a space for youth writing & mental health discussion
a space for youth writing & mental health discussion
November 22nd, 2019
I’m going to try to get this over with quickly and save us both a little heartbreak. I think it goes without saying that this is my last letter. I’m sorry that it’s come to this; there is no way for me to change what is about to happen, no matter how intensely I wish I could. The last year and one month with you have given me the perspective I’ve been craving since my accident. It’s amazing the joy and purpose that comes from a few typewritten pages from you every couple of weeks. I’ll forever be grateful for the short time I was able to have by your side as your days here dwindled down into a few last minutes on an execution table—the world has a sick sense of humor, doesn’t it?
I think what I’m trying to say is thank you. Thank you for giving me the clean slate I so desperately needed, and for letting me be yours. Thank you for allowing me to tell my story as I wanted to, and for sharing with me your own. The kindness you’ve sealed in an envelope and mailed across the country is a debt that I’ve struggled to repay, and now will never be able to settle completely. Having you at my side during this year-long journey of mistakes, recovery, conquering fears, and maturity has been the difference between a lesson learned and a downward spiral. I’ve grown as a friend, as a daughter, a sister, and most importantly as an individual because of your friendship. You’ve taught me what it means to be human. This letter so inadequately says what I wish it could—such is the failure of language. But I am a better person for knowing you, and for this, I thank you endlessly.
Yours truly, Olivia.
I didn’t plan on lying to my parents about him, but I wasn’t exactly going to let them in on my little secret either. Telling my dad was doubtlessly going to be easier—he would trust me, and deep down I think he understood. But my mom? I was dreading the day she got home earlier than I did, checked the mail and saw the prison-grade envelope addressed to Olivia Redd from a stranger named Damien. Knowing her, she’d be protective (some might call it nosey), and she’d open it sneakily, somehow thinking in the back of her mind that I wouldn’t find out. I’d come home from softball and she’d ask around what she truly wanted to, prying a little bit here and a little bit there, until either I fessed up or she couldn’t handle the anxiety of a secret boiling in the pit of her stomach. And honestly, I don’t really have any room to blame her for thinking it was dangerous; who wants to find out that their 16-year-old daughter is pen-pals with a death row prisoner?
I was right about my dad. He understood when I told him, or at least didn’t have any questions. He, too, was discontented when he didn’t have answers. I just remember him making some (predictable, but fatherly) joke about not inviting Damien home for dinner. My mom, on the other hand, was a bit more complicated. I ended up telling her on my own, as it was me who couldn’t handle the pent-up anxiety from boiling over from weeks of harboring such a heavy secret. Her reaction was what I’d expected—first shock, then concern, followed by a million questions (most of which I’d formed an answer to in my head), and then frustration.
My mom grew up in a rough city outside of San Antonio, and most of her family was either dead, arrested, or on the run. My grandmother spent most of my mom’s childhood locked up in Texas, and my grandfather lost a fight in his own prison that cost him his life. To say the least, prison triggered her. She knew a lot about prison from her visits as a kid before she ran away to Washington at age 14, but needless to say, it wasn’t exactly something she enjoyed the thought of. She never told me much about it, other than maybe a story or two when going through her very few childhood photos. So when I told her about my first letter to Damien, she fired a round of questions my direction at M143-Minigun speed—how did you find him? Where is he? What did you tell him? What is he locked up for? Are you even allowed to write him as a minor? The one question she avoided, to both my surprise and relief, was why? Part of me still thinks she knew why from the start, and while she was shocked when I said it, she wasn’t surprised that I’d done something that she deemed as “reckless.”
It wasn’t until after I’d received my second response from him that my parents had realized I was serious about this reckless act, and they locked my letter in the gun safe until the three of us had talked about what I was really doing. Lucky for me, I’d already run through this conversation in my head countless times, and it was finally time to pull it out of my back pocket and disprove their claims that my letter-writing was dangerous. After our unequivocal conclusion that I was safe, smart, and had a solid sense of judgement, they backed off, and I tried to acknowledge what their concerns might be for their little girl.
