately tried to maintain under those circumstances. Out of exhaustion I tried to lay down and rest, only to be awoken by an intense spiritual experience that, to this day, I cannot hope to adequately describe (please read, “The Day God Died” and, “Scratching at the Scars of a Shattered Soul”).

Shortly after that, I received word that the Federal District Court had ordered a full stay of execution, and I was moved back to the regular death row housing area. Many years of appeals followed. Evidence was discovered substantiating my consistently pled claim of actual innocence. The prosecution had tried to coerce me into pleading “guilty” before my 1984 trial, to the reduced charge of second degree murder, which would have led me to my release after 17-22 years, if I would waive any appeals. I refused, as I naively believed our legal system would work, and I would be exonerated and released. Once again, in July 2006, the prosecutor came to me with an offer to reduce my death sentence to “life” (with the chance of eventual release) – if I would drop my appeal arguing my innocence. .

But I wouldn´t do it. Instead, I was sent back to Florida´s death row, and as the years dragged by, both the State and Federal Courts invented procedural rules as to why the readily available evidence substantiating my consistently pled claim of innocence could not be heard. My fatal fault became only too clear – trusting the courts to do the right thing would cost me my life.

On the morning of Monday, November 30, 2015, the United States Supreme Court summarily denied review of my actual innocence claim (see, In re: Cary Michael Lambrix vssc case no. 15-6163) and, within hours, Governor Rick Scott signed a death warrant to formally schedule me for execution on Thursday, February 11, 2016. I was immediately moved to the bottom floor of Q-wing at Florida State Prison and placed on Death Watch (please read, “Slippery Slope to State Sanctioned Murder”). I was housed in Cell Three, where I would spend what was to be my last Christmas, only a few feet away from the execution chamber.

I wasn´t alone. About ten-feet away, Cell One held Oscar Bolin, who was scheduled to die on January 7, 2016. I took a back seat in Cell Three, and Oscar moved forward. I remained in that cell immediately adjacent to the heavy steel door that separated us from the execution chamber. Late in the evening on January 7, 2016, they put Oscar Bolin to death (please read, “Execution Day: Involuntary Witness to State Sanctioned Murder”).

Early that next morning of January 8, 2016, I was ordered to pack up my property and moved from Cell Three to Cell One. Oscar´s body was still warm, but they were already moving me into his now empty cell (see, “Cell One” PBS Documentary A few hours later, they brought Mark Asay, with an execution scheduled for Thursday, March 17, 2016, to join me. They moved him into Cell Three.

On Monday, January 11, 2016 – less than a week after Oscar Bolin’s execution – the Supreme Court issued its 8-to-1 opinion in Hurst v Florida (136 Sct.61b (2016)), declaring that the way Florida sentences people to death by allowing the judge to decide whether to impose a death sentence was unconstitutional; as, under the Sixth Amendment, only the jury could determine whether sufficient cause existed to enhance the punishment to death.

Suddenly, the legality of the Florida death penalty was called into question, and my lawyers expeditiously filed new appeals arguing that, since my imposed death sentences were based on a non-unanimous jury vote which the presiding judge used to impose sentence of death, under the Supreme Court´s decision in Hurst v Florida, my death sentences were illegal.

The Florida Supreme Court heard my case the week before my scheduled execution and, much to my disappointment, the whole case suddenly focused on how the Supreme Court's Hurst decision would impact Florida's death row population, since the vast majority of Florida´s death sentences were by a non-unanimous jury vote (it should be noted that Florida is only one of three states that even allowed a death sentence to be imposed by a non-unanimous jury vote).

Later that same day, following oral arguments, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a stay of execution in my case until they could figure out how Hurst v Florida would affect these death sentences. But, because the death warrant remained in effect even though a stay of execution was granted, I remained on Death Watch until February 9. As coincidence would have it, that was my older sister´s birthday. She was visiting me with my parents and other sister, Mary, along with long-time close friend, Jan Arriens (founder of Lifelines, an international organization based in London, England) when the Warden came to the visiting area and told me that I would be removed from Death Watch, effective that day… Debbie immediately declared that was the best birthday present she´d ever received.

