The chaplains who replaced Chestnut were policy wonks, sticklers for following the rules and making the guards feel more comfortable than the “inmates”. Their use of the word “inmate” was like that of the N-word on a plantation--intended to segregate, isolate and belittle.
Chestnut left in 2004 and none of us thought to connect his departure to any unwritten rule regarding death row. Prison is full of unwritten and unspoken rules that guide interaction between prisoners, but the idea of an unspoken or unwritten rule controlling interaction between staff and prisoners was the stuff of conspiracy theorists. Or so I thought.
The written policy of no fraternizing between guard and prisoner poisons the purpose of a chaplain, but with regular guards it is easy to understand. The problem is that human beings are social creatures and no matter how much you indoctrinate or denigrate a person, humanity wins out. Guards are not emotionless robots any more than death row prisoners are solely the crimes for which we are convicted and sentenced.
Over the years some guards have gone out of their way to be kind, patient, and compassionate toward us. They show leniency without violating any policies and are not blinded by the idea of their job; humanity guides how they respond to us. In prison, where humanity is intentionally devalued as a form of punishment, where empathy is withheld lest it be construed as sympathy for enemies of the State, being treated as a guard’s equal is as rare as potable water in the Sahara.
When we are devalued it negatively impacts our sense of self-worth and influences how we respond to orders. It is hard to see our keepers as anything more than a uniform enforcing a set of rules; it’s actually easier for us to devalue them in return. Humanity does not depart if an external force fails to recognize or validate it; it’s intrinsic to personhood. Except, the unwritten rule works to deny this claim, forging an identity defined as “condemned”, and pushing out any who cannot abide it.
Before my friend Earl was executed in ‘05 a guard who befriended him quit: she couldn’t stand the thought that her continued employment on death row signaled participation in his execution. Months later another guard quite because his live-and-let-live attitude was unacceptable to a unit manager who would rather see us pick up rocks than go unpunished for the slightest transgression. Many have asked for transfers to other units because accepting the unwritten rule means squelching your natural inclination to show compassion. Other guards have been put on notice by management for taking sides against the abuses of their co-workers. Two unit managers and assistant unit managers were transferred because they were too willing to challenge nonsensical or poorly made administrative decisions regarding death row.
The unwritten rule on death row requires disinterest, allegiance to policy, and a frequent changing of the guards to reduce the development of familiarity. The rule holds that working for the State does not mean you leave your humanity at the door, it means you must forget about ours. Flouting the idea that we are “less than” is unacceptable.
From 2013 to the end of 2017 Dr. Kuhns directed psychological programs for the mental health department at Central Prison. A man of conviction and compassion, Kuhns established a number of therapeutic programs on death row. Creative writing, yoga, drama group, chess therapy, Toastmasters and more -- these groups changed the way we prisoners saw our value as human beings and promoted emotional maturity. Dr. Kuhns enlisted the aid of like-minded volunteers from the free world, people who recognized our potential for growth. The problem, and ultimately end of Dr. Kuhn’s employment at CP, is that he ignored the unwritten rule on death row. We are not meant to be rehabilitated or treated as if there is worth in our potential. Since Dr. Kuhns was forced out of the prison the programs he established on death row have been eliminated along with the volunteers. There is no psychologist in the prison who even looks in the direction of death row despite a legislative mandate requiring their presence on the unit.
Early January of 2018 a sergeant retired after twenty-five years of dedicated service to the prison. I remember meeting him for the first time in 1997, when I came to CP as a 19 year old safekeeper facing a capital murder trial. Because of his proximity to us, many knew this man better than their own families. We all knew he participated on death watch squads--groups of guards assigned to watch condemned prisoners in the final 72 hours before execution.
I asked him about this before he left. He said, “Some guys ask for me to be there. At least then they can die with somebody close by who knew them, despite everything.”
After his retirement this sergeant returned to death row in street clothes, his wife and son at his side as he pointed out death row prisoners he knew for decades. Then he left with a wave; it was the goodbye for someone who was as much a part of our lives as we are of his, regardless of the rules.