"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Letters from Death Row: Faith Behind Bars

Typical death row cell at the Polunsky Unit, Texas. To see photographs
of the living conditions of confinement on Texas' Death Row, see this link.
Thomas Whitaker grew up in his parents’ devout Christian faith, but after eight years on death row, he’s rejected the religion he followed for 27 years. In fact, he’s rejected any belief in a divine power at all.

Whitaker was sentenced to death in 2007 for organizing the murder of his family in order to collect an inheritance of $1.5 million, prosecutors said. Fueled by what they described as an “irrational hate,” he paid his roommate, 21-year-old Chris Brashear, to carry out the shooting of his brother, mother and father. Whitaker’s dad was the only one who survived.

In response to an informal survey conducted by The Texas Observer, Whitaker wrote that after nine years of total confinement he was “basically an agnostic.” Today, he said, he practiced a form of secular Buddhism, discarding the “metaphysical nonsense of that religion just as I do for my former faith, Christianity.”

In his experience, dogmatic religious beliefs tend to get sacrificed on death row—largely due to a lack of what he termed “shepherds,” such as priests or imams.

“There’s a difficulty in believing there exists a deity of benevolence when one’s entire world is composed of pain and deception,” he wrote. “Most of the men seem to become religious only as their execution draws near, which seems hypocritical to me. But then, religion is an excellent consoler, regardless of whether it is complete bullshit.”

There is perhaps an assumption that the majority of inmates find God in prison; that religion, Christianity in particular, offers a ready path to solace and redemption, or even serves to mitigate heinous crimes. But the Observer has found that religion on death row is far more complex. While most condemned inmates enter their cell as Christians, some, like Whitaker, actually lose that faith altogether. Others adopt Judaism—a religion that tends not to proselytize. And some fall into fringe faiths like the Urantia religion, a UFO cult that uses as its founding text a book that adherents believe to have been edited by superhuman beings.

Last year, I sent a questionnaire to each of the 292 inmates housed on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston in East Texas. The questions were designed to shed light on the effects of solitary confinement; their childhoods; and whether they had found religion in prison. I wanted to see if any patterns emerged. The results have formed a series of stories published on the Observer website, of which this is the third installment.

Forty-one inmates responded, about 14 percent of the total number of men on death row. Of those, 26—a little more than 63 percent—said they believed in God before they were sent to death row. Fifteen said they weren’t believers when they arrived at the Polunsky Unit. Three men—7 percent of those polled, including Whitaker—said they had lost their faith while awaiting execution. Another three said they had converted to Christianity. Two claimed to have discovered Judaism. None said they were Muslim.

Source: Texas Observer, Alex Hannaford, June 12, 2015

Thomas Whitaker is currently on Death Row in the state of Texas. His blog, "Minutes Before Six", can be found here. Los escritos de Thomas han sido traducidos al español, y se pueden ver aquí.

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