John Gardner: January 15th, 2020
“What?” asked a bewildered sounding Tracy Beatty when he heard that John Gardner, known to friends as "Steve," was scheduled to be executed within a few days. His already bright red face seemed to redden even further in his surprise and consternation at this unexpected news.
“I like Steve,” Tracy continued. “He's always been nice to me.” Leaving unsaid that not many people are nice to him, and making it obvious that Steve's understanding nature was greatly appreciated by one of Death Row's most annoying inmates.
“I didn't even know Steve had an execution date like us,” Tracy stated further.
“Yeah, he's over on the Medical Building all by himself,” chimed in Abel Ochoa.
“I wish he was over here with us on Death Watch so he had some inmate moral support and wasn't living out his last days all alone,” commented Richard Tabler.
“I think he's doing okay ya'll. He's got a TV to watch. He wouldn't have that over here. Over here, with camera's in all the cells, he'd be the one on TV. Plus, he's got some good people out in the free world that love him and write him all the time,” said Carlos Trevino.
“I hope he makes it,” Tracy said with sincerity.
Due to a severe case of diabetes Steve lost one of his legs and the remaining leg was very weak. This left him unable to walk, even with a walker, to the shower or to safely travel from his bunk to his cell door to receive his tray of food. After many falls and being forced to crawl to the door to get his food the Texas Department of Criminal Justice finally moved him to a cell in the Medical Building where he could be properly taken care of and live with a little more dignity.
In the Medical Building he was cared for by the medical staff and guards, but had no companionship with inmates. He was cut off from any inmate moral support. Yet, like Carlos said, at least he had a TV to watch and people in the free world that loved him.
Even when Steve received his execution date he remained in the Medical Building. The Death Watch section, where men are housed once they receive their execution date, lacks the medical bed and staffing needing to properly care for him. Knowing I'd never get to meet and get to know Steve and be able to capture his essence, personality and spirit in a farewell left me feeling that once again his illness had robbed him of inmate support.
Steve will never forgotten by me or the other men on Death Row. Whether he knew it or not we were all thinking of him and hoping he would live. The day before and the day of his execution many inmates were asking guards to tell him they sent their love. Inmates that didn't even know him, including me. I hope he received at least one of those many messages and knew we hadn't forgotten him.
Rest in peace, Steve.
“A man can be destroyed but not defeated” - Ernest Hemingway
Abel Ochoa: February 6th, 2020
Life for a Christian in prison can be a difficult journey filled with the disdain and ridicule of their fellow inmates and their captors alike, both viewing them through jaded eyes. Eyes that have seen an ocean of white clad inmates, bibles in hand, go home, only to return with even more prison time. Jaded eyes that have seen an endless parade of inmates claiming a belief in God, all the while breaking every conceivable prison rule and commandment: doing and selling drugs, extorting other inmates for money and sex, lying, stealing, etc…
In prison, to the seasoned inmate and guard, religious inmates are viewed, usually, as something to tolerate with the hope they are sincere, but to not take seriously. Inmate and guard alike have seen all manner of inmate; Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, young and old, use religion for cons ranging from trying to fool the parole board and their families into believing that they have seen that holy light and are forever changed, to claiming one religious affiliation or another simply to partake of that religion’s special meals, to be able to grow a “religious” beard, to use being “converted” to a religion as a free pass to get out of a gang they no longer want to be in (as a couple of Prison Gangs will allow their “Brothers” to do), to fooling themselves into believing that they are genuinely religious as a way to cope with being in prison, to handling failures, or dealing with guilt for the crimes they committed.
Seasoned eyes have seen countless fake religious inmates cycle through these unholy concrete corridors like a horde of biblical locusts, so when someone genuine in their beliefs makes an appearance jaded eyes can be slow in recognizing it and, seeing a river of false religious inmates flow by can make you jaded towards religion itself.
We were on lockdown, for an annual shakedown, the day Abel Ochoa received his execution date, was brought to Death Watch and put three cells away from me. During lockdowns the prison is very quiet. Inmates hibernate to deal with the unrelenting boredom of being trapped in our cells all day and night, every day, for several weeks and to conserve energy due to being fed less during lockdowns. Having a man receive his execution date and moved to Death Watch when the prison is silent – silent as a graveyard – seems especially bleak. Especially trying. Especially depressing.
