Guest column by Victoria Ann Thorpe
The pumping sounds repeated over and over through a reggae tune on my car stereo, “I’m a Human being y’al!” hit me hard since I had just left the visitors’ room for the death row residents in the Washington State Penitentiary. Michael Franti’s song, A Little Bit of Riddim, was washing over my ears as I drove out of Walla Walla. It was my initial visit to the small city of Walla Walla, Washington State Penitentiary, and my first time to meet the man on the other side of the glass partition.
One of the unexpected reactions I processed after leaving the facility was catching myself singing with Mr. Franti in full voice, bouncing along uninhibited to his inciting lyrics “Rock with me!” I even caught myself hitting the air with my fist and fervently cheering “I’m a human being y’all!” as I couldn’t shake the image of the soul I’d just walked away from. The person behind the glass remained behind until two corrections officers came to chain him up and escort him back to his solitary cell…Meanwhile, I drove away, to any place I wanted. I decided if I’d pick up something to eat and what. I chose which route to drive home to Spokane. I looked forward to being greeted by my family at the end of that day…It all was so much sweeter and real, measured against the lack of freedom my new friend lived with. My own liberties flitted around my mind like Tinkerbell wanting to grant me the ability to fly! I realized I felt so alive — after visiting death row in the Walla Walla prison.
The Washington State Penitentiary is an attractive prison, as prison’s go. Built in 1887 it carries some old world charm as you drive under the arching white sign announcing you’ve entered the facility grounds, where 1,967 beds house men from minimum to max security (8 men are currently living on Death Row). About 1,000 staff work the facility. Though the prison generates approximately $55 million into the local economy (employment, services, medical, etc) Walla Walla residents admit few visit there. Even with the nearly finished expansion, their Prison Research Group didn’t think the populace would be affected by the increased 512 beds at medium security level.
I traveled to Walla Walla the week of Jan.14 on an invitation to speak with several groups about my own sister’s case and the current campaign in Washington State to end the death penalty. My schedule began with a lovely casual mingle time for Walla Walla folks at my hosts’ home, where I met a former chaplain to the prison, a former mayor of the fair city, and much respected past Superintendant (warden) Dick Morgan. Our conversation circled the subject academically for a while, until I began asking the ex-warden personal questions about his previous work.
What would we lose if we no longer had the death penalty?
In reply to my queries, the former superintendant described the process we use here in our state. Those of us present for his candid explanation were surprised when he said he would create the execution team from among the people who actually knew the condemned man, furthermore; people who liked him, staff who likely were on a first name basis. Such answers sparked the desire in our small crowd to know intimate details. He went on to say that he wanted the last thing that man saw to be the faces of those who cared about him. My God! That took my imagination directly into that room with the team tying down a man, calming him, helping him through his own orchestrated and timed death, telling themselves they were doing their job and the right thing. I can’t imagine how they all carry that burden now. Isn’t that too much to ask of our public servants?
After all, we have the ability to securely contain a person whom we deem a threat to society, as Morgan stressed to me, “There’s absolutely no reason from a public safety standpoint these people can’t be managed as a life without [parole] sentence. If people don’t have faith their prison system can manage these people, the problem is much larger than the death penalty. We’ve got a serious problem with the prison system, because there’s no excuse for the inability to safely manage dangerous inmates, including those that have been previously sentenced to death. And I really want to underscore there really are—there’s lots of murderers in general prison populations that committed crimes as bad or worse than those who are sentenced to death .”
A prime example is Gary Ridgway, convicted of 48 murders and incarcerated in the Walla Walla prison, unable to harm any more. According to Dick Morgan, and many other out-spoken retired wardens (such as Dr. Allen Ault of Georgia, and Jeanne Woodford, San Quentin) there is no valid excuse for executions when we have the ability to house convicted persons securely, “Washington State prisons manage over two thousand murderers today based on behavior and not sentence.”
Though I was thoroughly impressed with the many Walla Walla residents I’d met, my favorite was the man I visited in the IMU (Intensive Management Unit, or maximum security) section of the prison. I enjoyed a wonderful exchange about life, spirituality, family, mistakes (mine), and our common desire for growth. Our hope-filled conversation had a great deal to do with my elevated appreciation for life driving away from the picturesque city. I was amazed yet again at the heights some humans can attain, even in extreme circumstances.
