Remain Free Part III Section XXVI

“So, Troy, do you flirt with any of the women who come to see you?”

“No, no, no, no.” Troy’s hearty laugh echoed in the visitation room, but it faded as he returned to my mother’s question. “That’s a dangerous thing. There’s one visitor named Roseanne who’s really stressing me out.”

“How come?”

“She wants a relationship and I don’t!”

“Is she pretty?” my mother prodded.

“She’s alright, but I don’t want to be in a relationship with someone who’s seventeen years older than me. I’m already forty. And if she already has kids, I don’t want the kids to be in their twenties.”

“Why would a woman want to be involved with a death row inmate?” I asked.

“A few reasons. First, some women are attracted to bad boys. Second, they feel secure with a man on death row because he’s not going anywhere. He’s not going to abuse her, and he’s not going to leave her because he needs her. Women who’ve been arrested, sexually abused, or raped find security with people on death row because they can’t hurt them. In their minds, he’s never gonna get out. They think, ‘I’ll never have to worry about him beating on me or cheating on me. He’s going to cherish everything I give him because I’m the only one who cares about him. The world hates him, but he’ll love me.’ One woman told me she wanted to be in a relationship in the second letter she wrote. She said, ‘I’ve been molested, raped, or abused throughout my relationships. I just want to find someone in your situation who can appreciate a good woman.’”

“How do they react when you turn them down?” my mother asked.

“Roseanne takes everything I say personally. Two women visited me months ago and it was like they were two teenage girls fighting over some jock. ‘I’ve known Troy longer!’ ‘No, I’ve known Troy longer!’ ‘Troy and I are closer friends!’ ‘Troy, why does she get the full day visit and I don’t?’ ‘I want to be on the final list of visitors before his execution date!’ ‘No, I want to be on the final list of visitors!’ ‘I flew all the way here from New York!’ ‘I flew all the way here from California!’

“That’s when I put my foot down. ‘What are you two doing? You need to get over yourselves.’ Then one of them turned to me and said, ‘I’m starting to get emotionally attached to you, Troy.’ I told her she was acting like a child, and she got really upset. I don’t need this drama so I started becoming more distant, and eventually she started crying on the phone. I said, ‘Get yourself together. We can still be friends, but we ain’t gonna be in no relationship.’ Then Roseanne visits me today, saying she’s in love with me. How is she in love with me? Through a few letters?”

“It’s probably best to make sure she doesn’t visit you alone anymore,” I said.

I looked around, wondering if any of the women nearby were visiting their lovers. I’d never had a girlfriend nor had a girl ever shown interest in me. I wasn’t handsome or athletic or charismatic. I was overweight and awkward. I never had the confidence to ask out a girl, and I never suspected the answer would be anything other than rejection. What little I had going for me, like my intelligence and kindness, seemed thoroughly insufficient for a girl to want me. And now I learned even convicted murderers were more likely to find love than I was.

As much as I resented the comparison, my father and I were more alike than different. His arranged marriage had fallen apart, and he now had nobody. Why would I be any different? Men like me, ugly and effeminate, were destined to die alone.

“Tell me about it. It’s not like I’m leading these women on. They just assume that I like them and want to be with them because I laugh at their jokes. Even married women come on to me. During one visit I was talking to a woman, and she started holding my hand and caressing my palm. I was like, ‘Noooooooo, you do that with your husband. That type of caressing is too intimate for friends.’ She got offended, and I just keep wondering what I’m doing wrong.”

“Getting romantically involved with someone in death row seems dangerous,” my mother said.

“There’s some place online, I think prisonchat.com, where a bunch of women find inmates and chat and put all their business on there, and every time they break up with a guy they trash him there. There’s a lot of guys here who take advantage of these women. You should not come into an inmate’s life seeking a relationship, and if you do, you better know everything there is to know about him. If he keeps asking for money, then you know what he’s really after. I’ve seen guys cursing women out and the women keep coming back.”

“Has it always been like this, or only when you got famous?” I asked.

“When I was on the street, I had a lot of female friends who would come to me for advice about their boyfriends. Eventually they started liking me, and I always asked myself, ‘Why do they always try to turn friendships into relationships?’ When they were holding me in the county jail before my trial, a lot of women would come see me with their boyfriends and husbands. I’d talk to them for a little bit and next thing you know they’re sneaking down to see me behind their partners’ backs.

“One woman with a thirteen-year-old daughter wanted to move to Savannah and marry me when I got out. She has two other kids in their twenties. I want to raise kids, and I can’t raise kids who are already grown up. There’s one girl from my neighborhood who had five kids before she was twenty-three and been with twelve men since I’ve been locked up, and she wonders why she can’t find a good man. She wrote me, and I wrote back, asking her how the kids were. She said she told her older son Charles that I could be his father. I was like, ‘Whoa, slow your roll, girl!’ She wrote me back saying that when I get out she hopes I move to Texas so we can be together. I was like, ‘Whoa, none of that, I am not opening that door. First of all, I haven’t seen you in over twenty years. Second, I’m not finna tryna to take you and all your half-grown kids!’ She goes from man to man, job to job. I know she’s a cheater because she cheated on the father of her first child with his best friend. As punishment, he pulled out all of her hair and sent her to the hospital.

