An Essay By Perry Allen Austin, Texas
I'm willing to bet that most people never give a second thought to the air that they breathe while they go about their daily business. Unless, of course, something 'unusual' happens to catch hold of their olfactory senses, say the odour of a skunk for example. But I think there is one group of people who are unusually all too aware of the air they breathe; prisoners who live in an enclosed environment. I live in such an environment - Texas Death Row. Here we don't have windows in our cells that we can open to get a whiff of that fresh air. We have what they call an 'air cooling' system. Is it an air conditioner? Whatever it is, it sure is great at cooling the air in here during the winter months! It's not so efficient during the summer months though. When it is working, the air in the cell sometimes has a metallic or burned wire smell. That's preferable to what's outside the cell door!
I keep my fan pointed towards the door of my cell, so that usually keeps the more obnoxious smells out. But once I step outside my cell, whether going to recreation, shower or visit, the various odours assault the senses like a stampede of cattle. The main odour to assault your senses is the musty, sweaty smell of too many unwashed bodies enclosed in too small a space without proper air circulation. Then you have the rusty mildew smell from the showers, the rotten sour smell from the spilled food on the runs. Sometimes you'll catch a strong smell of faeces or urine. On the disciplinary pods you have all of this and pepper spray thrown in for good measure. These smells are constant in our lives, and our senses soon acclimatise themselves so that soon you don't even notice it, until you leave to go to a visit. Visitation is in another building and to get there you have to go outside. The first thing you notice when you step out is the air. It smells clean and fresh. You smell the grass, the flowers, the very air itself! You take a deep breath and hold it in. Then you breathe in some more as you slowly make your way to the visiting room, trying to prolong exposure to something most people take for granted and never think about. But you know this is something special and precious.
Two hours later (four if it's a special visit) your visit is over and you return to the building housing death row. Again you take your time, enjoying the pleasure of breathing in clean fresh air. Then you step into the building and the smells hit you like a West Texas thunderstorm, violently assaulting your senses. It is the smell of human misery and despair. You crinkle your nose and grit your teeth, and shuffle your way back to the pit you call home. A sweet, rotten, sour smell is emanating from the kitchen off the main hallway. Gee, I hope that isn't our dinner!
Perry Allen Austin, Texas
Human Writes Patrons
"As a journalist who has lived and worked in the United States, the horror of death row is one of the issues that never leaves you. The thread of humanity that Human Writes manages to sustain with men and women on death row is a profound contribution to keep alive the hope of life. Capital punishment is now on the retreat in America, but the numbers awaiting their fate are still very considerable. I am very honoured to have become a Patron of Human Writes and will hope to do my best to put my shoulder to the wheel".
Jon Snow Broadcaster and journalist, Patron, Human Writes
"In such an inhuman system small moments of human contact make a big difference. That's why I support Human Writes and why I would encourage you to do the same."
Gary Younge, Author and US-based feature writer for the Guardian, Patron, Human Writes
"I know what it is like to live in a cell for decades and feel that the whole world hates you. I never expected to be able to live again as a contributing member of a community. Prison life was precarious and unpredictable but I met people who worked there who wanted to help me and people like me - and I'm lucky that I live in a society graceful enough to offer me a second chance. At least I had hope. Hope for many of the people supported by Human Writes has all but been extinguished. Letters to people on Death Row let them know that however low they may have fallen, they are still human beings. They still have value and are worth caring about and letters might just help to keep hope alive. That is why I am honoured to have been invited to be a patron."
Erwin James, author and Guardian columnist, Patron, Human Writes