Soon after Abel was put into his final prison cell in the Polunsky Unit he began talking to another inmate on Death Watch. He did not sound upset or depressed. In fact, he sounded happy, peaceful, optimistic and uber-religious. He sounded so upbeat and religious I thought it was a put-on to conceal his inner turmoil. Everything he said was along the lines of “Blessed greetings,” “Amen,” “God willing,” and “In Jesus’s Name.” Upon hearing these exuberant religious utterances roll around. I rolled my jaded eyes and thought something like – “Huh, one of those.” Meaning one of “those” Christians who use Christianity to attention seek, to show everyone else how pious and wonderful they are. I shrugged my shoulders and decided to ignore him.
Most every day after around 5-6 am, Abel would come to his cell door and say “Blessed Morning everybody. Coffee time, Coffee time, Coffee TIIIMMME! Only on Monday! (if it was Monday – Tuesday if it was Tuesday, etc…) AMEN AMEN!”
The first few times he did this I barely noticed it. Then it along with his many other sayings, he repeated endlessly, became mildly annoying. For example: Anyone he spoke to he would say “Blessed Greetings” to – every single time. Every single time. He was endlessly “blessed,” forever “amen-ing,” and eternally “In Jesus Name.”
After a couple of weeks, I barely noticed his religious patter anymore and was able to ignore him. Then TDCJ implemented a new policy of putting anyone who'd just been sentenced to death by a jury onto Death Watch for one to two months for suicide observation. Each cell on Death Watch has a camera inside it; allegedly, this will allow TDCJ to prevent suicide. The first person this was done to was a rather slow, mentally ill, guy who was put right next to Abel. A new inmate arrives with nothing and is put into a cell with a mattress, sheets, socks, boxers, slip on shoes, a jumper and an orientation book. That's it. Immediately, Abel took this new guy under his wing, gave him his t-shirt, hygiene stamps, paper, pen, cup, spoon, food and of course, coffee. He gave him everything he needed to feel comfortable and not feel alone. Every day Abel would talk to him and teach him about Death Row, the appeal process, prison rules, etc… He had the patience of a saint when dealing with that man. Then, about two months later, another inmate, newly sentenced to death, arrived on Death Watch. Abel immediately did the same thing with him, giving him stamps, a shirt, shower shoes (which Abel had specifically acquired just in case another new guy arrived), hygiene, food, reading material, cup, spoon, coffee, and explained the ropes to him. A week later ANOTHER newly sentenced to Death man showed up and Abel again was there to help him just like the first two. Abel wasn't helping these guys in a small way. To each, he was giving them a substantial amount of supplies. He was putting himself out to help them. He was giving when it hurt him financially, to do so.
It was at this point that I started to pay a little closer attention to Abel Ocho,a and my jaded eyes started to really SEE him. What I began to see (and hear) was someone who was very humble. Missing this initially is a testament to how jaded I'd become. Abel was always smiling, or seemed about to smile. His smile was sincere and open, similar to that of a child's. His dark eyes lit up with an inner joy that even his enormously bushy eyebrows couldn't conceal. Abel was a small, slightly built, middle aged man with a craggy face and light way of walking that made him seem young. His child-like open smile made him seem younger than his years.
Abel’s voice was deep and resonated with humility and peace. In the seven months I knew him, his deep voice was never used to speak a single curse word. A feat so rare he's only the second person I've ever met in prison to never curse. Every single day – until his very last day on this earth, he was the same person, the same humble and kind man.
It was during his last two months alive that I'd started to realize that Abel was genuinely a Christian and was lit up with something that had given him peace. I'd finally realized this rather obvious truth at a time when I was very close to giving up on some Bible studies that I'd been doing for almost two years. Bible studies I'd only begun doing because I'd noticed I wasn't open minded towards religion anymore – and I pride myself on being open minded. The Bible Studies were my way to challenge myself. Yet, all I’d achieved was to further confirm my lack of belief and I sorely wanted to quit them. The only reason I hadn't was because I'd given the Bible study program coordinators my word I'd complete them. Yet, my heart wasn't in them. At all.
Watching Abel’s grace, giving nature, humble kind spirit, corny jokes and sincerity helped me renew my commitment and opened my heart to the possibility that maybe Jesus Christ really is real. Maybe. Yeah, I'm still jaded, but way less so. Thanks to Abel, or as he'd put it, thanks to how Jesus worked through him.
On Abel’s last day alive, bright and early, he announced, as usual, it was “Coffee Time, Coffee Time, Coffee TIIIMMME! Only on Thursday. AMEN.” He was at peace and smiling as he lightly walked off this section for the last time on his way to his last visit with his loved ones.
Shortly after his death was announced on radio station 90.1 KPFT they played an interview with him the “Execution Watch” show, recorded a month or two prior. You can listen to it at www. executionwatch.org. That was how Abel was every day. According to men who knew him his entire sixteen and a half years on Death Row he was like that his entire time here. Hard to fake anything for so many years. My jaded eyes needed Abel Ochoa.