“I could never be in a relationship with that kind of person. I’m a romantic. I like spontaneous things. I like surprising a woman with flowers and a hot bath when she comes home from work, having dinner already cooked, dancing just by ourselves in the house without going out. I hope I can find someone who’s spiritually grounded, headstrong, independent—someone who keeps encouraging me to do my best. Someone who’s willing to talk to me if I’m doing something that’s making her unhappy. Someone who’s willing to teach me different things.

“I tell the women in relationships who write me that the first time he disrespects you, the first time he lays his hands on you, walk away. Don’t let your heart get in the way of doing what you know is the right thing to do.”

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Remain Free Part III Section XXV

The next speaker was a professor from Georgia State University, a middle-aged white woman who spoke of the need for restorative justice—mediated conversations between the families of murder victims and the murderers, and emotional and social support for the families. These, she said, would provide closure in a way the death penalty never would.

Our closing speaker was Juan Melendez, an exonerated death row inmate. As he spoke, his eyes widened, and he gesticulated wildly with his hands. His voice grew deep and clear, and his words were heavily accented.

“There are over a hundred innocent people exonerated from death row. That means my story isn’t unique. But over a thousand people have been executed. And God only knows! God only knows how many of them weren’t as lucky as me or the other people who were exonerated.

“I grew up in Puerto Rico, and couldn’t speak English. I knew maybe five words of English then, and three of them were cuss words! They read the charges against me—armed robbery and first degree murder in Florida. And they wanted the death penalty, the electric chair. I have no money for a lawyer, so they hire a public defender.

“He would say things to me, and I wouldn’t understand. They never gave me an interpreter. And the evidence they had against me? A police informant—what they call a snitch on the streets—said I confessed to him. See how similar my case is to Troy’s? They also had a police informant against him, the same informant who now says he lied at trial. They had a police informant against me, and they had my friend, or at least I thought he was my friend. He was arrested and told he was an accessory to the crime, and they threatened him with a first degree murder charge and the death penalty, the electric chair.

“But then . . . then the state of Florida made a deal with him. Prosecutors in this country, they make deals with criminals! The first degree murder charge? Dropped. The death penalty? Dropped. You know what he got? He testified against me and got two years of probation.

“On death row, I would sometimes think dark thoughts. I would think of committing suicide. They going to kill you anyway! You say you’re innocent, and you think they gonna believe you? Why spend even one more day in this hell? I’m tired of it! I want outta here! One day I made a noose and was ready to do it, but I decided to sleep on it, to see if this was what I really wanted to do. So I fell into a deep sleep, and I dreamed I was a boy again, back home in Puerto Rico. And then I was swimming in the Caribbean. I saw a woman! She was smiling because she saw I was happy. And then I woke up. And I yelled, ‘I do not want to die!’

“Every day I would pray, ‘God, let me see my mama again. I just want to see her, outside of this prison.’ When I saw those prison bars, I would see my mother. And when I prayed to God, I would see my mother. And when the guards yelled at me, I would see my mother!

“The people on death row are some of the most hated people in this country. Monsters, people call them. These monsters were the people who taught me to read, taught me to write, taught me to speak English!

“And you want to know how I was released? They found a video of another man confessing to the murder. They looked in the old files, and they found it in a box! A judge said they must give me a new trial or release me within ninety days. They didn’t want a new trial, because they knew they didn’t have evidence. You know what they did? They waited the full ninety days before releasing me! They gave me $100 and no apology.”

He paused for a moment and looked around the room.

“My name is Juan, and I spent seventeen years, eight months, and one day on death row for a crime I did not commit.”

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Remain Free Part III Section XXIV

With exams at the end of the school year and Troy’s lawyers busily preparing for the hearing, I hadn’t talked to Troy on the phone in over a month.

 

Gautam: “Once you’re free, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?”

Troy: “Thank God for my freedom, embrace my mother, Martina, and the rest of my family. For me, and this might sound shallow, but I want to finally take a hot bath. Not a shower, but a hot bath. The first night I get out, I’m going to sleep in my mother’s room, at the foot of her bed, so when she goes to sleep she can see me there. And when she wakes up, she can see that this is not just a dream, that I’m still right there with her.”

Gautam: “Then we’ll go fishing, right? You fish and I watch?”

Troy: “That’s right, and I’ll sing a duet with Priya. And when I get out I want to go to church with my family and give my testimony of faith and let people know about my life experiences.”

Gautam: “I’m sure many universities and high schools will invite you to speak.”

Troy: “I want to speak, but most important is to spend a couple of weeks with my family, just inside the house. I’ll be reintroducing myself to them because I never knew them as adults. Seeing my mother age, seeing her develop arthritis and hip problems . . . It hurts. When I saw her at visitation, I thought, ‘God, help me get out. Don’t let my mother die before I get out. Let me spend some time with her once I’m free. Please, God, help Martina so that she’ll not only be cancer free, but also live long enough to have grandkids and enjoy the fruits of her labor with her son.’ I ain’t gonna lie, it hurts being away from my family.”