And so, on February 9, 2016 – only two-days before they had scheduled me for execution – I was removed from Death Watch and placed back on G-wing, the regular death row housing unit at Florida State Prison. Not long after that, Mark Asay received a stay of execution too.

All executions in Florida would remain on-hold until this legal issue could be resolved. As those months passed, and then a year, and then more, we had reason to believe that the courts would rule favorably and throw out all death sentences based on less than a unanimous jury vote; especially after the Florida Supreme Court issued its own opinion in Hurst v State (202 So.3d.40 (Fla. 2016)).

But then, only two-days before Christmas, the Florida Supreme Court released its decisions in Mark Asay v State of Florida (210 So.3d.1 (Fla. 2016)) and John Mosley v State of Florida (210 So.3d. (Fla. 2016)), in which a sharply divided court decided that while all death sentences imposed by less than a unanimous jury vote were now clearly illegal, the court would only retroactively apply this new rule to capital cases that were finalized (determined by the date which the first “direct appeal” was decided) after June 24, 2002. In Asay v State, the court declared that allowing retroactive application of this new rule to capital cases prior to June 2002 would be too burdensome on the state.

Bottom line, the Florida Supreme Court (by marginal majority) declared that it would throw out the illegally imposed sentences of death only as far back as June 2002, but those sentenced prior to that “arbitrary line in the sand” would not be granted relief – and they ordered Mark Asay´s previously granted stay of execution lifted. This meant that approximately half of the almost 400 death sentenced prisoners in Florida would have their illegally imposed death sentences thrown out, but the other half would not.

My own case would drag on for a few months longer. Despite the ruling in Mark Asay´s case, which made it clear that I would not receive relief from the illegally imposed sentences of death, I remained hopeful that the Florida Supreme Court would rule favorably on my innocence-related issues, especially our request for DNA testing of evidence that could substantiate my claim of innocence.

But on March 8, 2017, the Florida Supreme Court issued its opinion in my pending case, denying all relief, Lambrix v State (217 So.3d.977 (Fla. 2017)), and ordered that my previously granted stay of execution be lifted. My lawyers filed a motion for a rehearing, arguing that the court´s denial of DNA testing was clearly wrong; as the court ruled that DNA testing had already been conducted – and it clearly had not. Further, the court violated its own state procedures by refusing to address our claim of entitlement to a new trial based on F.B.I. records conclusively showing that my trial lawyer (an appointed public defender) was secretly acting as a witness against me in an unrelated F.B.I. investigation while representing me. Because that act established an irreconcilable conflict of interest, under applicable law, that violation should have entitled me to a new trial.

Refusing to address its clear mistakes of both fact and law, the Florida Supreme Court summarily denied the request for a rehearing, and as of May 10, 2017, the previously entered stay of execution was formally lifted. I knew that they would come get me and take me back to Death Watch again, even though I had my other appeals still pending before the courts.

On Monday, July 3, 2017, they came and took Mark Asay back to Death Watch, with a new execution date of August 24. Although he was previously scheduled 5-weeks after me when our death warrants we signed prior to the Supreme Court´s Hurst v Florida decision, since his case was ruled on, this time months before mine was, he was now at the front of the line.

And Mark was tired. He said he was ready to go, even though new evidence came to light supporting his long-standing claim that he did not kill one of the two victims in his case, but he had enough and was ready to die. Like too many others, he had lost the will to fight.

That is an element of the death penalty few give any thought to – after years of fighting the system (and sometimes our appointed lawyers), many become broken and just want the nightmare to end. By the time the condemned prisoner is led into the execution chamber, he (or she) has accepted their fate and their inability to do anything about it. They then surrender themselves to this ritual of death. That’s just the way it is.

