When friends are taken around the corner
Experiencing execution on death row
(Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama)
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There are 162 men on Alabama’s death row, but tomorrow there will be 161, if the state kills James Barber at 6pm today according to its plan. I highly recommend followingfor all the updates, but here I want to amplify the experiences of the men who live on death row with Mr. Barber, who goes by Jimi. They are losing a friend and neighbor, and must experience his murder-in-slow-motion behind their locked cell doors, alone.
Except, they’re not alone. The men of Alabama’s death row, which they call life row, are alive and together in every way that they can be, given their captivity. They eat together, pray together, learn together and live in a shared space together, both physically and emotionally. From what I understand, by reading their writings and talking to some of them, the men of Alabama’s death row function like a big family.
This is a hurtful, hard day for them. Some people might shrug and say so what? Why should the rest of us care if people on death row experience loss? Many people hear death row and think fuck them. In fact, that’s really what the entire execution team is saying, Governor Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall too. Intentionally participating in a homicide, the extermination of a fellow human being, is a way to tell that person their life doesn’t matter. The ultimate fuck you. The system actors might call it justice, but its violence. Its murder. It’s what the Bible tells us not to do.
So let me tell you what I think about on these terrible days when elected leaders decide to kill a person. I think about the condemned person’s community, and the many ways the men on death row use the only agency they have, to honor their brother and voice their opposition to the very act that landed them in prison. Unlike the bloodlust acted out by the state, their actions embody grace, mercy and a generosity of spirit that moves me to tears.
The men have held vigil each day this week. Today they circled up on the prison’s basketball court. Yesterday they held vigil inside death row’s TV room. Tuesday and earlier they went outside in the pressing heat, under a blazing sun, to talk about Jimi and what he’s meant to them. They shared stories and celebrated his goodness and uplifting spirit. They read aloud the piece that Jimi wrote about forgiveness. And they closed the vigil with a call and response of the “Aaronic blessing” from Numbers 6, in honor of Jimi’s love of Hebrew history and traditions.
“‘The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.”’
One man on death row told me he talked to Jimi earlier this week. “He appeared to be mentally in a good place,” he said. To the men on death row, Jimi is yet another example of redemption ignored. He’s not the same person he was when he was “out there, on dope and drunk,” my source explained. Jimi has “spent all these years giving positive encouragement to others,” and has worked deeply on his faith with Kairos and Church of the Highlands.
Prison guards will lock down death row this afternoon, and the 161 men will not be let out of their cells until the state has killed Jimi. Some men will sleep, some will pray, some will try to find a way to get high. But as 6pm draws near, the men will begin stirring in their cells. As soon as one of them spots people filing into the building for the execution, they’ll start a noise, beating on their cell door as if their life depended on it. Others will join in—fists, feet, boots, blocks of wood, anything is game as long as it pounds on the door to create a sound that rises up like one voice, like thunder. It vibrates the walls, echos off the concrete and travels all the way out to the prison parking lot. Sometimes it goes on for 30 minutes or longer.
“It’s not about us,” one man explained. “It’s about letting that person on the table know, we’re with you. We’re here, thinking about you. We don’t want him to feel alone.”
I have never covered an execution, and I never will. I know my limits, and I know I would not be able to hold myself together for that assignment. But I appreciate hearing from people who must experience it because they have no other choice. I admire their protest, the moxie, their own gritty determination to make noise in the face of violence, to use what they have to reach their brother when he needs them most. That is love, loud and explicit and disruptive. That is what gives me hope.