Gautam: “Are you going to travel once you get out?”

Troy: “When I got up here, all the violence made me paranoid. You’d think that when I get out I’d want to move around and see the world, but honestly I think I’d be a homebody. My biggest problem is going to be learning all these computers and cell phones. I might take accounting classes since I like numbers so much.”

Gautam: “Were you planning on going to college before you were arrested?”

Troy: “No.”

Gautam: “How come?”

Troy: “Early on I wanted to be an engineer. I just lost focus and got so caught up in working because I loved to work, I loved to create with my hands. Many people wanted me to go to college, but I had plans on joining the military . . . well, I did have plans until they got ruined. College was going to be something I would have done a bit later. I wanted to try to get a life for myself, try to get me a home first and the better things before I went back to school.”

Gautam: “I never knew you were going to join the military.”

Troy: “I was supposed to join the Marine Corps. I had already sworn in about a year before I was arrested. I was going to go into warehouse management, which is supposed to be one of the best jobs in the armed forces. I was the only person in Savannah that year who passed the entrance test. I had my job papers ready, but my staff sergeant abruptly left, and that ruined everything. But I’ve learned that in life, no matter what the situation, if you put God first you’ll be able to shine. You’ll be the star. Maybe if I had stayed in the streets, I wouldn’t be alive. Maybe I would’ve been killed in the military. God didn’t put me on death row. He allowed me to live to experience all this. And look how many more people now know about all the injustices in the legal system. Look how many people are praying and fighting on my behalf!”

Gautam: “So if you could go back, would you do the same thing?”

Troy: “No, I deeply regret not going to college. There’s so much to learn. It keeps you grounded, it helps you understand how important education is and find something you’re passionate about. Many people want me to go to college when I get out.”

Gautam: “Will you do it?”

Troy: “I’m thinking about it, but I don’t know . . . I still don’t have that confidence in myself. I really want to help other people, especially kids. I want to show them that there is someone out there who cares, somebody who can identify with their teenage traumas, someone who can give them guidance and instruction to help them reach their true goals in life. One thing I know about kids who act up: if you get them away from the crowd and talk to them one-on-one, you find out what they are really passionate about. I really want to speak at juvenile facilities and schools, not just about the death penalty but about religion, about life, about struggles so people can see that I’ve overcome everything I’ve been through because of my faith in God because I’m seeking to help so many others. My dream is for someone going down the wrong path to sit back and think, ‘If Troy can do it, I know I can.’”

Gautam: “That’s why you should write a book.”

Troy: “Yeah, there you go, along with everybody else! I’ve been thinking about it. I have been writing things down in a journal and sending some of it out. I’m going to sit back and try to write some more.”

My mother, who had been listening from a distance to Troy on the speakerphone, walked over.

Kavita: “We’d love to help you write a book, even if we have to self-publish it and promote it on the internet. People need to know about what goes on here—all of the things that you’ve told us. There must be so much more. I told Martina we should go through those boxes of letters that you’ve been sent and maybe put together a book of that.”

Troy: “I used to write more, but then they started a new cell search policy. Now they force us to keep our backs turned while they do the sweep. Last time they took away all of my writings.”

Gautam: “Couldn’t you mail them to Martina?”

Troy: “They read all the mail that goes through here. If I say anything they don’t like, they won’t send it out.”

Gautam: “But the envelopes on your letter have a stamp saying that the Department of Corrections has processed the letter but has not opened or read it.”

Troy: “Gautam, you can’t take what they say at face value. They’re lying. Last month I sent a letter to a family friend. I talked to her on the phone a few weeks later, and she told me she couldn’t understand the letter since I had scratched out many of the words. I never did that. I sent another letter with no words scratched out and the same thing happened again. The prison censors my letters.”

Gautam: “But you should still try. Do whatever you can to let people know about life here before you forget.” Before it’s too late.

Troy: “We’ll see.”

Gautam: “I hope you do. I spoke at Thanksgiving dinner about how grateful I am for having you in my life, and a book would help you be part of more lives.”

Troy: “You don’t know how much it means to hear that. I’ve always wanted to help people strive to be the best they can be, and to know that I’ve been able to touch you and your family that way makes me feel real good. If I can’t inspire nobody else, at least I can say I inspired you. I’m proud you’re in my life.”

Gautam: “Just make sure you write that book, okay?”

Troy: “I’ll try, Gautam.” Troy chuckled mischievously, but my heart sank. I recognized that same tone I’d used many times before, the tone of promising to eat my vegetables and clean my room and finish my homework before bed. The tone of a promise never fulfilled. “But I’m already so far behind in answering all the letters I get. I guess somebody will have to write my story for me.”

