It was late, about 10:15am, when the intercom blared “Lyle May and James Thomas report the sergeant’s office.” Curious, I hurried behind JT not knowing what to expect, but not expecting anything out of the ordinary.
As I approached the office I saw Rodney Taylor taken out in handcuffs. Even as my feet continued to move my thoughts were inordinately slow. Not until I saw half a dozen guards and an internal affairs officer, did I make the connection.
Dread loosened my limbs, squeezing my stomach into its nauseating grip. “What the hell is this?” I blurted. “What’s this all about?”
“Step into the office Mr. May” said a tall sergeant. Another guard told me to turn around and put my hands behind my back. Cold metal cinched around my wrists with audible clicks, then two guards hustled me down the main tunnel of Central Prison and into Unit-One, the solitary confinement unit. A place notorious for abuses and currently under a federal court watch because of them.
My mind turned over images of the others – JT, Rodney, Leroy and Paul – as they too were cuffed and led away to the hole. Our questions went unanswered while the internal affairs officer stood with hands on hips watching it all, his face a mask of satisfaction.
The five of us are not troublemakers and do not involve ourselves in negative things. Quite the opposite. We’ve been in most of the therapeutic groups offered by the mental health department. Through our efforts and activities we’ve realized our potential as writers and become role models for others on death row. My focus for over a decade has centered on education, prayer and being the man I was before my incarceration.
This means I am devoted to completing my degree in Behavioral Management and Confinement Practices and representing Ohio University as one of its alumni. It means communicating what I’ve learned, and applying it in a correctional setting to the best of my abilities.
Like the others, my writing is a vehicle of thought and expression, one that changes with my understanding of the information I absorb as it becomes available. When Hidden Voices began on the row in 2014 I discovered our writing was based on prompts that would ultimately create a mosaic in the form of the play Serving Life, and a later revision, Count.
Count is important to mention because of the extraordinary work involved in its composition – the master craft of Lynden Harris – and the fact tickets went on sale July 5, the day before our sudden isolation on Unit One. Count will be performed by North Carolina Playmakers, a registered theater guild, at Playmakers Theatre August 24-28.
Engaging in this sort of collaborative effort with other writers was about more than teamwork and expressing our stories in a creative format – it was about discovering strengths and abilities we had maybe only guessed at before. Lyden Harris recognized this and cultivated our creative potential when the State of North Carolina would prefer to execute us.
January of 2017 also marked a convergence of writerly productivity and opportunity. The Life Lines Collective was born, an online audio journal at Lifelines.is. This innovative project involved our recent access to a phone on each of the blocks, a desire to voice the impact of our incarceration through poetry, essays and spoken word, and some help from two dedicated pastors.
Life Lines is about being heard by anyone willing to listen, and that includes prison officials. Which is why each phone call recorded by the Life Lines app is vetted by an editorial board, to ensure the site does not become a place to air grievances with the administration. All who contribute are aware that responsible writing is important to maintaining this opportunity . . .
Unit-One were a case study in misery. Denied access to my property, the roar in my head was the question of “Why is this happening?” punctuated by the crippling throb of a migraine. My stomach on fire from a lack of antacid meds, there would be no help. This is the very definition of the hole, where you have to beg for each scrap of consideration most people take for granted. Toilet paper, a pen, toothpaste, soap – the cell was empty when I arrived and it took two days before I could get a pen and some paper, then a hygiene kit. Absolute dependency was not a feeling I wanted to remember and had hoped never to experience again, yet here I was.
Praying the rosary helped calm me enough to begin solving this problem that suddenly swallowed the quietly productive life I had maintained for years. I began piecing together what I’ve been doing with some of the things that happened within the last few months…
In May, a female guard was tragically murdered at Bertie Correctional Facility in NC. An investigation revealed an understaffed prison rife with corruption. A month later the Raleigh and Charlotte News + Observers published a series of investigative articles detailing the corruption in several NC prisons. The articles were so shocking some top republicans in the state legislature conducted their own inquiry into the matter and demanded the new secretary of the Department of Public Safety respond. Secretary Hooks promised the matter of guards engaging in criminal activities would be addressed.
At CP we saw a tightening of security, especially with activities that involve volunteers. Where before a guard sat outside of the multipurpose room, now they sat in on every group, privy to every conversation, comment and gesture of compassion.
There were some missing pieces in this puzzle. Were we being punished for our creative endeavors? Had Big Brother decided Life Lines and Count are too “outside the box”? Or were we simply a convenient group of whipping boys?
Nine days into our solitary confinement I still had no access to my personal property. No way to communicate with my friends, family and attorneys. The only official information I had came from the Facility Control Committee (FCC): 45 day investigation. No explanation as to why five of us were being investigated, or why the eight volunteers had their blue cards revoked.
Around 5pm on the ninth day, a guard came to my cell and said, “Strip down and pass your clothes through the trap.” The only way you can leave a cell block on Unit One is in your underwear.
“Where am I going?” I asked, instantly concerned. Movement after 5pm was rare.
“Gather whatever you have in there. You’re going back to Unit 3.”
I didn’t say anything, but trembled in excitement at the idea of leaving the hot stuffy cell where people forget you exist. I grabbed a handful of letters, made certain to include my pen and some paper in case it was a mistake. Or a trick.
Moments later I saw JT and we were brought to holding cells, given our clothes, then hustled down the hallway in the muffled quiet. Again, there was no explanation.
We arrived on Unit 3 and the sergeants were surprised to see us. “Nobody told us you were coming,” said one.
One of the guards escorting us shrugged. “They told us to bring them back. Immediately. Paperwork is straight. Everything checks out.”
JT and I looked at each other and got into line for chow.
It wasn’t until the following Wednesday that I discovered why we were being investigated. Undue familiarity.
“You guys were too close to the volunteers,” said a prison official. “It was a security risk. Phone numbers and addresses were bad enough, but to have some of them saying “I love you”, even if it wasn’t in the romantic sense—ridiculous. This is death row and there has to be segregation. Isolation.” He shook his head and went on talking.
Undue familiarity is this obscure idea not listed in any official policy, but it loosely relates to fraternizing with staff. Where volunteers are concerned it is even more of a gray area, especially when they committed no crimes and were not bringing in contraband. The volunteers, who are now barred from entering prison, collaborated with us on extensive writing projects that required getting to know us as unique individuals instead of death row inmates. They responded to our humanity and treated us as equals, showing us the love and compassion society will not.
We were punished and investigated for being treated and acting like normal human beings. George Orwell would have sighed.