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