It was not the first row I’d visited, but everyone is a unique human being, as I was reminded by the earnest eye contact across from me. I’ve come to recognize a disoriented expression common to residents of the Rows, invariably the effect of a constant need to fight to hold onto hope and their own sense of humanity. There is a quiet yet very profound pain to bear when you become transparent; no longer addressed, no longer heard, more of a ghost than a person. By the time the guard announced it was time I follow his escort out of the visitors’ room, my impulse was to hug — or at least shake the hand of this person I’d just shared such powerful, heartfelt conversation with. All I could do was touch the glass between us, and thank him for talking with me.
I cannot address the death penalty without at least touching on a few extremely important truths:
- >We risk killing innocents through an imperfect system run by imperfect humans. Vincent Motto, an exonerated man wrote these lyrics in the years following his release, “You don’t gotta be guilty to do time in the state pen.” The song After Innocence was featured in the critically acclaimed 2005 film of the same title, documenting seven stories of innocents losing years of their lives before being exonerated, a police officer among them. People make mistakes, people have flaws. No system is perfect; ours has many flaws. How can we trust a death sentence when we cannot be 100% sure? (142 have been exonerated from Death Rows since 1972).
- It is unevenly pronounced: the underprivileged, deprived, poor, minorities, mental needs, abused, and addicted are the people you will find populating U.S. death rows. (3,167 last count)
Most everyone agrees it is not a deterrent. Our killing people — to illustrate killing is wrong, has never proven to have a positive effect by anyone’s reports.
The financial cost is many times more than a life sentence. (These stats can be found at www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.)
But most of all, the cost to our humanity is ultimately priceless. These are human beings, y’all!
One article cannot do justice to all the issues involved in the failure of the death penalty. It is not something a society based on democracy likes to look at; we’ve built specialized death chambers with our tax dollars, ones now looking much like a surgical room. But instead of preserving life, the table, similar to a medical table, is fitted with cross-like extensions to strap down a person’s arms, because this table was built to end a human being’s life against their will. A few have gone willingly, giving up after years of existence cast outside of humanity. To them death is a relief from the pain of existing as the walking dead. We have heard many arguments about the cruelty of the execution — but what about the years that lead up to it?
The basic question is this: Do we have the right to take the life of a defenseless person? I ask you, what is our moral obligation to intervene on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves? Under what circumstances do any of us have the right to take another person’s life? It is my understanding we the people of these United States only have the right to take another’s life in self defense, when we are in eminent danger to the point of death and we cannot escape. All other conditions are not valid.
How then can we convey a power we ourselves do not possess to our government?
“Every day tens of thousands of murderers are managed very safely in prison systems across the country. Washington State prisons manage over two thousand murderers today based on behavior, not sentence,” former warden Morgan told me.
How are we any different than the actions we are outraged by when we ourselves participate in unnecessary killings? The majority of the industrialized world has banned the practice of killing its own citizens, the European countries have abolished capital punishment, including Russia’s moratorium since 1996 (with the exception of Belarus). A civilized society strives for peace, and that does not come by way of violence. Our country prides itself on being a free nation of modern thinkers, highly developed, and embracing a diversity of great faiths. Yet we are currently unashamed to be counted among those who participate in the ancient practice of the death penalty: Afghanistan, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.
Peace and safety develop out of a place of compassion and forgiveness, not vengeance. I have heard it called justice — but you cannot mask the reality, revenge is a base instinct that is common to us all. However, just as greed and lust are also natural instincts, we are called to restrain those urges to the benefit of us all, not fan them into out of control fires. We need to look deeper into the culture and take individual responsibility for the prevalence of violence throughout our beloved country.
There is no justification for the death penalty in a day and age when we can keep society safe with modern facilities. It is a barbaric choice we make consciously.
Hearing on bill HB 1504 scheduled for March 6 at a.m.
Victoria Ann Thorpe is a local Spokane author working to abolish the death penality in Washington.