“Dear Olivia,” it read. The date September 26th, 2018 was stamped on the outside of the envelope, with the prison’s return address on the opposite corner. I was shaking. “It’s great to meet you. This is Damien.” I knew it was from Damien, but reading this line still made my heart palpitate. It had been 28 days since I sealed my first letter and stuck it in the mailbox. Now, I was sitting in my trusty 2004 Suburban on the side of the road, completely oblivious to the poor minivan trying to squish past me and simultaneously dragging up dirt that exploded through my rolled-down windows. I shakily inhaled dust as I forced myself to keep reading.
“I’m excited to get to know more about who you are. I’m the kind of person who wants to know my people from the inside out, so I hope you’re okay with that too. From your letter, I know a bit—you’re the oldest of seven, you’re from Washington… I’ve heard it rains a lot there. Here in Texas, we don’t get a lot of rain, but the thunderstorms sure are something. Mostly it’s just humid sunshine”—I smile to myself, because this I know from my trips to Texas to see my family, and it was just so common for someone to assume that all of Washington was rainy-- “but I don’t really get to see much of that as it is. I’m only outside about an hour a day, and that’s usually before the sun comes up.
“I see that you like to read… What’s your favorite book? I don’t get a lot of books here, but I have a few favorites that I’ll share with you, if I can get you to write back. Hopefully I don’t scare you off like I do everyone else. What else do you like to do? You say you love sports, what do you play? I love football and basketball. That’s what I used to play when I was out. You also say your dream is to work with kids one day. I have a son, he’s 5 years old, and man I wish I could see him more often. I’ve been locked up in here for years and I’ve never even touched that boy, but he’s the only thing getting me through this. He gives me a lot of the motivation I need to be smart while I’m locked up with all these other guys… It’s easy to get caught up in the wrong stuff. But you’re young, I’m sure you know that. It’s just different when you have a kid, you know?
“I can’t wait to hear from you again. Getting mail is a rare occasion for me. I was like, ‘What? Who’s writing me?’ and I never knew anyone named Olivia when I was out. Anyway, I hope it’s not too long before I can get another one. Let me know what you’ve been up to over there. I’ll end this one until next time. Hopefully I got a smile on your face just like you did to me… Take care… Don’t take too long… I’ll be waiting patiently though, not like I have anywhere to go. Yours truly, Damien.”
“Yours truly, Damien.” I read that line at least ten times before I could bring myself to look up and notice that I’d been blocking a grey SUV almost identical to mine from getting past me. I wasn’t shaking anymore, but the anxiety was replaced with an overwhelming sense of sorrow. I didn’t get that far… This sorrow was interlaced with a sense of worry. Not only worry for Damien, but worry for myself—what was I doing? Why was I feeling so sorry on behalf of a man on death row?
I didn’t know it at the time, but this letter—and a hundred more just like it—would act as a catalyst for my fascination with death row and the inner workings of the Texas prison system.
I’ve always considered myself a romantic, but those cheesy one-line expressions we all know are simply too much for me. I actively try to avoid using them, but it baffles me how true they are. There’s one cliché that I’ve heard more times than I can count, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t heard it: live like there’s no tomorrow. Live like you’re dying. Life is too short… The list goes on. This is one cliché that I always found especially obnoxious, but that changed right before my 16th birthday. You see, something about death makes everything click. Another cliché—“my life flashed before my eyes”—was applicable in my own near-death experience… But that’s another story.
