“Can you escape all of this in isolation?”
“You don’t want isolation. Just feces and rats in there.” He looked at our surprised faces. “The biggest surprise is that the women’s prison is much worse. We have guards who transferred from the women’s prison because they couldn’t handle just how violent and rough it was in there.”
“Does anyone plead insanity to try to get out of harsher punishments?”
“Oh yeah. Plenty of guys do that. But trust me, it’s not something you want to do. If someone acts insane, they’ll happily believe him. They’ll take him out back to the medical center and pump him full of meds so they can beat him. The guy will be so spaced out from the meds he won’t be
able to report it, and even if he did they can just say he’s hallucinating.”
“At least the prisoners get medical care.”
“It’s nice you think that, Gautam. But that’s not reality. They make you pay five dollars to go to the medical center. That may not seem like much, but it adds up, and some of the guys here don’t have families or anybody who can give them money. And the people there don’t really care. I needed to get medication to treat my high blood pressure, but they wouldn’t let me see the doctor. I kept asking, over and over again, and they wouldn’t let me. Only when I told them it was an emergency and insisted that I absolutely had to go did they finally let me go.
“You pay five bucks every time you go up there, even if you don’t see the doctor. Any time I have to see the doctor to get a medication refill, any time I got a cold or the flu or anything like that, they’re going to charge me five dollars. You got inmates that go up there with a bunch of nonsense, so they had to change the policy to get some of their money back. The fees here are pretty high. $4.50 for seven stamps and some envelopes.
“Do you know why I have high blood pressure? And why I’m not as thin as I was when I first got here? Because the food is terrible. They got rid of the cooks. I missed lunch so I could come talk to you, but otherwise I would’ve had a clump of cheese, two slices of bread, and a sliced orange. Some days they might add some ramen noodles. The food is so bad that you’re pretty much forced to buy junk food from the vending machines.”
Another inmate walked behind the metal grille. He sported an afro and tinted glasses.
“Who is that man?” my mother asked. “The one who looks like Elvis.”
“That’s Carlton Gary, AKA the Columbus Strangler. He’s a pretty well-known guy here. He’s a talented artist. While he was in prison, a woman fell in love with him and married him, and he adopted her daughter.”
“Does he have an execution date set?”
“No, there are still appeals going on. He’s trying to fight his charges. He says he’s innocent, says DNA will prove it, but the county he is from destroyed all the evidence. He blamed an accomplice. Said he only burglarized a place. And you see that guy?” Troy pointed to a skinny, boyish man walking behind the grille. “That’s James Lee. When he was a kid, his mother abandoned him at a drug dealer’s house. He started thinking he was a dog and would sleep in a dog kennel.”
We sat in silence. No telling how many more James Lees were out there. And why did I have to come to death row to find out such people even existed?
“Do the other inmates have family support?”
“Family support? No, no, no, no, no. There’s maybe one more person whose family visits, but nobody else’s family visits like mine does. Over ninety percent of them come from a broken home and a life full of crime. There are two, maybe three people here who’d never been in trouble before they got locked up. Most of these guys have been in and out of juvie facilities, in and out of prison. I’ve seen two people who had both parents visit, and a few who had just a mother, girlfriend, or ex-wife visit. Most people here never had that love, never had nobody to inspire them and give them something to believe in or hope for, and a lot of them give up. And when a person gives up on himself, what life does he have to look forward to?