At precisely 6:22 p.m., Mark Asay was pronounced dead by lethal injection. It appears that the execution went off as intended, and the unprecedented use of this new drug protocol (Etomidate, rocuronium bromide, and potassium acetate) worked; although some witnesses did report that in his final moments, Asay involuntarily “twitched”, whatever that may mean.

However, the primary question of whether the Florida Supreme Court´s arbitrary and unprecedented “partial retroactivity” rule, which has already held that those illegally sentenced to death after June 2002 would have their sentences thrown out, while simultaneously denying all pre-2002 cases under identical circumstances relief, can withstand constitutional challenge remains to be addressed and resolved – and now my own case will be the lead case in that fight, which will most likely be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court… sooner or later.

This should have been addressed in Mark Asay´s case, especially since it was his case that established this partial retroactivity rule. But Mark didn´t want his lawyers to pursue that issue again. He considered a reduction of his death sentence to life to amount to a fate even worse than death, and refused to allow his lawyers to pursue the issue.

I´m not too happy about my case being the one that will now try to decide this issue, as, if the courts get focused on that issue, they will likely ignore my other pending “actual innocence” issues. And I know, very well, that the Supreme Court could simply refuse to accept review of that partial retroactivity issue, just as they did after the Supreme Court first established the foundation of requiring a jury sentencing in Ring v Arizona (2002), and for 14-years (and 47 executions) the Supreme Court refused to accept review – until they finally did in 2015, which resulted in the early-2016 decision in Hurst v Florida

No matter what life throws at you, you got to play the cards you´re dealt, and the reality is that when Governor Rick Scott signed that order on September 1, 2017, rescheduling my execution for Thursday, October 5, 2017, from that day I was given only 35-days left to live. Maybe I won´t be executed, but since Florida adopted a law that makes a death warrant “indefinite” (that is, it never expires), nobody has survived a death warrant under Governor Scott. A few have received temporary stays, only to then be rescheduled, and they´re all dead now.

Was today´s sunrise an omen, or a curse? Or, was it simply a sunrise that held no meaning other than its beauty? Before I was brought down to Death Watch (yet again), I had previously spent about 141-days in late-1988, and then the winter of 2015-16 here. It´s an environment I´ve become familiar with.

As I was escorted into this Death Watch cell, the first thing I noticed was the smell of a fresh coat of paint. The substantially larger size of the cell no longer surprised me. I stepped into it, then obediently held my hands to the cell-front bars, so the guards could remove the handcuffs and chains, while engaging them in casual conversation.

The Death Watch Lieutenant knew that I already knew the Death Watch routine, so he didn't explain to me again that things work different down here, and that they would try to make my last days as easy as they could, short of compromising security.

Directly outside this Cell One, there is a generic and rather plain state-issued desk, and nobody had to tell me it was built by inmates in the woodshop. It very well could have been the same prisoners who, when ordered to do so, also constructed the electric chair many years ago. There are two multi-colored blue chairs, with obviously aged paisley patterned cushions accented by a heavy wood frame. They looked comfortable, and I asked the Death Watch Sargent if he´d mind moving one of those chars into my cell and we both laughed, a moment of intentional levity to break the ice.

It was hot, and I quickly began sweating. Late summer in Florida is like this, hot and humid. It didn´t help that I was wearing the heavy denim prison uniform we are required to wear anytime outside our cells (as well as when official visitors come around on one of their “tours” of death row). Without further thought, I began to strip down to nothing but my boxers – and the guards thought nothing of it, as that is the standard uniform we wear in our cells during the hot summers.

Directly in front of Cell One, securely fastened to the wall between the two windows, hangs a 40-inch flat screen T.V., a luxury only afforded to those condemned prisoners scheduled to die. Perhaps it was for that reason I asked the Sargent if he´d mind if I used my own small 13-inch color T.V. in the cell, but I already knew they´d allow me to do so, if I wanted to. My personal property had not yet been brought over from the adjacent regular death row housing wing (G-wing), however, it would arrive soon. I knew the Property Room Sargent and his crew were already collecting it and, as they did, they were going through what I had to make sure I wasn´t given anything that could be a threat to the heightened state of security on Death Watch.