Following this story of mine, I was left with nothing but pain and questions. The only way for me to understand my experience, I concluded, was to talk to someone who also has a personal relationship with death, or who was facing death themselves. Someone on death row, with the right research, could meet both of these criteria, right? Next thing I knew, I was elbow-deep in the internet, scrolling through profiles on a website for prison penpals. Truth be told, I didn’t even know what I was looking for. It was like dumpster diving; I knew nothing there was going to be pleasant, yet I needed to find something that sparked my interest, or else it would be a complete waste of emotional energy. There was one profile that had tiny red print at the bottom, reading “Profile Expires in 14 Days”. I clicked this name, opened the profile, and read a little bit about the man who would later change my life. He never mentioned his crime, which intrigued me, but I suppressed my curiosity for once. I’d sifted through the profiles of hundreds of drug dealers, rapists, child murderers, and other unfathomable criminals; I knew I’d detest whatever it was I discovered. So, I didn’t click the link that would bring me to another site, which would explain what he was convicted of. Instead, I sat down, grabbed a stolen bank pen from my desk drawer, smiled briefly at the thought that stealing that pen was probably my greatest crime, and wrote out a letter to Damien that I mailed early the next morning, before I could change my mind.
Over time, this friendship blossomed into something I never saw coming. In complete honesty, I anticipated our correspondence to die out over time. I would get to know him for a while, then explain the real reason I’d reached out, I’d get the answers to my endless questions, and then I’d be cured. But with every letter, every page I read that was either typewritten with zero margins or handwritten in his unique chicken-scratch, every “Yours Truly”, I was finding myself more and more invested. For a long time, writing letters back and forth with Damien just left me with more questions. Damien was in prison for something inhumane—that I still had yet to discover—but I was learning that at least a part of him was still human, just like me. This realization sparked more irrational stress; if he was just like me, what does that say about my character? Am I capable of inhumane things? An internal tug-of-war started tearing me in half. One side of me said that maybe I was a sick person for being able to see the good in a man who had hurt someone (or multiple somebodies). Maybe this was making me more susceptible to falling victim to other dangers. The other side said if anything, this just made me more human. Being the eternal optimist, I was going to pay off in some form or another, and perhaps Damien’s friendship was going to be that. I was getting my clean slate. I was getting a unique perspective that not a lot of people my age had—or any age, honestly. I, too, wanted to escape my past; how was Damien’s desire to escape his any different? There’s another cliché —“my mistakes don’t define me”—that was gnawing at my insufferable logic.
Life on Death Row.
The day begins at 3am with breakfast. Today, breakfast is three pancakes, each three inches in diameter, with a single serve sugar-free serving of syrup. Every day, it’s either this or a single serve box of cereal, one boiled egg, and a biscuit measuring one and a half inches in diameter. This meal comes out to roughly 250 calories. Lunch, served around 10:30am, consists of two small slices of white bread smeared with a half tablespoon of jelly and a half tablespoon of peanut butter cut with oil, or a bologna sandwich at the same measurement. Generously assuming that an inmate receives both sandwiches, this meal comes out to 460 calories. Dinner is served at 4pm and consists of a salami sandwich and either another peanut butter & jelly or a chicken sandwich. This entire meal totals out to about 1400 calories of mainly sugar and refined carbs. It should be noted that this caloric intake is only 48% of what is necessary for a grown adult male. Consistent failure to meet the necessary caloric intake and nutrient balance may lead to illnesses like diabetes, heart diseases, and strokes.
Working off these calories—although minimal—is surprisingly difficult in prison. At 6am, recreation rotation starts. There are eight rounds at two hours each. Depending on an inmate’s behavior and the weather, the options for recreation are either the dayroom, which is similar to a small school multipurpose room, or outside in a small area surrounded by razor-wire fences. Recreation only takes place five days a week, excluding holidays. Following an inmate’s recreation time, he is sent to the showers. The guards fill every shower, one-by-one, and remain on standby while each prisoner showers. If, for some reason, a guard is pulled away, an inmate could be trapped in the shower for sometimes upwards of an hour.
No prisoner goes anywhere without a strip search. This means getting completely naked while a guard inspects an inmate, head to toe, to find anything of malintent. Security in the last several years has increased significantly due to any recent attempted or successful escapes. Every 90 days, the Allan B. Polunsky Unit (Texas’s death row capital) goes into lockdown. Lockdown lasts around seven days, in which no hot meals are served (prisoners are served “Johnny Sacks”—a brown paper bag with two sandwiches) and no recreation is awarded. Showers occur twice. Inmates are otherwise completely confined to their cells.