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Remain Free Part III Section XXIII

“In the same tradition as the civil rights activists during the time of Jim Crow,” one of the Amnesty staff members told us during a meeting, “we’re holding this Freedom School to teach young people about the close links between the death penalty, poverty, race, and innocence. This will be part of the Week of Action before the June 23rd hearing in Savannah, which will include a prayer service, canvassing to collect signatures, and activities and tabling across the street from the Tomochichi federal courthouse in Wright Square. Anyone under the age of twenty-five is eligible to apply.”

As interns we were virtually guaranteed acceptance, and as long as we were willing to put in hours setting up and manning Amnesty’s presence in Wright Square, they would pay for our hotel and most of our meals.

We gathered at the office on the morning of June 20th and split up into two cars to make the drive to Savannah, stopping midway to eat at a GPS-located Mexican restaurant. The Freedom School would essentially be half of the office interns, joined by a few college students from Florida and another from Chicago.

Our first Freedom School speaker was a black, middle-aged professor from Tulane University. She sported long, salt-and-pepper dreadlocks and spoke in a deliberate fashion. “Let’s go over the facts about the death penalty. Who gets the death penalty?” she asked, looking over the group expectantly.

“Poor people!” one intern blurted.

“The most important thing to note about the death penalty,” the professor said, ignoring the intern’s comment, “is how arbitrary the death penalty really is. A large majority of the states still have capital punishment, yet nearly every execution takes place in the south. Half the executions last year took place in Texas. A murderer in Texas or Georgia gets the death penalty while one in Connecticut does not.”

“It’s like a lottery or Russian roulette,” another intern said.

“Exactly,” the professor replied. “The vast majority of crimes eligible for the death penalty don’t get it. Co-conspirators for the exact same crime often get different sentences. In Arkansas, Kenneth Reams was the getaway driver for a robbery that went bad and turned into a murder. The other guy, who was the actual murderer, took a plea bargain and testified against Reams. Reams got the death penalty, while the other guy got life without parole. That’s right. The man who pulled the trigger and killed another person gets to live, while the man who drove the car, not even knowing exactly what his partner was doing, gets put to death.”

“Do most death penalty-eligible crimes result in a death sentence?” I asked.

“Not even close. For eligible crimes, prosecutors seek the death penalty less than two percent of the time. And of those two percent, nearly all who get sentenced to death couldn’t afford their own lawyers. Death row is teeming with poor people, far out of proportion with the number of homicides committed by the poor. And it gets uglier when you factor in race. About half of homicide victims are black, yet three quarters of death row inmates are there because they killed a white person.”

“Don’t death sentences cost more than life sentences?” another intern asked.

“That’s right. Most people don’t know that the death penalty costs more than the alternatives, even life in prison. Much more. Imagine if we spent that extra money on more police, rehabilitation programs, education, or community programs for at-risk youth. This would actually make us safer. DAs running for reelection will push for the death penalty to show they’re tough on crime. But what about smart on crime?

“And finally, we get to the most important issue: innocence. That’s why we’re all here, right? Because Troy Davis could be innocent. There have already been over 130 people exonerated on death row. For every ten executions, one person has been exonerated. And these people are just the canary in the coal mine. How many innocent people have we already executed? If we don’t even trust our government to balance a budget, how can we trust with it with the power of life and death?”

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Remain Free Part III Section XXII

Around midday, the Amnesty coordinator for the event came by to check on our progress.

“Any issues so far?”

“We’re sweaty, dehydrated, and surrounded by vomit,” I said.

“If vomit is your worst problem, consider yourselves lucky. I worked on a similar event in Texas. While I was at the table, this big, angry man started yelling at me about Amnesty and the death penalty. He got angrier and angrier as we talked. Suddenly he grabbed me and started shaking me, and his hands closed around my throat. I don’t know what happened next, because I blacked out and woke up in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.”

I remembered the only other unpleasant day I’d had at Amnesty. Answering calls was the worst job as an intern. We dreaded the chirp of the phone ringing, secretly hoping the caller had been routed to somebody else. Today it was my turn to stammer through a call.

“Hello, is this Amnesty International?” the caller asked.

“Yes, this is the Amnesty International southern regional office in Atlanta. How can I help you?” I used a practiced cadence taught to us.

“There’s a situation I need your help with. I’m friends with an illegal immigrant. He’s a good guy, very hardworking. He even has a wife and kids. He was driving on the highway and another car crashed into him, which caused him to crash into another car, which ended up killing the driver of that car. Now he’s been arrested for murder and they might deport him and separate him from his family.”

“Amnesty International doesn’t offer legal representation. I can give you the numbers of other organizations that might be able to help.”

This was our standard response.

During my first week as an intern, my primary project was to update a thick binder of organizations we could shunt callers to if they needed anything that couldn’t be solved by mailing them Amnesty’s informational pamphlets, stickers, and buttons. The referral binder, as it was called in Amnesty-speak.

During orientation, I and the other interns were given instructions based on the motives of the caller. Angry? Be polite, reiterate Amnesty’s official stance on any issues they talk about. Need Amnesty materials? When in doubt, ship them out. Want help? Gently but firmly push them to somebody else.

