First, the mental health services at the prison up to this point were nonexistent. Sure, you could go see some shrink who would spew meaningless platitudes about your incarceration and maybe give you a referral to see the psychiatrist for some meds, but that was it. Neither one gave a rat’s ass if you were depressed or psychotic or about to be executed. So a class offered by the mental health department sounded like a bad joke, the kind you wished had never assaulted your thoughts.
Second, there are no program on death row. No classes or work for our population. The State of North Carolina spends millions of taxpayer dollars to execute us, why bother with anything remotely rehabilitative, educational, or worthwhile? Once, several years back, a transitional warden sent to straighten out security issues at the prison allowed us to attend a commercial cleaning class offered to general population prisoners. There wasn’t much to it, just some basic janitorial skills and a chance to learn something after decades of nothing.
Some people in the NC legislature found out the prison was educating death row inmates with state funds, and we were cut off from the commercial cleaning class. Or so the story goes. This was related to me by a programs staff member after a number of us requested access to the general population’s GED program. You would think politicians have better things to do than hold a magnifying glass over our world and concentrate the sunlight. We received a “hello no!” to the request for a GED program, which wasn’t surprising.
When the memo for Writing from Captivity appeared it changed things. The class, like any college level English course, was a critical analysis of literature written by prisoners at various points in history. The first book we explored was a favorite of mine. Viktor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning . I initially encountered this book in the county jail awaiting my capital murder trial. It brought me some solace and really put my situation into perspective. I was ecstatic we were reading it in the class.
Over the next three months we explored more incarcerated writers and types of writing. Sometimes guest speakers from Duke University – professors Rebecca Rich, Miriam Cook, Anathea Portier-Young and Michael Hardt—showed up to lecture on their areas of expertise. There were other volunteers who were not professors, but eager to come in and talk with us about writing. A particularly interesting guest speaker was the famous (or infamous, depending on how you view his columns and the opinions contained therein) Barry Saunders, a writer for the News & Observer.
Even though some of the guards looked at us with more hatred than usual and other prisoners started as if we’d lost our minds, the class was a great deal of fun. It was nice to know there were still some people out there who think of us as human beings. At the end of the class we went so far as to have a poetry slam, with the warden, deputy warden, volunteers and several prison brass watching. Our experimental class was a success.
The warden expressed his interest in providing other mental health activities for death row. A reasonable idea considering the average time most of us have spent on the row is roughly 15-20 years. There was also another unspoken consideration. Since the end of 2006 there have been no executions in NC. With the turmoil over the Racial Justice Act, execution protocol, 8 exonerations in the last 15 years and a 74% turnover on death sentences a reasonable person would say it behooves the State to maintain the mental health of its death row population when most will end up with life sentences.
In the year following Writing From Captivity a series of other classes have taken place: Yoga, Mindfulness & Meditation, Speech & Debate, Chess Therapy, Art Therapy, Journaling, Creative Writing, Houses of Healing, Restorative Justice and Drama. All of them are volunteer led and involve no taxpayer dollars. They’ve been a huge success and done much to change the prisoners who attend these activities.
For my own part it wasn’t until attending some of these classes that I realized how diminished my ability to socialize in a group had become. Sure, I’ve been around these guys for a very long time but there’s something about a classroom setting and people you don’t know that changes the dynamic in the room. As a naturally shy person I had to relearn how to assert myself in a group, to explain myself and participate in group activities all of which were things I’ve never been good at.
There was also a visible impact on morale in Unit III. Death row is typically a placid environment, one where many officers request to be stationed. After a full year of these mental health classes there is less talk about boredom or depression, suicide and backbiting. These attitudes still exist, but are generally muted by the positive vibe that has replaced a hopeless one. For those of us already engaged in various activities to keep the mind from decaying, it’s as if someone opened the door of this mausoleum to allow in some fresh air.
I can’t deny being leery of writing about classes on death row. There are politicians whose life mission is to execute another human being. They, more than any single prisoner, pose a greater threat to society because self-interest and money rules their decisions rather than a majority point of view or facts. It’s demonstrated every time police brutality goes unpunished. It’s displayed by their lack of integrity and transparency when reasonable laws such as NC House Bill 612 are squashed. After all if a bipartisan vote to “ban the box” were to actually pass in the House and Senate, people might think politicians are concerned with rebuilding communities. God forbid that happens. It would ruin their image.