These cells are divided into units. Each unit is made up of two levels of seven cells. Inside their cells, inmates are allowed a short strict list of items. These items purchased from the commissary are mainly junk foods and drinks, hygiene products, stationery supplies, books, and CD’s. There is a $95 limit per 14 days in place for prisoners. However, some items such as stamps and typewriter materials do not count against the $95 limit. In order to have any non-food items, inmates must obtain a property slip. This slip proves ownership. A “blue slip” is saved for special items such as radios, fans, lamps, typewriters, and hot pots. Only one of each special item is allowed and any alterations to these items deems confiscation. If something gets confiscated, inmates are given the option to send it home and are given a confiscation form. Some inmates are not allowed certain items, which mainly depends on their behavior. Razors, locks, clippers, and other potential weapons are forbidden to death row inmates. If an inmate has any withstanding connections on the outside, they can be sent money or receive orders placed by family. All belongings must be able to fit in the standard “lockdown crate,” that is no larger than a microwave. In their cells, prisoners can do whatever they can with whatever they have, which—needless to say—is very little.
Capital punishment. Capital crime. Capital offense. Capital prosecution. Capital acute headache. I was, selfishly, itching to know what Damien had done. By this time, I’d known him for four months. He was quickly and unexpectedly becoming one of my most trusted friends. But (another cliché—curiosity killed the cat) I’d pondered on what exactly Damien had been convicted of for far too long. As I mindlessly thumbed through the web, back to a page I’d visited so many times it was muscle memory to find, my brain was racing. What would I find? Would the answer to my question change what I saw in Damien? I even found myself hoping he would be guilty of certain crimes over other crimes—like a drug dealer over a child rapist. Those kinds of thoughts were confusing, to put it lightly, for my young mind. I took a deep breath before opening the site that withheld his offenses. Two words popped up: capital murder.
Damien was convicted of capital murder. On Christmas Eve, he was out in his ocean blue BMW on his way to see his family. He might’ve been speeding, or maybe he ran a stop sign, but he caught the attention of a police officer, who either knew or quickly discovered that Damien had a few outstanding insurance charges. Damien reacted in fear—he later told me about his early experiences with the police that never went too smoothly, to which Damian blames his skin color—and tried to get away. This high-speed car chase came to an end outside an auto body shop where Damien smashed into a dumpster. His car slammed to a stop, and the police officer vacated his own vehicle to wrestle Damien out of his. The two men struggled for a minute; the officer grappling at Damien to pull him from the BMW, Damien yelling something about his phone. As I watched this contest take place from the officer’s dash cam, I gasped aloud when I heard a gunshot and saw the screen go black. What I didn’t get to see was the officer crumple to the ground in a heap, nor did I see Damien’s half-shocked, half-horrified attempt to escape on foot before being gunned down by surrounding policemen.
It was like someone had injected me with a paralytic. I couldn’t move. There’s a second half to the cliché about the cat, and that goes: curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back. Was I satisfied? The claims of me being so curious were always clear and true, but this was a new level of interest beyond resistance—and I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was defending a man who was a murderer. But I wasn’t just defending a murderer, I was defending my friend. I was defending a fellow human being. But then again, this human had committed something inhuman… What does it mean to be human, anyway? Does it mean being able to see other human beings for who they are, not what they are? By that definition, I knew I was human, but wasn’t Damien, too?
Texas Death Row.
Texas is one of 28 states that still allow the death penalty. Since 1976, Texas has executed 569 prisoners. This state houses 218 death row inmates as of January 1st, 2020, and six of these inmates are women. Since December, 2019, however, only three inmates have been executed. One of these is Travis Runnels. Travis Runnels was serving a 70-year sentence for aggravated robbery and had landed a job as a janitor at the prison factory. In 2003, he slashed his supervisor’s throat because he wasn’t getting a new job. Travis Runnels was executed on December 11th, 2019. Contrary to popular belief, not all death row inmates are killers like Damien and Travis. Some are murderers, some child rapists, and even some are drug dealers and users of the utmost clearance.