Normally, the staff use inmate labor to do the work, but once a person is placed on Death Watch, no contact with other inmates is allowed. The guards serve me my meals, each plastic-wrapped by the Kitchen Supervisor and marked “Death Watch.” The Laundry Room Sargent will personally pick up my laundry and then wash and neatly fold it before bringing it back. And the guards assigned to work Death Watch will also do the janitorial work that inmate trustees typically do. Even when I have legal or (non-contact) social visits while under active death warrant, I will be escorted up the long main hall (check out “Alcatraz of the South” Part I and II), only after the entire prison is fully locked-down.

As I finally move around a bit in this Death Watch cell that I´m already far too familiar with, I make up the bunk, using the small stack of freshly washed and folded linen piled at the foot of the plastic covered foam mattress, and check the sink to make sure that the water works. Everything appears to be in order.

I´m allowed one legal phone call and one call to family when a death warrant is signed and, once I´m situated in the cell, the Sargent puts the call through to my lawyers. They already knew that the Governor had rescheduled my execution and assured me that they were already putting together what needed to be done. We filed numerous appeals in both the State and Federal courts in recent months, and these remain pending but there´s more to be done. They would talk again next week.

My personal property arrived and, with the help of the Sargent, it was passed through the open feed slot (what we call a “bean flap”) a handful at a time and I stacked it up against the walls. I would put it up in the large steel footlocker bolted firmly to the floor the next day.

A few hours later, the Sargent puts the phone call through to my sister. She already knew about where I was, as my lawyer had contacted my family. My parents were at her house and she put the call on speaker phone, and I did my best to be positive and tell them not to worry, reminding them we have the appeals pending and the question of illegally imposed death sentence should stop all of this. But we all know that the courts don´t do what they should, and there´s a reason that of the last 25 men who occupied this Cell One here on Death Watch, I am the sole survivor. Nobody has survived a rescheduled execution on a fourth date with death.

But, for now, I will enjoy watching that unexpected sunrise through that window, and I will watch the next thirty-four to come; enjoying each as if it will be my last. And that last one will most likely come on the morning of October 5, 2017. By that evening, I will be dead.

Date With Death - Week Two: Countdown to Execution 

When I was brought down to Death Watch on Friday, September 1, 2017, they gave me 34-days to live and, at precisely 6:00p.m. on that thirty-fourth day, they plan to pump lethal drugs into my immobolized veins and kill me. As I sit at this small steel table in Cell One waiting, I'm now down to only 25-days. Just that quickly, nine days have already passed. That's almost a full one-third of the rest of my life.

I've been here before, and this Death Watch cell is familiar. But the last few times I've counted down what were to be my last days, I was not alone.  This time I am, and I'm still trying to figure out whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. On the plus side, it's often very quiet for long periods of time.  No one else is around other than the guard sitting at the desk on the other side of the steel bar gate. He makes his rounds about every 30-minutes to check on me before returning to his desk. More often than not, we will momentarily engage in idle conversation, as, like me, he too is alone. It’s just the two of us down here.

On the negative side, it's very quiet down here when there's nobody around. I feel isolated and this enhances my feelings of loneliness. I have a t.v. outside my cell to keep me entertained, and I have my MP3 player to get my head out of this place. But it just doesn't feel the same this time, being down here all by myself.  Not that I'd wish this on anyone – I wouldn’t do that. I'd rather be down here alone than put anyone else through this.

As luck would have it, shortly after Governor Scott signed the order on September 1, rescheduling my execution for October 5, a major hurricane, “Irma”, developed and grew into what was soon being called one of the worst ever. The projected path had it heading straight for South Florida and, as I write this, it's still coming this way.