But our protocol didn’t mean callers were always receptive.

“What about that Troy Davis guy?” the caller said. “Don’t you guys have a whole campaign around him? Can’t you do the same for my friend? Start a campaign and get him a lot of media attention!”

I was at a loss. How did Troy even get Amnesty to notice him in the first place? Before Amnesty’s 2007 report, Troy was a nobody. What if this call had been Martina, desperately asking for somebody, anybody to help her brother?

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t think we can help.”

“Okay, well maybe you can help me personally. I’m being stalked, man. I’m being followed and harassed no matter where I go. It happened in Montreal, so I left for New York. Happened there too, so I kept going south. But they kept finding me. I think the government might be in on it. I’m pretty sure government spies are after me, but I don’t know why.” The staff had warned that we often had mentally ill callers. Was this man one of them?

“It might be better if you go to the police.”

“Maybe I’ll do that. But I went to the police in Miami, and they strapped me to a chair in the detention room and beat me up. Then they let me go the next day without any explanation.”

We were veering off script. I cleared my throat and grabbed the binder, frantically shuffling through the pages. “There’s not much Amnesty International can do for you. I can give you the contact information for the ACLU. They might be able to help.”

“Yes, I’d like that. My civil rights have been violated.”

After I gave him the information, he thanked me and hung up. I vowed to make an even greater effort to avoid answering the phones.

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Remain Free Part III Section XXI

I wasn’t sure how to interact with my co-workers at Amnesty. Most of the interns were older women, and they and the staff assumed I was in my twenties. They would invite me to bars and clubs, and I would diffidently explain the state underage curfew made it illegal to be out after midnight. My youth never sank in, and I was always on the receiving end of surprised gasps and comments.

“You’re only sixteen? That’s how old my little brother is!”

“Wait, you’re still in high school? I could’ve sworn you were a grad student! You don’t talk like a high school student, and you certainly don’t look like one. How many sixteen-year-olds can grow a beard?”

One weekend, a few of us volunteered to run the Amnesty booth at a punk rock festival. By the time we arrived, someone had already vomited at our booth, and the stench quickly mixed with the smell of hundreds of sweaty bodies packed tightly together. The humid Georgia heat was in full force, and we soon ran out of water.

The only consolation was our location by the main stage. Our crew had eclectic tastes in music: One intern loved country music; another was into country and synth-pop; and a few were into heavy metal and punk rock. Many were just thrilled at the opportunity to attend the festival for free.

I’d never listened to punk rock, and my only formulation of the genre came from a few images of the Ramones—thin, young men with tight clothes and long hair. There was something appealing about the style; it was exactly the type of music my father would disapprove of.

It was only after the music began playing that our diverse views coalesced into one concrete opinion: these guys were terrible. Rather than being our saving grace, our proximity to the main stage ensured headaches brought on by the harsh, jarring tunes from a slew of lousy bands.

Our mission for the day was to collect as many signatures as possible for Amnesty’s campaigns. We had an extra tent, and passersby agreed to sign the petitions in exchange for a seat beneath the tent’s precious shade.

“It’s like we’re running a refugee camp,” another intern commented before returning to sweaty silence and fanning herself with her shirt.

An hour after we arrived, a girl in her late teens or early twenties appeared at our table. She sported glasses with thick, black frames and blond hair. “Is this the Amnesty International table?” she asked.

“That’s us,” an intern replied with mock enthusiasm.

“My name is Chelsea. I’m member of an Amnesty student group. I signed up as a volunteer for this table.” She sat down in an empty seat next to me. She shifted a few times in the plastic chair, trying to get comfortable before releasing an exasperated sigh and giving up.

“What student group are you part of?” I asked.

“I go to college in North Carolina,” she said. “University of North Carolina Greensboro. I run the Amnesty chapter up there. My parents are from Atlanta, so I’m back here for the summer.”

“Cool,” I said, trying to sound interested. If only I’d inherited my mother’s ability to make small talk and friendships with strangers.

“How many of these types of concerts have you been to?” she asked.

“I’ve never been to a concert.”

“What?” Her surprise was evident in her voice. “You’ve never been to a concert? You have to go! Promise me you’ll go to one before the summer’s over.”

“Aren’t they usually pretty expensive?” I asked. “I barely listen to music at home.”

“Trust me, they’re worth it! I’ll go with you if that’s what it takes to get you to go!” She laughed and stretched her arms back. She was wearing jean shorts that extended to her mid-thigh. As she stretched, the shorts shifted, revealing a confused medley of thin, white scars, each extending a few inches.

I recognized those scars. They were the same ones on Priya’s wrists and arms after she cut herself. What darkness brewed beneath Chelsea’s bubbly exterior?

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Remain Free Part III Section XX

This was Troy’s second call today. I’d talked to him during the first, so I handed Priya the phone.

Troy: “Hi Priya, how you doin’? I was kinda worried about you.”

Priya: “Why?”

Troy: “Your mom was telling me about your wrists . . .”

Priya: “Oh.”