An outsider may wonder why Texas must perform so many executions. After all, the violent crime rate in Texas doesn’t even rank top ten. Unlike most other states, the approval rate for the death penalty is significantly, maybe even unusually high in Texas. Nowhere else has the death penalty been support as wholeheartedly as Texas, with a reported 90% public approval rating. It should be noted that, although the death penalty is widely supported, most polls show that these die-hard supporters were unaware of or “completely numb” to the vast number of executions in their state.
“Olivia!” it read. I observed where it said May 9th, 2019, on the first line. This was my 16th letter from Damien. “So SO good to hear from you again. I love getting your letters and I hope mine bring you joy, as well. How are you? How is your family? I’m doing just peachy in here, and before you think that’s some of my grade-A sarcasm, I’m actually really enjoying these last couple days. I don’t know, maybe it’s just something in the air! Well today I got to go outside for recreation, but didn’t get any sun since it was 6am-8am… But I did get to see that friend who’s been on solitary confinement for the last couple weeks. That boy, he’s always flooding the cells in his wing ever since he got gassed that one time. He told me he doesn’t even feel the gas anymore! That’s gotta take at least a hundred gassings to be immune to it… Crazy. We got to play basketball in the dark which is always really fun. Hopefully he stays out of trouble for a while, because his execution is coming up on December 11th.
“Your birthday is coming up, Nat! I have a few special somethings heading your way here soon… You better not open it until your actual birthday. I saved up for weeks to afford you this little surprise, so you’ll open it on my terms! Oh, I just remembered—there was this song by Khalid on the radio that I think you’d like, can’t remember the name though. I think it might be “Can we just talk?” but that could be wrong. I’m sure you’ll find it.
“I think I’ll wrap this up right here. I really do suck at good-byes, don’t I? I hope you like your gift in case you get it before I can reply to your next letter. Anyways, go listen to some Khalid for me and shoot my boy Travis a prayer, could you? I’m worried for him and his big day coming up. Bye Nat! Yours truly, Damien.”
Rereading this letter chokes me up. This letter was just so Damien. A death row inmate confessing to me how much he loves life. A concerned friend of a fellow murderer wanting me to pray for him. A genuine friend who knows me well enough to share music with me and send me the perfect birthday gift. I still find myself verklempt by these letters in which Damien seems so enthusiastic about life on death row. I glance down to the end of his letter, right where he always leaves a drawing of whatever he sees outside his small, panoramic window. The tear drops that smudge this ink are identical to the ones that have permanently etched the pages of the books I received from him only a few days later. The Alchemist, Da Vinci Code, Pride & Prejudice, the latest from my favorite author… Damien knew me well. Perhaps if he didn’t, saying goodbye wouldn’t have been so hard.
People ask me why I did it. Why did I befriend Damien? When I talk about my friendship with Damien, I do my best to make it about our story—our many months of friendship, growth, and acceptance. I hardly ever acknowledge my story, or perhaps the “prologue” to my story alongside Damien. I often refer to this as a “story for another time,” but at a certain point, I started to realize how crucial it is to my journey with Damien.
I was 15 when I first seriously considered taking my own life. Up to that point, I had always been the kind of girl who knew what she wanted. I was ambitious, strong-headed, and nothing could stand in my way. I’m not exactly sure where I lost my motivation, but I had been through a tough year. I wasn’t the only one, either. My great-grandmother had died unexpectedly, my future plans seemed to be falling apart right before my eyes, my presence on social media was damaging me in ways I was completely unaware of… School was getting tougher, but I was so close to perfection that I needed to pull through. Though I was supposed to be oblivious to it, I knew money was tight at home after a car wreck a few months earlier. I was on the mend from a knee surgery and struggling to maintain my athletic success. Waking up and going to school was a daunting task for me during those dark months. Depression intertwined with anxiety seems oxymoronic, but it was reality. The truth is that I was lost. Completely lost, utterly alone, and horrified at the victim I had become. This just wasn’t me. And I was disgusted.
