Thursday, March 5, 2020

Death Row

By Anthony Ehlers

In this essay, I am going to talk about death row and the death penalty; a recent talk in a class about such brought up a lot of old memories and feelings for me…

Death row is torture! In my opinion, it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment”. Others may argue whether or not the death penalty is cruel and unusual, but many never stop to think about what death row is actually like, nor what being there does to you. 

There are guys in prison who talk about death row as if it is some kind of status symbol. Personally, I don’t talk about my time there much; it’s difficult to describe the utter desolation I felt there. I was so alone, and so angry. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to hurt people – regardless of what the State says – but, I felt that way there. I felt abandoned and betrayed by everyone. My friends had disappeared, my family left me behind. My lawyers – who I had also trusted – did absolutely nothing for me. A court system I thought would listen to me wanted me dead. No one loved me. But, worse than that, I didn’t love myself.

I really could have used some anger management courses, or some therapy. But the State doesn’t believe in wasting resources on those who have been “condemned”. How inhumane is that?! All the State wanted to do was dope me up and turn me into a zombie. That is not help, that is oblivion. I lashed out and spent a lot of time in segregation: about five years straight. I was put behind a steel door with only a metal box and slide at its front. When it was time to eat, guards would open the metal box and lift the slide, so I could receive my tray food tray. I had absolutely no human contact. And, because the fronts of our cells were steel, not bars, to talk with the other guys on the row, we would have to lie on the floor and yell to each through the cracks at the bottom of the door.

Another thing I found very disturbing being on death row was how well we were fed when someone was executed. Every time the State killed someone, they served the rest of us fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, and cornbread, without fail. I grew to hate fried chicken and boycotted those meals.

Death row was always tense around the time of an execution. Sometimes it got violent, or we lit fires, or we would let our rage out in various other ways. Some guys would hurt themselves, while some would hurt others. Executions were difficult to bear. Those guys may have been “monsters” in the eyes of society, but they were my neighbors, my friends; some as close as brothers to me. Some I’d known for months, others for years. We all shared a bond, of men fighting for their lives, together: literally fighting to stay alive.  

Imagine the cops coming to grab your father or mother, brother or sister, uncle or aunt, cousin, or best friend, to take them away to kill them. What do you think that would do you to you? 

Those fried chicken dinners were served as a means to try and placate us; as if to say, “Well, we’re killing one of your friends, but it will be finger lickin’ good!” Like fried chicken is a fair trade for the life of someone you care about?! To this day, whenever I’m given fried chicken, it still makes me think of my friends who they killed and I can’t eat it…

As I said, I spent a lot of time in segregation on death row. I think I lost my mind a little behind that steel-fronted door. You don’t have a cellie, no one on death row did. It’s just you, all alone. You talk to yourself, you answer yourself. Your mind tends to detach from reality; sometimes because your reality, your world, is all in that little box – with the specter of death always with you, always just behind you.

To be perfectly honest, death row is where I grew up. It’s where I became a man. Sitting in that cell I had no one, nothing but myself and a lot of time for soul searching and introspection. I had to face myself – who I was, what I was – and it wasn’t a pretty picture. I could have easily given up and submerged myself in death row. However, I decided that if they were going to kill me, I was going to go out a better man than who I was when I got there. 

I had to let go of so much anger and pain. I had to forgive others, but, just as importantly, I had to forgive myself. I had to learn to love myself – which, even now, is not an easy thing to do. There I was, stuck in a box smaller than most peoples’ bathroom, facing my own death, yet trying to become a better person. I used to laugh at the irony of it all.

Death row is such a backwards place. Everything you knew and held true in your previous life is different there. Normally, life should be about living, learning how to live as best you can. While being on death row is about learning how to die. Your instinct is to hold onto life as hard and as strong as you can. On death row, death is all around you and that grip becomes loosened. You see it all the time. You see it when the Warden and IDOC representatives come to read someone their death warrant, and take them away. You hear about it when another inmate gets their appeal shot down and they gain yet another step closer to their execution. You feel so much anger when you overhear guards talking about the “next up pool” – where they’re betting on who is next in line to be executed. Death surrounds you, and you have your own date creeping up on you too.

I’m not going to lie, I struggled with it often. Some days I wanted to fight to hold on, to make sure the State didn’t kill me. Other days, though, I wanted to die; I wanted to end it all and be free of the immense pain I felt. 

I thought about suicide a lot on death row. Sometimes I thought about it out of defiance: I wanted to rob them of their ability to kill me; considering it better for me to decide when I die, not them. It was all I could sometimes think of to take their power away. Other times I thought about killing myself just to stop the hurt; I wanted the chaos to stop, I wanted to be free. I don’t know what is on the “other side”, but I figured it had to be better than where I was.

While on death row, I was given a medication called Klonopin; amongst other things, it’s prescribed to relieve pain and mitigate seizures (and I sometimes get terrible migraines from nerve damage I suffered following a motorcycle accident). It’s not; however, I thought it was a narcotic. So, I saved each of my tablets for a whole week and took them all one night, hoping that as I fell asleep all of it would end. When I woke up the next day, I wept. I was wrecked...

Death row does that to you. It eats away at who you are and you die a thousand slow deaths. How is this not in any way cruel or unusual?   

In 1994, Illinois changed over from the electric chair to lethal injection as its method of execution because it was deemed “more humane”. I thought often about ‘my day’… What would it be like? How did I want to die? I was afraid, but not of dying. I was afraid of not dying well. All those people watching, like a morbid magic trick: ‘Now he’s alive, now he’s not.’

I didn’t want to be afraid or give satisfaction to those who wanted to see me suffer. I used to lay as if I were strapped to a gurney and practice my breathing, my focus, to try and stay in control for as long as I could while I envisioned them killing me. I wanted to conquer those fears. Can you imagine that? Can you picture what it is like to rehearse your own death night after night? It’s sick. But my life on death row was all centered upon just that. How is that not torture? 

People tell me I am one of the “lucky ones” because I got off death row; I was commuted almost a year before Governor Ryan let everyone else off there in 2003. However, for me, it’s been difficult to adjust no longer being on death row. I spent so long thinking about how to die that I felt I’d forgotten how to live. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with life again, to feel okay with walking away when my some of my friends hadn’t. 

Death row still haunts me. Sometimes I dream about it, about being back there, about feeling the straps tightening on a gurney. I still think that one of those nights I mightn’t wake up. I may have left death row, but it will never leave me. Death row twisted me and I wonder if I will ever be whole again…

And I still ask: How is any of this not torture? 

“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!”
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein 

Anthony Ehlers B60794
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434
My name is Anthony Ehlers, I am a former Death Row inmate. I am an artist and poet. I am a college student taking classes through Southwestern University, earning my Bachelor’s Degree. I write, and paint, and read as much as I can. I’ve been locked up twenty-eight years and am still fighting to get out of this place. Feel free to contact me.


Sandii Dunstan said...

Very insightful..thank you for sharing

Karen said...

I can't imagine what you have been through. It's terrible to have to live with fear every day. Thank you for sharing your story. I'm sure you're not alone.

Carmen said...

Thank you Anthony! It was very insightful and also heartbreaking. I hate fried chicken. I'll be praying for you to be free.