Troy: “Talk to your parents, tell them the things you’re going through. Why do you want to hurt yourself?”

Priya: “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I wasn’t thinking. I was in fifth grade when I cut myself for the first time. This time it was more out of fear, and I was angry at myself, and I was crying. So I took a pair of scissors and cut my wrists.”

Troy: “I don’t understand why you’d want to hurt yourself.”

Priya: “I was being stupid. I had a lot of anger and resentment toward myself.”

Troy: “Well, every time you feel that upset with yourself, just sit down and write me a letter. Personally, I think you should pull away from your friends for a while. Most of the people who say they’re your friends don’t realize what friendship is. It took me a while to realize people only socialized with me because they wanted something. My so-called friends would go behind my back and do things without even telling me, which sucks because these are people I would’ve given my life for. With every mistake, God is teaching you a lesson. Just take something away from it and learn from it.”

Priya: “How do I work on getting true friends?”

Troy: “You don’t work on true friendship. It just happens. Every time a true friend sees you doing something wrong, they’ll try to stop you. If they see you depressed, they’ll talk to you about it. Those who just want to have fun are not going to care. Always remember to take a few seconds before you act on something. Take a few seconds and think about how it might affect you. Pull back a bit. Do things that make you happy and spend more time with your family. Don’t worry what others say or think, just do you. You and Gautam should settle down and communicate a little bit more.”

Priya: “Lately, I don’t see Gautam at all. I saw him for maybe ten seconds today.”

Troy: “Always feel free to call Martina. She is a good listener. She cherishes you and would love to listen to you and give you some advice.”

Priya: “I don’t think things through, and then I get in trouble at school or with my parents or my friends.”

Troy: “You know what I want you to do for me? I want you to sit down and write a poem about it. Don’t worry about not being able to go to the mall with your so-called friends, just focus on you. Don’t ever feel like life is so bad that you have to hurt yourself. Don’t try to take the disappointment in others personally. Be positive and do positive things. Do you and Gautam play chess?”

Priya: “No. I don’t have the patience for it.”

Troy: “If you get into it, it will ease some of your frustrations. I thought chess was boring, but someone in prison taught me how to play, and I eventually learned enough to conduct strategies and beat him. It teaches patience.”

Priya: “My mom is losing her patience with me. She wants me to stop skipping breakfast. I also had detention today.”

Troy: “Why did you have detention?”

Priya: “Uh . . . I made a bad decision. I had it today and another one tomorrow.”

Troy: “And you’re gonna try to clean that up?”

Priya: “It was so stupid. The whole concept of me getting in trouble was stupid. But I’m feeling better now because my mom and I are looking for a vocal teacher to help me improve my singing.”

Troy: “Martina heard you sing and said you sound so angelic. Could you sing for me?”

Priya: “Okay, I’ll sing a little bit.”

So long, my long lost lover,

So long, abandoned fantasy,

I’m learning how to live without you

Why won’t you leave me be?

 

Goodbye, my hopeless paramour

There’s no future for us two

Now I lay here, heartbroken

Long lost lover, I think of you

            Troy: “…”

            Priya: “Troy? Troy, are you there?”

Troy: “I just . . . I’m trying not to tear up. You sound so, so beautiful. I can just imagine you on stage, and everyone in the audience holding candles, and they’re just awestruck. You have a lot of potential that I would love to see you reach, Priya. Don’t waste your talent. Learn from my mistakes. Sometimes you only get one chance, and if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can change your life forever.”

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Remain Free Part III Section XIX

I wasn’t sure how I’d ended up at Amnesty. Summers typically followed a set formula: I’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning watching television, and would fall asleep right before sunrise. By the time I woke up, it was already mid-afternoon. After eating, I would browse the internet or occasionally hang out with friends. Evenings were spent studying chess in preparation for weekly tournaments at the Atlanta Chess Center. But as the school year drew to a close, my parents suggested I prepare for college applications by applying for internships.

I started an Amnesty chapter at my school a few months earlier. Sahil had liked his internship at Amnesty, so it seemed logical to apply there. The internship application was geared toward college students, and I’d made no backup plan. I applied anyway.

The application process occurred in three stages: I would first email the application, complete the take-home interview, and then do a phone interview. But a week after emailing my application I received an email saying nothing more than, “You are accepted! We’ll see you May 24th.”

I’d never ridden MARTA, Atlanta’s pitiful public transportation system, or been to downtown Atlanta by myself. But now, three days a week, my mother would drop me off at the MARTA station and I’d ride the train to midtown Atlanta, carrying only a plastic bowl of fruit and a granola bar for lunch.

The Amnesty International Southern Regional Office was located next to a LGBT advocacy group on the tenth floor. I turned the door handle, but it was rigid, stuck in place. A woman in her early thirties saw me through a glass window and opened the door a sliver.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m, uh . . . here for the internship. My name is Gautam Narula.”

“Narula? Let me check on that.” She disappeared for a few minutes while I stood outside the door. I surveyed the hallway, but there wasn’t anything more than gray carpet, a few doors, and an elevator.

