An Essay By Kevin Brian Dowling
Process of Dehumanisation
In the year 1968, a woman named Judith Roe became the first person executed by the Pennsylvania government, which was then a British colony. In 1809, Governor Snyder urged the abolition of the death penalty "to bring humanity to Pennsylvania", now part of the United States. In 1939, after performing sixty executions as Pennsylvania's official executioner, Robert Elliot resigned. He stated that "The death penalty was not a deterrent but society's ultimate love affair with revenge."
In 1999 a severely mentally ill man named Gary Heidnik became the 1046th person executed in Pennsylvania's history. That figure is not to be confused with the 1000th execution in the US in 2006, which only counts executions from 1976 to present nationally.
During the same 1976 to present period, 123 US death row inmates have been proven innocent and released (six in Pennsylvania). Many legal scholars believe that this 1:8 ratio is an accurate estimate of innocents in prison, not just on death row.
Death penalty laws defy definition just as a blob of mercury defies capture. These laws try to embrace a dark nebulous cloud that cannot be held or analysed rationally. These laws are hollow and subjective, and their interpretation by the courts is akin to a mad dog biting at whomever it can reach, randomly condemning people to death.
Life on death row isn't hell - that is a far too meaningless cliché. It is purgatory, an endless waiting, neither dead nor alive, until one pays the ultimate penalty, whether you are guilty or innocent. This limbo exists so that the bureaucracy can kill a human being without the burden of sin, and distance itself from the act.
Isolation is an insidious weapon. Each of us inhabits a solitary cell that is 7 feet by 12 feet. Weather permitting, we are taken outside from 7.00-9.00am on Monday through Friday, to pace in circles in our kennel-type cages.
The horror stories about medical care have risen in a crescendo all over America's prisons, yet it is even more bleak for death row inmates.
Vast increases in prison populations without commensurate increases in prison budgets have caused many miseries, not the least of which is putrid and unhealthy food. Even inmates in general population that have visited the 'hole' know that the meals there are smaller portioned, cold, served on warped unsanitary plastic trays, and often contaminated with dirty dish water or foreign matter. Death row inmates are fed like this every day, and must often choose to go hungry rather than risk illness.
Prison employees also treat us differently, many avoiding eye contact, as if they might contract the terminal illness that afflicts us. When they do gaze upon us, it is as if we are 'skeletons in a closet'.
The monotonous routine is organised for a purpose, a whole set of rules, a way of life or existence - simply and purely to maintain a bizarre placidity. Time is an endless string of lonely, empty moments - unbearable minutes and hours and days that march toward an inevitable end - unbearable time that has to be borne.
All men die - some die young, maybe in a bloody accident or war, but none will know the exact method and hour of their death, except for those on death row.
Outside prison our dreams and nightmares were fuelled by a panorama of life experiences. Here they are fuelled by stark emptiness, I have heard another prisoner's anguish echoing in the night-screams, moans, whimpers, animal shrieks of rage.
Some inmates roll up their mattresses and use them as punching bags. Some exercise constantly, even mindlessly. Some don't move, talk, go to yard, or even shower - only stare into space or sleep day and night.
The loss of my three children is the hardest for me, not to mention the absence of human touch. I read, write, pray and struggle to remember faces and voices of loved-ones and friends. I draw on my dwindling supply of inner strength and the ability to go inside myself. Sometimes it scares me to think I might go inside so far, so deep, that I may never come out.
Kevin Brian Dowling,