Friday, April 17, 2009

Florida: The Daily Routine of Death Row Inmates

The breakfast carts rattle through the concrete prison at about 5:30 am and as they approach Death Row the first sounds of morning repeat the last sounds of night - remote controlled locks clanging open and clunking closed, electric gates whirring, heavy metal doors crashing shut, voices wailing, klaxons blaring. A maximum security prison has no soft or delicate sounds.

At the end of each corridor of death row cells a guard opens a heavy door of steel bars and a prison trusty pushes a breakfast cart inside. The door closes behind him and when it locks a second door opens and admits the trusty to the wing. He steers his cart along the wing stopping at each cell to pass a tray of powdered eggs and lukewarm grits through a small slot on the bars. Food is prepared by prison staff and transported in insulated carts to the cells. The food carts are full of cockroaches, the food is often undercooked or just rotten and is served on Styrofoam plates with a plastic "spork" - fork/spoon combination.

Inside the cell, on a thin mattress about 30 inches wide, an inmate awakes, blinks his eyes. He looks around his cell - his home. A dull concrete wall to his right, the same dull wall to his left, or the identical dull ceiling of his box. In any case, he gathers himself, stands, takes one step to the bars and hauls in his tray. He sits on his bunk and eats with his tray on his knees. When finished he returns the tray to the slot and typically goes back to sleep. Sleeping is the best way to pass time on death row.

Sometime around 9:00 am, the day resumes as the men of death row reluctantly awake again and face the world. An inmate contemplates his home. There are three concrete walls, a concrete floor and a concrete ceiling. The fourth wall is the steel bars which open onto a wing about 8 ft wide. On the other side of this wing beyond another grille of steel bars are grimy little windows and beyond those are empty prison grounds bounded by coils of razor wire. From side to side his “home” is about two paces wide, and from front to back about three paces deep. One stride brings him to the steel sink and toilet combo. The toilet has no seat, just a molded rim of inevitable steel. Concrete and steel, steel and concrete. Under the bunk or next to it is a small steel locker for the prisoner’s belongings. Tightly fixed to one wall is a bar on which a towel can be hung. High up on the back wall is a ventilation grill about a foot square and the inmate will have run a clothes line from this to the front bars. Dangling from the line are damp socks, boxers, orange pants and orange shirt. The men of death row must wear orange to distinguish themselves from the rest of the prison population. The inmate does his own laundry in his sink or his toilet and hangs it on the line to dry.

Sometimes the walls of the inmates cell are bare or they may be decorated with his own art work or with pictures of nude women. A Florida death row inmate spends his time in a cell 6 x 9 x 9.5 feet high. He is allowed outside 2 times a week for 2 hours each time. These “yards,” as they are known as, are randomly selected. The inmate is allowed a shower twice per week. At all other times the inmate is locked in his cell 24 hours per day. There are no common rooms or day rooms where inmates may collectively gather.

There is no heating or air conditioning. In winter, it’s cold on the wing and an inmate makes do with a thin blanket as coverage. A Florida summer is extremely hot, with temperatures well over a hundred degrees and with no escape from the heat or humidity. Small portable fans are allowed and they do allow some movement of air. Death Row stinks the same regardless of the season, the air thick with the stale odor of cigarette smoke and sweaty, dirty, defecating men.

The monumemental task that is every man’s burden on death row is how to fill his hours until he can sleep again. The options are few. There is endless talk, endless disembodied mostly inane chatter. The prisoner steps to the front of his cell - getting on the bars is the prison jargon - and begins talking loudly. His voice echoes along the wing. No other inmate can see him because the cells all face the same way and have thick walls between them. Some men will be “on the bars” for hours on end, yammering on about cars, politics, sport, sex or just about every other topic under the sun. They’ll bet whether it will rain before night, or other useless subjects. Fourteen men live on each wing so conversation soon gets old. Yet the same thing continues day after day, month after month, year after year. Ofttimes it is possible to yell into the vent and talk to people on the floors upstairs or downstairs. It becomes tiresome to hear all the noise so ingenious ways have been found to create some quiet time. Some inmates cut pieces from their shower shoes and use them as earplugs. Most men own a radio with a set of earphones which they slip on to drown out the noise and to enter a different world. Reading passes some time for those who are literate. Books, newspapers and magazines make their way from cell to cell. There is no clear logic to Florida’s list of permitted publications. Gun magazines are understandably denied but so are travel mags of far away places. Such mags may contain a map of Borneo or Cambodia and these could be invaluable to a man on death row in Florida!