I peered through the window and saw a large poster of a Cambodian woman, subtitled ‘Maternal Rights Are Human Rights’. But I couldn’t see anyone else inside.

I was dressed—at my parents’ insistence—in khakis, my nicest shoes, and a button-down shirt. While several steps up from my usual baggy t-shirt and jeans, I wondered if I was still under-dressed.

I had no idea what kind of work I would do or if I would even be able to do it. I was only sixteen, and this was an internship for college students. I had no work experience, no real resumé.

Would they look at me like I was some sort of impostor?

Would they think they’d made a mistake in hiring me?

No, I belonged here. I had my connection with Troy. That was real.

Finally, the woman returned and opened the door, this time opening it wide. “Ah, yes, Narula. How did you say your name was pronounced again?”

“It’s pronounced ‘Gotham’, like the city in Batman.”

“But there’s no ‘h’ in Gautam!”

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I chuckled.

“Anyway, sorry you were locked out. Amnesty International isn’t exactly the most popular organization in this part of the country, and for our own safety we have to keep the door locked. In the past few years, several angry individuals have barged through our doors and threatened us.”

I expected the other interns to be from metro Atlanta, college students from UGA and Georgia Tech and Emory. But only half of them were even from America; the rest were from all over the world, born in Japan, Nepal, Cameroon, and Colombia. The staff was an eclectic mix as well, some born in other countries like Venezuela and Iran, others from America but with equally varied backgrounds. It was a strange and dynamic mix. For the first time, being a minority put me in the majority. Although Amnesty’s staff and official culture were more subdued, the organization, heavily reliant on voluntary member leadership, had a culture of zealous, youth-powered activism.

As the summer wore on, I began to guess at the motivations of my fellow interns. Were they like me, galvanized by one particular cause, or were they motivated by the lofty ideal of all human rights for all people? One intern posted vitriolic, anti-Israeli Facebook statuses, argued the merits of eco-terrorism, and genuinely believed minorities inherently couldn’t be racist—for him, it was ingrained, thinly-veiled anger inflamed by the ethnic prejudice he and his family members had faced. For others, the idea of social justice seemed tied to a sense of religious duty. Some had witnessed poverty and violence in their home countries and saw a link between human rights abuses and social and economic justice. And there were a few I couldn’t decipher—were they aimlessly trying to find meaning in something, or perhaps just a way to pass the time? Or were they like me, only recently having found a cause to fight for and seeing if this was the next step?

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Remain Free Part III Section XVIII

“So, I hear you’re interning with Amnesty now.” My mother, Priya, and I were back on death row, visiting Troy. I could hear his soothing, bass voice drawl over the name. Am-nes-tee.

“I started last Monday.”

“How do you like it?”

“I was nervous at first because I thought I had to dress up and be formal. But the atmosphere is really relaxed. The staff doesn’t treat the interns like they’re beneath them. The people are really interesting and the work is too. And the best thing is the casual dress code. I hate dressing formally.”

Troy studied the untamed scruff on my face. “I can tell.” He paused before asking, “And what about you, Priya? How is school?”

“I went to prom!” my sister eagerly replied.

Troy chuckled. “That’s right, you did. Gautam, what’s this I hear about Priya going to prom when she’s just a freshman and you not going at all?”

I shrugged.

“How are your dance moves?”

“He’s a pretty bad dancer,” Priya chimed in.

“Is that so?” He laughed, his eyes shining. “Maybe I can help you. My friend and I, we invented this move. What was it called? I can’t remember. But one night, we went to a club and we started doing this.” He raised his arms in the air and rhythmically bobbed his head between them. “And what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to time it with the music, and then do this . . .” He bobbed his head to one side. “Then this . . .” And he bobbed his head to the other side. “After that, you’ve got to loosen up your shoulders and move like this!” He continued to bob his head while holding up his palms and waving his arms.

Priya giggled as I tried to imitate him.

I sighed. “I can’t do it.”

Troy laughed. “When my friend I went to this dance party, we were the only ones doing this move. But we came back to the club a week later and everybody was doing it!” He smiled and performed the dance once more.

I was about to try again when movement beyond the metal grille behind Troy interrupted us.

“See that guy over there?” Troy looked over at a man behind the grille. The man sported tinted glasses and a large afro.

“He looks sort of like Elvis,” my mother commented.

He noticed us watching him and walked over until he stood directly behind Troy and smiled. “What’s up Troy?”

“Just hanging out with my friends, Carlton. This is Kavita, Pranavi, and Gautam.”

“You’re Gautam? The one who wrote a book on chess? And the poems?”

“Yeah,” I replied weakly.

“Troy keeps talking about you guys all the time!” I smiled weakly, and he continued, “Well you folks have a nice day.”

As he walked off, Troy leaned closer and said, “You’ve seen him here before. Back in the day he was known as the Columbus Strangler. In the seventies, they say he raped and killed a bunch of old white women in Columbus. Probably some of the most brutal murders committed by anyone in here.  He was abandoned when he was young, by his father. Bounced around for a while as a teenager before all of this started happening. If you look around, a lot of these guys have similar stories. Lotta guys who were abandoned or abused as kids. They’re poor and they get into drugs and then robbing people, and they head down that path until they end up here.”

