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Tuesday, September 30, 2008


by Buff Whitman-Bradley

He has spent fifteen years on death row, fucked over by lawyer after lawyer – the one who fell asleep during the trial, the ones who didn’t file his appeals. The crime: stabbing a woman during a break-in. Did he do it? We don’t ask -- death row etiquette. You don’t talk about the crime unless the prisoner brings it up. Obliquely he says he didn’t.

Fifteen years on death row in a four-by-ten cell. Locked down from 1:30 PM to 7:30 AM every day.

He was an accidental child and never knew his father. Beaten by his mother and stepfather, and tormented by his half-brothers and -sister. They were New Mexican Spanish, and they called him “the Mexican.” An outsider. He thought his mother loved him, he says -- even when she hit him and told him she didn’t want to keep him -- because she always put dinner on the table. Once when he was about 10, his parents left the kids for six months while they went away to work. It was OK, he says, because there were lots of aunts an uncles in the neighborhood.

Fifteen years on death row, five thousand days of the same-old same-old.

He has taught himself to read and write since he’s been inside. Now he’s passionate about books and loves to tell us the plots of the novels he’s reading. Out on the yard, the prisoners who have read the same books sit and discuss them while others jog or play basketball.

Fifteen years on death row, waking up each morning, going to sleep each night, knowing the state has big plans for him.

Now he has lawyers who are working hard for him. Up to date on all his appeals. They’ve said it may be ten years before the court responds.

Fifteen years on death row. Ten executions. Many more dying of suicide and natural causes.

He has a great sense of humor, a sweet spirit. Even so, how does he keep his soul from curling up and dying? Exercise every day. Out to the yard for fresh air and sunshine. Card games, shared meals. Pen pals from all over. Visitors from outside. His brother used to come, but stopped. Now it’s just us and the lawyers. He always shaves before a visit. And presses his denims. They don’t give out steam irons on death row. How does he do it? Puts a couple of towels down on the floor next to his bed. Folds the jeans with the inseams lined up and lays them down on top of the towels, the way you’d place a pair of trousers lengthwise on an ironing board. Smooths out all the wrinkles. Sprinkles water along the folds, and puts another towel on top. Then walks back and forth on the stack for a half-hour or so, and pulls out a wrinkle-free nicely creased pair of pants that he puts on with a clean chambray shirt and a pair of spit-shined shoes to welcome his guests.

Fifteen years on death row. And counting.

Buff Whitman-Bradley is a peace and social justice activist in Northern California. In addition to writing, he produces documentary videos and audios. With his wife Cynthia, he is co-producer/director of the award winning video Outside In, about people who visit prisoners on San Quentin's death row.