Growing up I had the misfortune of having to change schools quite frequently – which, if I’m being honest, is an understatement to say the least. On two occasions, I attended four schools within a single school year. These decisions to switch schools were never made by me. They were all forced upon me. Either my family decided to move, I graduated to the next level, I lived in the wrong school district, or the schools – the private ones – declared I wasn’t the “right fit” for their institution of learning. With the latter of the four happening twice, it was decided I actually may not be the quintessential student for private schooling.
With each change, I was left to adjust to my new environment. Being the new kid was never easy, especially when all the other students had a leg-up, knowing where they fell in the food-chain of the student body. But fitting in was just part of the hassle of adapting to a new school. There was also getting used to your new teachers and their way of conducting the classroom. It would be naïve to believe, since all instructors did the same thing – teach – there wouldn´t be much of a difference in their style and techniques. Trust me, that wasn´t the case. I encountered so many different professors and each one seemed to have a style that was contradictory to the previous teacher. Some genuinely loved teaching and made learning exciting. Others simply saw it as a job and could care less if you learned anything. If that wasn´t enough to contend with, I had to get accustomed to a new schedule that was always more confusing than the last, with having to go to particular classes on particular days. On top of it all, there was the issue of getting acclimated to the school´s lunch menu. You may be thinking this isn´t something of much significance, but a growing boy with a hearty appetite, is always hungry. Add the fact that you´re a picky eater, and you can be in for some serious trouble, with the limited choices given. Needless to say, transitioning from school to school was a challenging undertaking. Still, in the end, I always did manage to learn a new thing or two; my environment accomplishing what school was designed to do. Teach.
Two years ago, I enrolled in my latest school, becoming a new resident on Florida´s Death Row. I call it “school” because I can´t help but notice an eerie similarity between adapting to my new residence and adjusting to all those new schools so many years ago. Rather than kids having a head-start on me, it was other inmates who had a big jump on me, some who have been on Death Row for decades. Nonetheless, I had to figure out my place in this new food-chain, which I soon discovered wasn´t much of a food-chain at all. It was more of a two-tier totem pole. All of us inmates were at the bottom and everyone else was above us. Simple as that.
What wasn´t simple was getting used to the teachers, who were replaced by correctional officers. Just as my former teachers each had their own way of running their classroom, the officers each had their own way of running the wing. Some basically saw it as a paycheck, did their twelve hours and went home – which I didn´t mind. Then there were guards who brought an unhealthy, personal element into the mix, going out of their way to give you a hard time. As if being on Death Row wasn´t hard enough. If these particular officers were having a bad day at home, it was pretty much a given that, if you gave them the opportunity, they were going to make your day or night – sometimes both- hell. Since it is being nearly impossible to determine how their day had been going outside these prison walls, I chose to just steer clear of them entirely, not speaking to them unless it was absolutely necessary. At times, that didn´t work. It was as if the guards simply sat around devising new ways to cause discomfort, whether by tampering with your TV signal or turning on the fans in the middle of the harsh winter. These were my professors and I just had to deal with it.
As with each new school, I once again had to conform to a new schedule, this one being the most drastic of them all. No longer concerned about going to certain classes on certain days, rather, I had the matter of when to shower. This was an extreme shock. I would no longer be able to shower every day like a normal person, instead three times a week in an every other day pattern. And recess was no more an everyday affair. Outdoor recreation, along with sunshine, was a privilege deemed warranted for just two days out of the week – which we didn´t always receive. Like everything else, my schedule was something I was being forced to content myself with.
Then, there was the small matter of convincing myself I loved the food my new school served. With Death Row Academy being a boarding school, there was no waiting until I got home to eat nor bringing a bagged lunch. I had no option but to enjoy the “amazing four-star cuisines” offered three times a day. As a result, the unidentifiable yellow and brown substance – titled “yakisoba” – became filet mignon. It wasn´t like I ever had filet mignon, so who was I to tell the difference? Sure, we were allowed to purchase more desirable/edible food from the canteen, but that only took you so far. Especially when financial help was few and far between. So, I made the best of the two-ounce steaks, better known as peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the free-world.
Beyond everything else, the most surprisingly similar aspect is the fact that Death Row was essentially created to, in a roundabout way, do the same thing as schools. Teach. What a person learns varies, of course. Which begs the question: What lesson will I learn? That the justice system works? And that those deserving of it will reap its benefits? That executing people is necessary to maintain law and order? That the death penalty should be extended to crimes other than murder? Or the death penalty is definitely the answer? All of these are fundamental points taught at this institutional learning center.
So far, in my two years, I´ve learned this system has many cracks in it, to say the least. The death penalty doesn´t deter criminals (sorry, death penalty supporter). Executing people doesn´t give victims´ families closure, just revenge. The execution process itself is completely flawed. Should I even get started on the amount of people who have been executed only to be later exonerated of the crime? Or how about the innocent individuals still on death row? I can go on and on about the lessons I´ve learned here, but none are part of the Department of Corrections´ strict syllabus. Really, I find it impossible to wrap my mind around the ideology – or idiocy, depending on how you perceive it – being taught. Then again, I may not be the “quintessential student” worthy of receiving a diploma from this institution, “graduating” to death. I have no qualms with being labeled a “drop-out.” In fact, I yearn for the day I´m allowed to drop out of this God-forsaken school!
By James Herard, Student # L88290
|James Herard L88290|
Florida State Prison
P.O. Box 800
Raiford, FL 32083
My name is James Herard and I was born and raised in South Florida to an amazing mother who I love and cherish. As a result of my Haitian background, despite being born in the U.S. English is my second language, with Creole being my first. I’ve always had a deep-rooted love for animals, which has led me in the past to volunteer at a no-kill animal shelter, as well as have many pets of my own. I enjoy playing sports, football being my favorite. Meeting new people and learning new things have always brought me joy. I was arrested in 2002 at the age of 19 and have been on death row since January 2015. I spend most of my time listening to music, reading and writing what comes to my mind.