We tried to process the haphazard shattering of a life encapsulated in a few sentences with words flowing so unquestioningly after each other that the path from victimized child to brutal killer seemed inevitable, even natural.

“Our society assumes they’re beyond repair. And trust me, many of them are. But eighty or ninety percent of the people here could be rehabilitated. Our society believes we can solve our problems by locking people away or killing them. But they don’t realize how much human potential is wasted and destroyed by our system, how much these people can actually contribute to society if they were given the chance. And instead of real leaders who are willing to take a stand and say things are wrong, we just get corrupt politicians who want to stay in power.” Troy looked at me. “That’s why we need young people to change things—because there is so much that is wrong.” He looked away, staring thoughtfully into the distance. “When you’re behind bars, you get a clear view of society crumbling.”

The guards gave us a meaningful look through the other side of the bars. Time was up. Troy hugged each of us, and we walked toward the door. A female guard in her early forties unlocked the door and let us out. We walked out, and two guards quickly entered the visitation cell and surrounded Troy. As they began handcuffing him, Troy called out, “Gautam . . . remember, the only person who can stop you from doing something is you.”

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Remain Free Part III Section XVII

March 21, 2010

Dear Troy,

            I’m sorry for the long delay since my last letter. I had actually begun to write one shortly before Christmas, but one thing led to another and I ended up not finishing it. School has also become extremely time consuming, and that combined with the SAT and after school activities has taken up more time than I would’ve liked. But don’t think that I forgot about you; you’ve still been very much in my mind since I last saw you in September. A little over a month ago, I created an Amnesty International chapter at my school. We’re currently working on a petition for you, and our goal is to get 1000 signatures from around the school and the local community. At first, I was a bit discouraged that the group was so small, but now I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter how big the group is but how committed its members are. It’s heartening to see the enthusiasm that some of the people in the group have for creating the petition and promoting your cause, even though none of them have met you and most of them didn’t know about your case until the group began a few months ago.

            Some of my friends who know about the case ask me, “Gautam, what’s new with Troy Davis?” or, “How’s the Troy Davis case going?” and I always have to respond with, “Nothing new has happened to my knowledge” or, “I don’t know”. It seems like the whole legal process has been some sort of waiting game. I remember in August, after the Supreme Court ordered a federal court to review the case, people had speculated that they would come to a decision by November or December at the latest. Now, eight months later, it is March, and no word has come from any court. I’m not sure when we’ll next from any of the courts, but just know that I and thousands of others will be behind you all the way.

            In the past one or two years, I’ve changed a lot. I’m now at the age where people begin to explore and discover themselves and try to figure out what path they will follow for the rest of their lives. It’s no understatement to say that meeting you and talking with you and interacting with you has gotten me a great deal closer to figuring out what kind of person I am and what kind of person I want to be. It has also helped me find my spiritual path as a person. Although it seems like I’m a bit young to say this, I feel like I know spiritually where I want to go in life, and that knowledge is in no small part thanks to you and the influence you’ve had on me over these past eighteen months. Before I met you, I was a weak supporter of the death penalty; now I am strongly against it. Before I met you, I was not too involved in human rights activism; now I am an Amnesty International member and will intern at their office during the summer. Before I met you, I wasn’t completely sure what kind of person I wanted to be, and now I am. I am truly grateful to have met you.

            I hope you are still working on writing a book. Once this whole affair is over and you walk out a free man, you can use the material you have written and publish it. I think the world needs to know what went on in your case, what goes on in prison, and what observations you have on society, to tell the world all the things you have told me. I think it is something the world needs to hear. The benefit of working on it now is you can have all your ideas and thoughts written as soon as they come to you, rather than afterwards when they may become hazy.

            I was also saddened to hear that your injury still persists, and everyone here wishes you a quick recovery.

With best regards,

Gautam Narula

 

April 9, 2010

Dear Gautam,

 

            Thank you for your letter. How have you been holding up lately? Give my best to everyone in the family for me. Make sure you give Priya hug from Uncle Troy for me.

            Congrats on your SAT test. I’m so proud of you but I know you’ll show them your perfect score next time. =P I want you to start making more time to spend with your little sister to help her with the situations she goes through in life.

            I’ve enclosed a letter to the Amnesty group as you requested. It’s rather long so please edit it should you feel the need to. It’s been a long time since we have talked or seen each other. Hopefully that will change soon,.

            I have so much to share with all of you once I see you again. I’m going to keep this short  but I’ve also enclosed visitation forms for all of you to fill out.

            Priya is still under 16 if I remember correctly so she doesn’t need to fill out one. You will since you are already 16 years old. I don’t know what I was thinking because she’s about 2 years younger than you. =P Take care and I hope to see you all soon.

Sincerely,

Uncle Troy A. Davis

 

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