He made a difference. May he be resting in peace.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room on earth.” - Muhammad Ali
Life Watch Update April 20th 2020
Good ole Corona Virus, saving lives one day at a time. Condemned lives that is. My grandfather, Leroy, occasionally said that there is always a silver lining to any cloud, no matter how dark and mighty it is, you just have to be able to find it. My grandfather would surely see the same silver lining in the Corona Virus cloud as I do.
Amazingly despite the devastation covid-19 is causing worldwide, it has currently saved the lives of four men set to be executed in March and April. Covid-19 will surely also save the two men scheduled for state-sanctioned murder in May as well.
With the courts largely shut down, and travel bans and social distancing enforced, the legal teams fighting to save the men awaiting their dates with the State’s masked executioner are unable to properly defend their clients, so Texas has been forced to give three stays of execution and change the execution date of a fourth man.
Tension was high on the Death Watch section, where condemned men with execution dates are warehoused, when Hurricane Corona touched down March 13th shutting down all prison visitation throughout the State of Texas until further notice. At that time there were two executions scheduled within two weeks, John Hummel on March 18th and Tracy Beatty on March 25th.
Then the silver lining within the hurricane storm cloud revealed itself when Hummel and Beatty received stays of execution. When that occurred, the tension on the Death Watch section retreated back to its dark corner. Right now ,the eye of the storm is hovering over the Death Watch section and the condemned are relaxing in the temporary calm. They know that the storm isn't gone, yet…...................... a few deep breaths. R-E-L-A-X-I-N-G.
There are currently six men with execution dates left as I write this. Everyone seems to be in better spirits, happy that they are the beneficiaries of a rather odd break.
I've heard several men independently say versions of “I'm happy I get to live, for now, but not happy it has come at the cost of others.”And a couple of men still awaiting execution have said versions of “I hope this Corona Virus disaster saves me too, but I don't like knowing I'll only live because others die or suffer.”
Only one man who has received a stay, thus far, expressed no empathy for those suffering the effects of the viral hurricane. He is severely mentally ill.
As for the new Corona Virus Safety Measures implemented by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that I can see for myself …
“Hey Inmate-in-Six-Cell, do ya want yer cell sprayed with bleach?” mutters a frazzled, tired looking guard wearing a green surgical mask under his chin to keep his chubby chin virus-free.
The inmate in six cell approaches his cell door to see an overweight guard standing before his closed door wearing a yellow rubber glove on his right hand and his bare left hand holding a hand-held pressurized cannister similar to what exterminators use. “Okay, but just spray the outside of my door and spray some of that bleach onto my rag so I can wipe my cell down myself,” replies the inmate.
“Gotcha,” the guard says as he makes one random pass across half of the door, then opens the food slot in the door and says “Put yer rag on the food slot and step away from yer door”.
The inmate does as ordered and the guard promptly douses said rag with bleach and steps back from the open food slot. “Retrieve yer rag inmate,” grumbles Texas' finest.
Again, the inmate does as ordered and backs away from the door with his lightly dampened rag. As the guard locks the food slot the inmate smells his rag. As he'd figured, an almost undetectable scent of bleach wafts from it.
The other “safety measure” put in place to protect us from Hurricane Corona is a General Population inmate is assigned to each wing on Death Row with the express purpose of decontaminating each recreation area after it is used by Death Row inmates. This is done with more watered-down bleach and a rag kept in a red bucket full of muddy looking water. The same rag is used over and over to “decontaminate” each recreation area, dipped in and out of said filthy looking water.
Many inmates have expressed concern for their safety due to the covid-19 and the haphazard measures implemented by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). However, the main concern for us isn't the virus gaining unwanted entry into our bodies, but a specific concoction the State of Texas wants to forcibly inject into us free of charge.
For the past twenty-nine months that I have been on Death Row and living on the Death Watch section I have been writing Farewells to the fallen and Death Watch updates about what I notice among men with potentially just moments left to live. It hit me recently that I've titled the updates all wrong. I'm not chronicling how men die, but how men LIVE until they die. What I'm doing with this project revolves around death, but is about LIFE. The good and the bad in us all. Humanity at its best and worst. I am showing everyone how good people can do bad things and how bad people can evolve into good (or at least better) people. That evolution is a big part of what living is all about.
From here on my updates will be properly titled: “Life Watch Updates”
“There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us “ - Martin Luther King, Jr.
|Billy Tracy 999607|
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351