Just a week earlier, Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas, with record rain and within days at least 60 people died. I read that Texas had an execution scheduled that week that was postponed.

Now I'm going through the same thing. Shortly after my execution was rescheduled, the Florida Supreme Court issued an order instructing that all appeals had to be completed before the lower state courts no later then Monday September 11, so that any review before the Florida Supreme Court could be expedited. But with Hurricane Irma heading straight for South Florida, by early Thursday (September 7), the Governor ordered a statewide emergency and all state offices (including the courts) were shutdown. 

It’s kind of hard to file an appeal if the courthouse is closed. My lawyers quickly filed a motion asking the Florida Supreme Court to rescind its order, due to their inability to work the case, and it didn't take long before the court issued an order granting another full week to file whatever had to be filed in the lower courts - but they refused to postpone the execution date. So, even though neither my lawyers or the lower courts could do anything for that week, and probably wouldn't be able to do much after Hurricane Irma blows through, the Florida Supreme Court wasn't going to postpone my execution.

The prison system has been locked-down for days as this hurricane draws closer and, other than a quick phone call with my lawyers, I haven't had any contact with them. One of my lawyers had a visit scheduled for this past Thursday, but couldn’t get any flights out of the Fort Lauderdale airport, as that part of Florida was being evacuated, and the investigator assigned to my case is a Coast Guard reservist, and was called up for duty.

I don't blame them.  Call it an act of God. But I'm quickly running out of time and I haven't had any meaningful communication with my lawyers. We’ve already lost valuable time, and that clock keeps ticking away, and there's nothing I can do about it.

Funny how not even what appears to be the worst hurricane in Florida's history can slow down the machinery of death.  This unexpected natural disaster serves to stack an already loaded deck against me, as this inability to get the work done favors the state.

But is isn’t all bad. On Monday (September 06), my younger sister came up for a visit. My other sister planned to come up with her, but couldn’t make it due to the hurricane. Still, it was a great visit, even though restricted to non-contact through glass.

Here in Florida (unlike Texas and a few other states), death-sentenced prisoners are allowed regular contact visits each weekend from 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m., in a large open visiting park. Although relatively few get regular visits, it means a lot to be able to give someone you love a big hug, and to be able to sit at a table and talk and eat a meal bought from the prison store. 

But, once the Governor sets an execution date, then they immediately terminate those contact visits and all social visits become non-contact. That means that they are conducted though a glass wall with a small hole covered by a steel plate with holes in it so you can talk through it.

Even as much as these visits mean, they are also one of the hardest parts about facing an execution date. Regardless if what any of us in here may have done, our families remain innocent victims of this circumstance. While the victims families, and the justice system are driven by vengeance to push for our deaths, those that care about us are driven by love and want us to live, and nothing brings them more pain then to know that, in a matter of weeks, or even days, or hours, we may be put to death.

That's the reality that hangs over these Death Watch visits and I do what I can to keep the positive, to find a way to joke and laugh and talk about long ago memories of the good times that we shared together. But how I wished I could just reach through that thick plate of security glass and give her a big hug and tell her that it will all be alright. 

Those few hours passed quickly and we said our goodbyes. My sister tried to hide the tears as she turned to walk out the door, but I could see that she was crying.  All I could do was smile and wave as she disappeared through that steel door. At least I had that time with her.

It was a long walk back to my Death Watch cell. The area where the non-contact visits are conducted is at the front of the prison, just inside the main door. But the Death Watch area is at the opposite end of this long building, over a quarter of a mile walk and, with each slow step in my shackled and chained feet, I felt that I was walking further away from all that means so much to me; leaving what gave me the strength to keep going (my family, friends, etc.) and returning to that cold loneliness of a Death Watch cell only a few feet away from the steel door that leads into the execution chamber.