One night, it was unbearable. I was so overwhelmed with life’s demands, but so underwhelmed in ambition and confidence. All I wanted was to sleep. I hadn’t been able to sleep in days. The details of that night are blurry, but on May 18th—only a few days before my 16th birthday—I took some sleep aid. We kept all the medicine in a cabinet next to the glassware, easily and dangerously accessible to me to find and consume. Not the normal dosage that would give me a solid rest, but one that—I’d hoped—would just end it all. My wish for sleep soon came true, but this kind of sleep was tiptoeing on the brink of dying. I was so close. Too close.
I remember waking up in the hospital, connected to a bunch of machines and cords and hoses. I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep. Honestly, I hardly knew if I was alive. I was completely numb. Holding my eyes open was almost impossible. I was hallucinating, too. I remember thinking the machine beeps were to the tune of happy birthday, but in hindsight, the machines were more tired than I was. They weren’t beeping fast enough to keep up with the faucet dripping on the other side of my room. My heart rate was snail’s pace. My breathing felt like I was inhaling smoke, each breath rolling down my throat and angering the raw, painful scratches that the intubation left me with.
I don’t think I wanted to die. I think I just wanted to stop feeling what I was feeling, and sleep was the only way I could even fathom that. If the handful of pills I took killed me, at least I’d stop hurting. If they didn’t, maybe I’d wake up from my real-life nightmare and my problems would be gone. It seems ridiculous to a healthy person, but I was sick. The enfeebling illnesses of anxiety, depression, and self-hatred had crippled me, even tricked me into thinking I needed to die.
Needless to say, I survived. I like to joke now that the “old me” was the one who died, because from that moment forward, I was new. In the blurry, undecipherable weeks following the “accident” as I now refer to it, I contemplated everything. I had a million questions about death and dying. I couldn’t just ask anyone for the answers I was seeking, because no one really understood what “almost dying” feels like. It was suffocating. I still find myself emotional when I fall too deep into the hazy memories of That Day. I so badly yearned for a connection with someone who didn’t see me as a victim after hearing some chatter or locker room talk about why I’d missed so much school. I was the 4.0 student-athlete and leader of every club that sat at the front of the classroom, knew the answer to every question, and talked to everyone; as much as I’d wished they wouldn’t, people noticed I was gone and when I came back completely different, there was talk. This talk spread like wildfire. In my overwhelming misery and longing for change, I decided that I couldn’t just sit and wait for answers to knock on my door; I had to find them myself. Thus, Damien and I’s story began—and too quickly came to an end.
The Beginning of The End.
August 28th, 2019
It’s been tough since your last letter. You know me—I make the best of every situation. I’m literally living in a cell, I get a few hours of fresh air a week, my neighbors flood my cell when I piss them off, the guards treat me like I’m an animal, I eat the same three meals a day. Oh, what I wouldn’t do for some chicken fried steak. Or some lemon meringue pie. But that doesn’t stop me from being positive, you know? But lately I’m mad. I’m pissed. I spent 20 years being a contributing member to society. I worked, I supported my family, I had a life, I had an education, I had a car. I had a CAR. Where I come from, that’s huge! And then I threw it all away in a flash and I can never take back my mistake. And now, they’ve settled it—this mistake is going to cost my life. I have until the end of November. Just a few days after my 28th birthday. I’m mostly mad at myself, because I had a perfect life. And now my son is going to lose a dad, you are going to lose a friend, my mom is going to lose a son, and the rest of the world thinks it’s just losing a monster. That’s not me! You know this! I screwed up and I know it but damn, I still can’t seem to forgive myself. So how can I expect anyone to forgive me? Maybe I am what they say, Nat. Maybe I am a monster.
Yours truly, Damien
Correspondence Beyond Death Row.
