A visit to Death Row


I am just back from visiting Mark on Death Row . As a “special “ visitor one is allowed two days a month visit with 4 hours each day. I last visited Mark more than a year ago.

Entering prison is a highly regulated affair. It begins in the parking lot where the car’s license plates and your name are being recorded and radioed to the staff inside. You pass through a metal detector and are thoroughly searched. The only items you are allowed to carry for a prison visit are car keys and $20 in quarters. The coins are used to purchase food for the prisoners from the snack machines which are in the visiting hall. This “shopping spree” by itself is highly regulated as well . You are allowed to insert the money into the machine but are not allowed to touch the food. The visitor room’s warden ( who in my case was a very sweet and nice woman ) collects the items which are than being put in a brown paper bag. The bag is than given to another warden who monitors the closed corridor which leads to the tiny cages where the prisoners sit. The prisoner is handcuffed and escorted by 3 guards when he moves between his cell and the new confined small “cage” where through a glass he meets his/her visitor. Though all the conversations are done through a phone and behind a thick glass , they tend to be intense. Time flies and you hardly notice when your 4 hours visit is over.

I have visited Mark and interviewed him several times since 2004. But in this visit I have been struck how he has changed in the last 5 years . For me these changes only enhance the tragedy of a Death Sentence . Mark of December 2009 is a much calmer and more introspective Mark from my first visit over over 5 years ago. Mark has always been remorseful of what he did a but now I feel how self aware he has become. Rather than defending his views or background he has begun to see the damage it has done to himself, his family and of course to his victims and their families ;a trail of destruction all the way to Death Row . He sees clearer now the role ignorance, or what he would call his “red neck background “ played in all of this. The moving part for me is that this has been a slow process not a sudden religious revelation:-discovering God or Jesus

So ?”, I can hear the cynics argue, “ what’s is the big deal? All of that does not bring to life his victims. He needs to be punished for his crimes”!

I do not think that anyone, Mark included, does not think that he should not be severely punished for what he has done. The problem with a Death sentence is its finality. It does not recognize our capacity to change to learn from our past. Mark who has run through most of the legal options available to him will probably face the executioner sometime late next year or early 2011. But if and when he reaches the Death Chamber , Mark will be a very different man from the one sentenced to death in 2001.

I am sure this argument has been used before and like many other arguments failed to sway the supporters of the Death Penalty. For a long time now I have come to believe that support for the Death Penalty has nothing to do with logical intellectual arguments. On practical ground (let alone the moral human one) the Death Penalty does not make any sense. Support for the Death Penalty needs to be treated as an emotional, psychological and cultural phenomenon that I do not pretend to fully understand.

But despite all of that I could not stop myself from thinking, as I left prison, how in a different country with a different state of mind , Mark in prison and with his new insight and understanding could become a huge educational asset for young offenders . Who can have a better impact on young offenders than some one like Mark, bright as he is,   and with newly gained insight into the horrible mistakes that landed him in prison. Yes,  Mark with all of his tattoos and “red neck” lingo could reach young offenders much more effective than any correctional officer or councilor. I am sure he could save many from a fate similar to his.

As to the cynics out there , they better read the December 9, New Yorker article Rap Sheet by Jill Lepore. In the article the author claims that despite our lead in the industrialized world in the number of prisons and incarcerated people , despite the fact that the US is the only democratic country which still has the death penalty on its books , the rate of murders in this country is double than that of any other affluent democracy all of whom have banned the death penalty long time ago.

The article cites a certain Italian nobleman Cesare Beccaria who wrote in 1764 : “The countries and times most notorious for severity of punishment have always been those in which the bloodiest and most inhumane of deeds were committed.” More than three centuries later this observation is not only relevant but prophetic.

The vast majority of Texans who , according to polls, support the Death Penalty ought to think about that.

2 thoughts on “A visit to Death Row

  1. Hello Ilan, I was Marks manager at the marble and granite fabrication shop where he worked during the time when he commited these murders. He and I worked together on a day to day basis. It sounds as though Mark has become a different man than the one I worked with. What a tragic course of events this has lead up to. Feel free to contact me if you would like to hear any stories or accounts that took place at that time. Thank you and good luck. James Tevnan

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