If not for those visits, I wouldn't have had the strength to maintain my sanity through the years. If I've learned nothing else in the too many decades I've spent in this manmade hell, it is that all of us have our breaking point, and no matter how strong you may want to be, this place can break you. It will break you.

I remind myself of what Victor Frankl wrote about in the book Man's Search for Meaning; how, as long as a man has a reason to live, he can find the will to live, even under the worst of circumstances. To love and to be loved gives reason.

For a long time I thought it was hope that gave me the strength to keep going. But, in recent years, I've come to accept that hope is a fragile thing, which fades away with each new setback. Hope builds its foundation on circumstances beyond our control, and crushes our souls when what we hoped for is taken away.
Love is what keeps us going. The love of family, the love of friends, and if the stars even momentarily align themselves in just the right way, even the love of a new romance before it to quickly fades away. It's the love that others so generously extend to me that gives me strength. 

Even before the Governor signed the order rescheduling my execution, I was expecting it. Earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court denied my appeal that argued that I'm entitled to DNA testing of evidence. Evidence, that if tested, could substantiate my innocence, and that under the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v Florida, I was illegally sentenced to death.

Knowing that this was coming, and that there wasn't anything I could do to stop the State of Florida from killing me for something I didn't do, I decided awhile back that once the Governor did reschedule my execution, I would begin a hunger strike while on Death Watch. This would be a means of protesting against the intent to kill me without allowing the readily available evidence that will substantiate my innocence from being heard.

But my family and friends didn't like that idea. They worry about me, and were afraid it would cause me harm. My lawyers expressed their opposition because they remain confident that I will get another stay of execution, as I have four appeals pending and a number of strong issues (including my innocence) that still are not resolved. 

I don't want to argue with them (and didn't), as these are people who have stood by me for many years. And I didn't want to add any more stress to what they were already going through as it is.

For that reason, I reached a compromise - I would delay initiating this intended hunger strike until after I had the visit with my sister. I’d then talk to her and explain why it is important to me that I do something, as I don't want to just lay down and die... Maybe a hunger strike wouldn't accomplish anything, maybe some would even laugh at me, but this is something I had to do.

So, I agreed to wait until after her visit that Wednesday (September 06) to begin, and it was a great visit.

Once I returned to my Death Watch cell, it was almost 4:00 p.m., and I knew that at 4:00 p.m. I would receive a phone call from my dear friend Geesje, who lives in Athens, Greece. For so many years, Geesje has stood by me, giving so much of herself to help fight the injustice of my wrongful convictions, as well as advocate on behalf of others. In my world, it's only too easy to forget that there are good people in this world. For reasons I will never understand, I have been blessed with a number of family and friends who are genuinely nothing less than angels... and Geesje is, unquestionably, one.

The call came through and I smiled when I heard her voice, her Dutch accent always frosted with a healthy dose of humor, and soon we were laughing despite the reality of my date with death. We only had a few moments, but just hearing her voice, especially after spending the earlier hours with my sister, just brought a happiness to my heart that had me smiling long after I had to hang up the phone.

Then I turned my attention to what could very well be my last meal as, beginning that following morning (Thursday September 7), I would start the Death Watch hunger strike and continue it until I either receive a stay of execution, or I'm put to death.

For months I had saved a “Roast Beef with Gravy” that I got from the food packages we are allowed to receive from the outside twice-a-year. It was a ready-to-eat meal that only needed heating up. I also saved a small bag of instant mashed potatoes, just for this occasion.

On Death Watch, we have access to a microwave oven and need only ask the Sergeant to put whatever we need heated in it, so I knew that I could prepare my meal as it should be.

I planned every detail for months. I began by first taking the small bag of instant mashed potatoes and pouring that into my bowl. Then I pulled out ten individual servings of liquid coffee creamer, that I bought from the canteen, and added that to the instant potatoes, stirring it into a paste.