Death row doesn’t accommodate for lasting relationships outside of the prison boundaries. Some opt for letter writing, a lost art that others don’t find appealing. Writing letters is allowed for only an approved and registered list of people per inmate. All correspondence is screened and monitored by the mail call staff, every letter incoming and outgoing. There is a list of rules both writers must follow in their letters, certain information that must be included in every letter, and certain information forbidden to be discussed. Inmates are prohibited from sealing their outgoing letters. The mail room must screen them first, and then seals each envelope with a small strip of tape. This tape is widely known as the “prison signature” for those who receive them. Inmates with records of gang involvement must have their letters go through Gang Intelligence, which adds an extra day or two to the mail process. From Texas to Washington State, it takes about 17 days on average to receive a letter after sending one.
Visitation is allowed depending on an inmate’s level of risk. Inmates must talk to their visitors on a corded phone through a glass window. No physical contact is allowed. Each visit must be paid for in advance by the visitor, costs $25, and must be paid by either card or coins. No cash. A single visit is two hours long. Special visits are only for visitors who travel 250 miles or more in distance (which must be measured on a specific website provided by the prison entry staff). These visits are four hours a day for two back-to-back days and are allowed on weekends. Visitors must be approved by the warden, contacted in advance, and can only be added to the inmate’s list of approved visitors once every six months.
Phone calls are only allowed in special cases for death row inmates. Normally, only general population prisoners are allowed phone calls, but in extenuating circumstances, death row inmates are granted this amenity. Or, if a death row inmate is transferred to a county jail for a trial or other legal matter, he is allowed phone calls. Phone calls cost $1.65 per 15 minutes. After 30 minutes, the call disconnects automatically. A caller’s cell phone number must also be registered and only approved personnel are allowed calls. It’s rare for a pen pal to ever hear or see their inmate, but it’s fascinating how connected two different people can feel through letters.
The world has a sick sense of humor. Damien had killed a man. I had nearly died. But here we were, two friends looking for a fresh start. I knew somewhere deep down that at some point, I’d need to prepare myself for the last letter. But this seemed like more of a distant dream than a shocking reality, as it had just become with the broken seal of his letter lying before me. The end of November? That was only a few months away.
I began to think that I was wrong. Maybe everyone else was right; it was naive to think that my friendship with Damien was wise. It was going to end no matter what. He was on death row. What did I expect?
Over the next few months, the mail seemed to take forever. I dreaded Sundays, because I knew there was no mail, which meant there was no hope for his signature yellow envelope with the Allan B. Polunsky Unit stamp on the seal. Checking the mail became my obsession. The mailman and I would pass each other every day at 1:45pm, and sometimes he’d give me a nod to tell me there was something with my name on it. I always wondered what he thought of delivering prison letters to a teenager; did he think I was naive?
I started keeping a sheet of stamps in my car console. If there was a letter for me, I’d read it twice and then reply right there, seal and stamp an envelope, and stuff it in my mailbox. Until I received his next letter, I’d keep a list of things I wanted to tell him in the notes app on my cell phone. This helped speed along the replying process. There’s no word to describe that feeling of time running out like it was with Damien. Everyone knows death is inevitable, but Damien and I knew the exact number of days he had left. We had not a second to waste. It’s a funny thing, letter-writing. No matter how quickly Damien and I worked to speed our correspondence along, to cram as many letters as we could into our final days, it was almost for naught. At the end of the day, the speed at which we heard from each other was out of our hands. It was up to the mailman, the postal service, the prison mail screening team, the delivery guards… We couldn’t control much but holding onto the idea that we could seemed to bring us both an inkling of solace.
Death on Death Row.
Execution day. With the justice system as slow as it is, death row inmates are actually more likely to die of natural causes than to live long enough to meet their execution date. From 1984 to 2012, the average wait time of a death row inmate has increased from 74 months to 190 months. If they do live to see this day, an inmate gets a choice of their execution style. For most, it comes down to lethal injection or electrocution. Since 1976, these two methods have proven the most popular against hanging, gas chamber, or firing squad, which are all still legal in the U.S..
Before an execution, inmates are offered the infamous “final meal.” They get their choice and can share this meal with the prison warden or a guard if they choose to do so. Most go for an extreme delicacy or a childhood favorite, while others opt for something like just orange juice or Frosted Flakes. After their final meal, they are delivered to their execution room.
