November 9th. Back at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison—back on death row. They stamped our hands with invisible ink, took our wallets and keys, and ushered us through the Hall of Motivational Posters plastered with an array of stock images that sat atop phrases like “Achieve” “Integrity” and “Team Georgia.” At the end of the hall, next to the defunct handicap elevator in large bold letters read: GDCP: GUIDED BY DEDICATION, COURAGE, AND PROFESSIONALISM.
Even on death row, electricity filled the air. Barack Obama had been elected President just five days before. After two wars, a deadlocked and dysfunctional Congress, and a deep recession, maybe he really was the one who could bring change. Maybe he’d wipe out this place and end the practice of state-sanctioned killings. Maybe he’d give the people here hope, just like he promised.
“In Savannah, people are feeling hope again,” Martina told us over the phone. “The same day Obama was elected, Savannah elected Larry Chisholm as the new District Attorney. He’s Savannah’s first black DA, the first real change we’ve ever had after twenty-eight years of Spencer Lawton. It’s a microcosm of Obama’s election. Larry even went to the same high school Troy and I went to. We’re all hoping he makes good on his word to change things, to help heal the race divisions that got us here in the first place.”
They brought Troy out from behind glass doors and metal bars, closely followed by four guards. When he entered the visiting cell, one of them unlocked his handcuffs and then exited the cell, locking the door behind him. We approached, and the guard looked us over before unlocking the cell, watching us walk in, and quickly locking the door once we had entered.
“There they are!” Troy roared as he hugged each of us before looking at my sister. “And you must be Miss Priya! Thirteen years old, right? Your mother told me all about you.”
I stifled a yawn as we sat down. Another death row inmate and his visitors were speaking in hushed voices a few feet from us.
“Thank you for coming to see me today. Now y’all are in here for six hours. What do you want to talk about?”
“I want to know about you, Troy,” I said. “I want to know what life is like in here for you.”
“Well, young man, the first thing you should know is how dangerous it is in here. Do you see that water cooler over there?” Troy pointed to an orange and white water cooler near the entrance of the cell, where the other inmate’s visitors were pouring themselves cups of water. “The guys in here could easily make a dozen different weapons out of that. You can make weapons out of the simplest things. One guy smuggled in some plastic spoons and a lighter. Every day, when nobody was watching, he would put the lighter under the spoon and let the melting plastic fall on his fingertips. Before it hardened he would carefully rub it against the wall—” Troy made the motion with his hands. “—and sharpen it. He continued doing this for weeks, melting spoons and building up layers of plastic until his fingernails were razor sharp. One day he got into a fight with another inmate and nearly killed him by clawing his neck.
“The guys here get disposable razors for shaving, but those can be weapons too. Some inmates will break off bits of the razor head so the blades are more exposed. They’ll do this for two razors and then melt the handles together to create a double-sided shank. You have to be careful here. Sometimes you gotta take a weapon with you to the shower to protect yourself in case somebody tries to rape you.”
“Don’t the guards do anything?”
“Many times the guards are as violent as the prisoners. There’s one sixty-year-old deaf inmate here. The guard kept yelling at him to move, but obviously the guy couldn’t hear him. So the guard throws him against the wall and starts viciously beating him. I told him the guy was deaf, but the guard screamed, ‘I don’t give a fuck, inmate! When I say move, he moves!’ and continued to beat him. He got another guard and they wrapped him in a towel before beating him so the scars wouldn’t show up. It’s a sad situation to be old and helpless on death row.
“They have this thing called the rocking chair. They chain your legs together and your hands together, and then chain your hands to your legs behind your back and throw you on the floor. Then they kick you back and forth, like a rocking chair. You’ve got to be careful with what you say to them. If a guard has it out for you, you’re in big trouble. They could have you killed by striking deals with other inmates. If you get into an argument with another inmate, the inmate can find a guard who doesn’t like you and bribe him to ‘accidentally’ leave your cell open at night. The inmate then sneaks in while you’re sleeping and shanks you. Sometimes the guards will have sex with the inmates and then go home to their wives.”
He paused and thought for a moment. “Oh, you know what else the guards do? They have celebrations. Not when it’s somebody’s birthday, not on July Fourth or Christmas or New Year’s. They have a celebration after an execution. They have a cookout with food they bring from home plus the food they bring from vending machines. They take all the good stuff so we’re left with nothing.”
“I’ve heard creepy stories about the things inmates do to each other,” Priya said. “On Wikipedia it talked about people on death row molesting each other, carving things into each other . . .”
“I’d say almost all of it is true. It’s often the loners who end up in prison. They aren’t anchored to society the way other people are. They feel angry and abandoned. They justify their actions by believing the world is a cruel place with cruel people. And this is their way of finally getting the attention they so badly wanted and of getting revenge against the system that hurt them. Whenever they play a violent movie on TV, the guys will cheer. Any time there’s a woman in danger or fleeing, they’ll yell things like, ‘Rape her!’ and cheer for the villains.
“They sometimes bring kids here. I’ve seen kids who couldn’t have been older than thirteen or fourteen. Guys will put food on the kid’s bed. The kid will see it and eat it, and then three guys will show up demanding the kid pay for the food he ate, knowing he doesn’t have the money. And when he can’t pay, they use that as an excuse to rape him. Over the years I’ve intervened and saved a lot of kids from an ugly fate.