This all changed in June when the administration decided death row would have regular access to phones like regular population prisoners. On each of the 8 cell blocks a single metal phone was bolted to the wall looking much like the lonely oasis in the middle of a long dark highway with not a town or passerby for many miles.
It took some time to accustom myself to this retro technology. I called my mom first, struggling to talk and watch the block, and feeling guilty I was drawing her voice into this place. Before our annual phone calls were made in an office, now they were on the block where arguments over the latest TMZ news or a shouting match can break out at will. Getting comfortable with the idea of calling people grew easier, but this did not increase my desire to make phone calls and “chat”. First, I’m not really a chatty type, and second, phone calls cost money: either the person I’m calling collect, or the person who is kind enough to put money in my JPAY account to purchase minutes from the canteen.
What I have discovered with the phone is its utilitarian purpose. No longer do I need to worry about not hearing from my parents or friends. No longer do I need to sweat the mail waiting for a response from my academic advisor on some school-related problem. She is just a phone call away.
The potential of the phones didn’t really sink in for me, but others were ablaze with ideas for reaching out in ways never before conceived. Death row is such an isolated and misperceived concept the public has only crime drama narratives to understand who is here and what it’s like to live in this place. For those of us living in this hell, it’s incredibly frustrating to know an entirely different reality than the one played out in the media and not be able to contest the truth of those claims. The phones and LIFE LINES provide such an opportunity.
Life Lines is an audio journal for the 147 men and 3 women on North Carolina’s death row. Created by Duke University graduates Chris Agoranos and Lars Akerson, Life Lines is an automated app that records the spoken stories or poems of those on death row who want an opportunity to be heard without the varnish of a newspaper or court reporter. A chance to change the narrative and give voice to our humanity even as the State attempts to silence it forever.
Life Lines began as a project on Kickstarter and managed to raise its goal of $16,000 in under a month, with the money to go toward covering start-up costs and maintenance of an official website for a year. This will also help pay for the calls made to record our stories.
If Life Lines is a success there may even be a podcast in the future, but that depends on the public’s willingness to listen. There will be three new stories or poems selected from the pool and made available each week, with the official website slated to open in November 2016.