Around 11:00 am, the trusties rattle in again, this time with the lunch trays. A typical lunch might be a thin sandwich, a carton of milk, a starchy vegetable and a slice of cake. After lunch an inmate can lose another hour with a nap. Then a literate inmate can commence his “office” work. This will include letters to friends, lawyers and similar. Writings consist of poems, novels, journal entries, claims of innocence, legal protests challenging prison regulations or conditions. No art or crafts are allowed. Such activities were banned years ago. No computers, internet, word processors, typewriters, telephones. All these “cannot do without” things of the free world are not for the men of death row. Some creative men make articles from aluminum foil. Others play poker with the man in the next cell, each of them crouched close to the bars on either side of their common wall, dealing cards onto a towel on the corridor floor. Some play chess with the man 3 or 4 cells away by shouting their respective moves. And still all these daily activities do not fill the time, not when there are 365 identical days to kill. Days become months, months become years.

Caged in a room 6 ft by 9 ft, even the most creative inmate needs something more powerful than his own wits or skills to get him through. That something is TV. It drives the hardliners in the legislative crazy to think that death row prisoners can watch TV. However, it would be hard to find a guard who does not approve of it. It is the only thing that makes death row manageable. Small black and white TV’s, tuned to ABC, NBC, Fox, UPN, PBS, no cable at all. Some inmates watch cartoons all day, some watch the soaps. Whole wings watch Jeopardy and vie with each other to give the right answers first. Some watch the cop shows and cheer for the bad guys.

Dinner arrives around 4:00 pm. A processed pork chop or a piece of liver or half raw chicken together with the obligatory starchy vegetables. Florida prison kitchens have a million ways to serve potatoes and they come with every meal.

But the one luxury is the canteen! For each man the prison maintains a type of bank account where the inmate deposits money he gets from family and friends. He is allowed to spend $99 per week on canteen items. Since he is locked in his cell the canteen comes to him. On Saturdays, assuming he has money in his account, the inmate fills out an order sheet and the canteen trusties make up the order and bring the goods on Monday. Cigarettes, chips, soap, soup, sandwiches, pastries. Even shoes! There are limits on certain items but the bartering system is alive and well on the row. Perhaps a man does not smoke but craves extra pastries? If his neighbor has opposite requests, they will agree a swap. The canteen also sells orange juice which can be used on the row for making homemade wine or “buck” as it is called. The amateur winemakers mix orange juice, sugar and bread and let it sit for several days. Most buck does not equate to a good Cabernet or Chardonnay but a clever planner can brew enough during the week to have a merry old time during the season football games.

Inmates on the row make nearly anything for any purpose. Hand mirrors can be used to look down the halls and see if a guard is on his way. Some learn to make a “waterbug,” a crude wire heating element that can boil water for coffee and soup. Some men learned to make zip guns using a section of radio antenna for the barrel, match heads for gun powder and any small piece of metal for the bullet. The zip gun problem became so bad that matches were eventually banned and now only Bic lighters are sold because they cannot be used to make such weapons.

When a “yard” (or outside recreation) takes place, it gives the condemned man a chance to change his surroundings. However, this yard consists of a small concrete slab area surrounded by a 14 ft fence. Inmates can play basketball and volleyball. Prisoners on death row have not stood on grass or ground for years. Some men do not go outside for reasons of safety. Older weaker men might go out only twice a year and then in pairs for safety. Snitches and child molesters never go outside because someone will probably seriously harm them. There is honor even amongst the men of death row.

Inmates are counted at least once an hour. When out of their cells, they are escorted in handcuffs and wear them everywhere except in the exercise yard and the shower. Twice a week after dinners there are showers. An inmate strips to his boxers, puts on his shower shoes and walk with a guard to the shower which is about the size of his cell. He is locked in to luxuriate for 10 mins then put back into his cell. Lights in the cells go out at 11:00 am, but the corridor lights always stay on. TV’s stay on 24 hours a day.

An inmate is given a “visitors day,” usually a Saturday or Sunday. He can receive an authorized visitor between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm. At the visit commencement and end, inmates can receive one hug or kiss. Otherwise no other physical contact is allowed. Items can be purchased by the visitor for himself and the inmate from rows of vending machines.

Prison is never completely quiet. Gates are always clanging, there’s the constant tread of guard’s boots, nightmare ravings of the mentally unstable prisoners, muffled sobs of despair. Night eases into morning and another day on death row begins.

It costs approximately $72.39 per day to incarcerate a death row inmate in Florida.


Source: Angelfire.com, April 17, 2009

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