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Hope scarce on death row


It’s my first visit to death row, and everything so far is just as I imagined it would be. In every direction I see stone-faced guards and steel bars. I feel cold. Every footstep, every slamming door and every holler echoes off the concrete and collides. The sound of it all makes silence seem impossible.

My assignment, as part of a visiting team from the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, is to visit with six inmates. The first guy on my list is asleep. The next guy is using the legal phone to get an update on his case from his lawyer. On my way to the next cell I am called over by an inmate who wants to talk to me. He is not on my list. He wants to make sure I know about a new state-issued directive that has all the inmates upset. I begin taking notes. Documenting inmate grievances is one of my jobs as a visitor.

We are barely 10 minutes into our exchange when suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch, everything freezes, and the dizzying sound of 60 simultaneous top volume conversations ceases. Every television set in the unit is turned up and fixed to the same channel. Andre, the man I am visiting with, turns his on. Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s voice resonates throughout the “gallery.” He is announcing a moratorium on executions in Illinois. The governor is speaking from the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, but from where I’m standing he might as well be broadcasting from another planet.

Andre, eyes fixed on his television screen, leans against one of the three empty white walls in his cell and listens patiently. I am standing just outside his cell. I rest my head against the bars. Elsewhere in the gallery a small number of inmates applaud the initial announcement.

Andre is silent. He looks skeptical.

I had heard news of the governor’s decision the previous morning as I was leaving Chicago for Chester, a small Mississippi River town in Southern Illinois that is home to the Menard Correctional Center, which houses 51 of the inmates condemned by the state to die. I had imagined that the mood in the gallery would be one of excitement and hope; that I’d be able to feel the good news hanging in the air. I was naïve.

When the announcement is over, two news anchors appear for discussion of the governor’s announcement. Andre turns his back to the television and faces me again. He is an intense guy, a small-framed but stocky African-American man with eyes that look right through me. He’s warm, too, even though he doesn’t offer a single smile the entire time we are together.

He tells me he’s been in prison for more than 30 years. When I ask him what he thinks about the governor’s announcement, Andre cocks his head and says that the moratorium won’t be long enough. Someone had heard 18 months on the news the night before (the governor made no mention of a time frame in his announcement).

Andre said if inmates and activists don’t use this window of opportunity to put extra pressure on the state’s policymakers, little will change, and soon it will just be business as usual on Illinois’ death row.

Andre was not celebrating.

Later I asked another inmate what he thinks of the moratorium. He shook his head and said, “They say they don’t want an innocent person to be executed. They say they’re going to check into it. That’s what they always say when there’s a problem: ‘We’ll check into it,’ but nothing ever happens.”

He was not hopeful. “For every innocent person let off death row, the state should be charged with attempted murder,” he said.

I did not expect this reaction. I had to ask myself, what should I expect from death row? After teaching themselves to survive months, years and decades captive to an equation that can only equal death, can these inmates afford hope?

I had anticipated that the inmates I visited would want to talk about the moratorium and little else when in fact the story was quickly buried by a much older story that seems to be rewritten every day on death row -- the story of survival in a completely unnatural environment.

Still, Ryan’s move may have started something. Since the announcement Jan. 31, several of the 38 states that currently employ the death penalty are said to be considering their own moratoriums.

“I am just thankful that God chose Illinois to be an example to the rest of the country,” said another inmate I visited. “Whatever happens now is in God’s hands.”

Jeff Guntzel, who works for Voices in the Wilderness, a group that opposes the U.S. sanctions against Iraq, writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000