I then took a two-ounce pack of Philadelphia Cream Cheese (with jaleapeno's) and added that to the instant potatoes, and then a small bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, which I crunched up into a fine powder before mixing that into the potatoes as well. Finally, I imposed upon the Sergeant to boil a cup of water, which I then slowly mixed into the potatoes until they were just the right thickness. I tried not to eat too much under the guise of tasting them - that was not easy!

Using my other bowl, I poured the generous portion of roast beef with thick brown gravy into that bowl and, again, imposed upon the Sergeant to heat it. Once that was steaming hot, I had him throw my potatoes into the microwave for a few minutes and then, using a couple of paper plates, I laid out a small mountain of my flavored potatoes in the middle of a plate, carefully creating a small bowl in the very middle. I then slowly poured the roast beef with gravy into that hollowed out cavity, until the thick gravy generously poured over the sides, with the chunks of roast beef spread to the side of that mountain.

I then sat down at my small table - the same table that so many others who previously occupied this Death Watch cell before me had eaten their own last meal before being put to death - and I took a moment to say grace and remember those who went before me. Then I slowly ate that meal, savoring every bite, and knowing that it very well could be my last meal.

That plate of potatoes and roast beef with gravy filled me up, but I wasn't quite done yet. I reached into my footlocker and took out the last two small bags of Keebler Fudge Stripe Mini's cookies that I’d also saved from my food package. I had bought two small Kraft chocolate pudding cups from the canteen, and had them placed in the Death Watch refrigerator. I poured that thick, and almost frozen, chocolate pudding into the bowl, then poured the mini cookies on top, and began to eat my dessert. With each bite, I made sure that I had just the right mixture of pudding and mini fudge cookies. I deliberately took my time with each slow bite until, finally, it was gone. Then, like a child in his mother's kitchen, I licked the bowl clean, putting extra effort into making sure that I got every bit of that chocolate.

Once I had finished, I began to wash my bowls in the small sink, then dry them out. It was now early evening and I laid back on my bunk. I put my headphones on and watched t.v. for the next few hours, before I finally fell asleep. For a day on Death Watch, and only a few feet away from that steel door that leads into the execution chamber that patiently awaits me (please read, “Execution Day: Involuntary Witness to State Sanctioned Murder"), it wasn't a bad one.

But, it was also a long day, and I was tired and ready for sleep. However, sleep didn't come easy, as I struggled to focus on the time spent earlier that day with my sister and the way we laughed and shared memories of better days, and on the sound of my dearest friend Geesje's voice.

I fell asleep, then woke again, and pushed myself to sleep again. Before long it was almost 5:00 a.m., and the Death Watch Sergeant was standing at my cell door holding a white styrofoam food tray. I already knew it contained two biscuits with what they claim to be meat gravy, and potatoes and grits... that was our Thursday morning breakfast for, at least, the past ten-years.

Politely, I refused that breakfast tray, just as I would every meal they brought after that. Making his routine rounds, the Warden came by and I explained to him why I was doing this hunger strike, and that it had nothing to do with prison staff.

A few hours later, the Assistant Warden came by with a small folder of paperwork and, just as I had done when my death warrant was signed in November 2015, he advised me that they needed to go over a few things. He asked whether there were any changes to my previously stated next of kin, and how I wanted my body to be disposed of if the execution took place.

I answered each question as if I had that conversation every day, and within minutes we were finished. Just that quickly, the decision on how my body, as well as my personal property, would be disposed of was decided, and it brought me another step closer to death.

By Friday (September 8), the prison was already shutting everything down as they prepared for Hurricane Irma to blow through by early-Monday. Because of the hurricane, my previously scheduled visit with my elderly parents and other sister was cancelled, as was any communication with my lawyers. It would be a long weekend, until Tuesday.

As I write this, I have 25-days to go until they will come to take me to the other side of this floor and countdown those last minutes until, as I lay strapped to that gurney, they pump a cocktail of lethal drugs into my body and kill me. And there's not a damned thing I can do to stop them.

 Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017