An executioner is always masked. A warden will ask the inmate if they have a final statement for the record, to which the inmate can decline or respond to. Oftentimes, inmates will concede that they deserve to die, or apologize to the victim’s family. Others tell their loved ones that they love them, but a select few might use their final statement as a chilling opportunity to scar their execution witnesses. Witnesses are usually the inmate’s family or friends, but sometimes the victim’s family decides to come. The press usually sends a witness, as well. They watch from the gallery, through a window to where the inmate awaits their death.
Lethal injection is the primary form of execution in Texas. In this instance, a three-dose drug is injected to the inmate. The first dose is a form of anaesthetic or a sedative. The second is a paralytic, and the third is a powerful, terrifying drug that stops the heart. Lethal injection holds a 7.12% botched execution rate. This style of execution seems peaceful, but do not let the paralytic fool you. The 7.12% of inmates who have survived share sickening stories about how lethal injection attacks their body. In 1857, after the execution of Francis Richeux, a man named Leo Tolstoy said, “If a man were torn to pieces in my presence it would not have been so repulsive as this ingenious and elegant machine by means of which they killed a strong, hale, healthy man in an instant.”
Damien’s final statement was, on record, “If I loved you, you know it. If I hurt you, I’m sorry. But the world has a sick sense of humor, doesn’t it? OK Warden, roll it.” His final meal was chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, fried okra and lemon meringue pie.
My last letter to Damien was sent on November 22nd. I received his last letter on November 24th. He was executed on November 26th. The delivery time of mail coming in and out of prison changes with the season—I have no idea if he even got my last letter to him. I have no idea if he got to see the teardrop stains on the graph paper that I had left in my car that week, or if he got to read my last words to him.
Over the years, I’ve been told I’m too naive. I’m too curious for my own good. I’m too big-hearted. I’m too… you name it. I think a better term to describe me is optimistic. I had a friend in school who referred to himself as an optimistic realist, and I think that’s what I’d call myself. While it may be ridiculous to expect happy endings, it’s not unreasonable to hope for one.
The End of the Beginning.
November 19th, 2019
Last letter, huh? I guess I never really thought about the end as much as I should’ve. I know that dragging out a goodbye is never the right way to leave someone, but let’s be honest—you’re going to read this 1,000 times, aren’t you? So, it doesn’t matter how much I say, does it?
I think it only matters what I say, but the truth is, I don’t know where to start. Olivia, you are beyond your years. You tell me you’re 17 and I still don’t believe you. I don’t think anyone truly knows what it’s like in here unless you’ve lived it, but no one ever lives to tell the tale. The only things we have to look forward to are visits and mail. I can’t tell you how hard I’ve prayed when mail comes around for a letter from you, just because I knew time was ticking. Even on days I knew it was impossible, I just prayed for a letter.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? The 28-year-old man who has killed, befriending the 17-year old girl who almost died. The man who caused death alongside the girl who experienced it.
I think this is something we learned together, Olivia: death is inevitable. It’s coming for me, you, your family, and the whole world. But when you die in a million years down the road (because you’re gonna find some way to live a long time, I just know it), I don’t want you to be filled with regret. The only way to stop that is to live your life now like it could end at any time. Live like there’s no tomorrow. Live like you’re dying. Life is too short—you know better than anyone how unexpected death can be, but even when it is expected, you’re surprised. So, don’t waste your time asking questions anymore, Olivia. You’re smart enough to turn around and start answering some for a change.
Please continue to be you. Be human. Stop letting other people tell you who you are. Be the same curious, somewhat-reckless, big-hearted girl I’ve come to know and love. Be proud of it, too.
As for me, I’m not filled with regret. I know I’m about to pay the price for my actions, and I’ve come to terms with that. Death is out of my hands now, and I prefer it that way. But because of you, Olivia, I can die being the man I wanted to be, not the man I once was. I don’t think you’ll ever understand how important that is to me. So, thank you. Olivia. Because of you, I can die in peace.
* = Editors' Choice work
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