Monique Rhodes

 

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The Bars of Florida

I have never been to a prison before my first visit to death row 8 years ago. There is something about it that has always intrigued and frightened me. It is not the people inside who frighten me as much as the thought of someone losing all of their freedom. All choices gone. No control over their lives. As someone who revels in my own freedom to choose and move around the world, the ability to adapt to this has always fascinated me.

I became Michael's pen pal 8 years ago. I had my interest in the death penalty piqued when I read about the execution of James Alridge. James was incarcerated for 21 years on the row in Texas. During that time he achieved two things that I found fascinating. Firstly he taught himself to paint and became a prolific artist. His paintings were sold all over the world to support his appeals and ended up in the collections of a number of high profile Hollywood stars. The second thing he achieved was that he became the mentor to many of the other young black men on death row. It was as though he underwent a transformation, much like some great spiritual practitioners would do in solitary confinement and he developed into a remarkable man. His campaigners were not fighting for him to be freed. He had shot someone in a store robbery when he was 19. He felt he deserved to be in prison and pay for his crime. Rather they were trying to prove that his life held value within the prison system and that his mentoring was valuable therefore so was his life. Despite the efforts of many on August the 26th, 2004 James Alridge was executed by lethal injection. His final words were, "To the Moon and Back I love you all. I leave you as I came, in love". My song To the Moon and Back abut James made it way around the world to many of his supporters. I even came home one day to a hand written card in the mail from Susan Sarandon thanking me for this song for her friend James.

blog-bars-floridaIt's one thing to stand on the outside and look in and write a song. I decided I wanted to get my hands dirty. I had just started studying Buddhism. I was being taught about loving each and every person in the same way. It all sounded very nice but could I truly love someone who was a murderer? And who actually did love these people? Did their families stick around? Did their friends stick around? Or were they just deemed unlovable? I wanted to know who they were. I wanted to know who I was. So I applied to become the pen pal to a death row inmate and was assigned Michael. I remember the first time I saw his picture. I took a bit of a breath. He looked a bit intimidating. And he was on death row for a triple murder. Wow! I was really in the thick of it. However when I started writing to him I discovered a soft, lost and lonely 50 year old man who was desperate for some connection. And Michael and I became friends.

Michael has been in prison for 15 years for the murder of a family of three. And has been on death row for 10 of those years. He has a very mundane existence of sleeping, watching tv and some recreation. Prisoners on death row in Florida do not work. Over the years he has had a few people write to him. But now there is only me. His sister visited him last a year ago. That is all the outside contact he has.

Michael is a likable rogue. He has a history of incarceration for burglaries and a plethora of stories that he delivers in such a manner that leave you feeling you are watching a gripping film. I find him completely entertaining mixed with a deep set boyish vulnerability. He is open, often incredibly wise, and a criminal. And within the confines of a prison in Florida I also have my friend.

I'm sure the biggest issue for many people is whether the inmate they communicate with is innocent. Death Row throughout America is littered with innocent men and women, many of whom have been wrongly executed. This has never been an issue for me. I don't care if Michael is guilty or innocent. Either way, over the years, I have showed up for him.

However, there are reasons that lead me to believe that he may well be innocent. And this may be another case of unbelievable injustice. However, it is not something I have concerned myself with. I have chosen to accept Michael in whatever way he shows up. And to be his friend.

What's it like to go to death row in Florida? Not as bad as I imagined before I went the first time. There are a series of security checks and a long walk down a caged walkway and then you wait in a communal canteen area with tables and chairs attached to the floor to see the person you will visit. There are other death row prisoners there. There are other friends and family there. It's a remarkably gentle atmosphere.

I always look around and try and imagine these guys in normal clothes rather than the orange and white death row uniform. If I came across them in the street would I suspect they were murderers and some of the most feared criminals in the US justice system. Not in a million years. They are all extremely well groomed and polite and thoughtful of each other. There is only one who looks like he could have been a character on Dexter. The rest look so normal it always throws me. I asked Michael once, "Can you tell who these guys are?" "You can see it in their eyes," he replied. Well I think I am pretty intuitive and I sure as hell can't. There is a young guy who is unbelievably good looking. He is 27 years old. His mother is visiting him. I find it hard to believe that this handsome young man is now facing his own execution. It's hard not to wonder what went wrong?

Michael has lot an enormous amount of weight in the past few months. His liver is packing up. They don't try and keep you alive on death row so he is receiving minimal treatment. We both agree that if this spares him from the dreaded execution process then it could be a blessing.

We talk for hours. There is so much he needs to say. Michael always talks about the outside world, very rarely about life in prison. Sometimes I have to remind myself that he is actually in prison. He tells stories from his life as though they all happened this year rather than over 15 years ago. It's almost as if he has lived every detail over so many times they are sculpted into his mind. He is a fantastic story teller so I always love listening to him. He seems to revel in the thoughts of being a normal man, being free.

I told him that I had written about the visit with him on facebook and asked people for questions. He liked that and said that anyone could write to him at any time and ask him anything. He loves writing letters.

The first question I asked was: If he could turn the clock back on one day in his life, what would it be? He told me that when he was 15 his mother was dying. He was her favourite of the kids and he was very close to her. (He did make a point of saying this did not make him a sissy, which made me laugh. There is nothing sissy about Michael). It was Christmas eve. He was at her hospital bed and his father said he should go home for the night. She was going to be ok for the night. But she wasn't. She died. And he didn't feel he said goodbye to her properly and never forgave himself or his father for sending him home . His need to be there with her when she died was overwhelming. And by not being there he felt he had abandoned her by mistake. It traumatized him and he took off and left his home town and his violent alcoholic father unable to cope. He said that day changed something in him and he believes that if he had been there with her when she died things may well have been different for him.

Michael said, "I never wanted to be a bad guy". But he has been. But I understood something about him. Michael to me is like a vulnerable boy in a man's body in many ways. That's how he comes across to me. And I can see that some part of him is still 15, never properly matured. Stuck in the place of his trauma.

He then went on to tell me that through my influence he has developed an understanding of the law of cause and effect. And he has managed to reconcile things differently due to our conversations. He said, " At first it was so hard to find myself here on death row for something I didn't do. The injustice felt overwhelming. But as these years have gone on and we have talked I have realised that despite the fact I did not kill those three people I did however many things over the years that I wasn't punished for, that I got away with. And now I feel I am serving my time here for those things. And that feels just. And it has helped me to come to peace with being here. The thing that is hard is that I never imagined I would die in a place like this. And yet I am going to. And that is hard. Really hard."

I asked him what he thinks about in the prison all day. He said that he thinks about being free. That keeps him going. He talks about his girlfriend who he was with at the time of his arrest as though the conversations with her happened last week and not 15 years ago. He has heard nothing from her since. He thinks about her a lot, about his life before death row. Those are the thoughts that he consumes his mind with.

In answer to the question of what he dreams he said he always dreams about freedom. He said that he goes to sleep at night and travels through the walls of the prison and flies around outside. It was fascinating to discuss where he goes, what he sees. I wonder how many other prisoners have mastered this as a way to leave the prison walls.

I asked him if people get depressed and commit suicide. He said that yes they do however only two have committed suicide since he has been on death row. One suicide was this year.

When I asked him how the prisoners on the row treat each other he said that it is one of the calmest and quietest prisons in America. From what I have seen each time the guys take real care of each other. They are very respectful. People share resources. He said that this often the focus of life in the prison. Resources. But that you cope with what you have. And when you get some help from the outside you then help back the guys who have helped you.

As far as how he finds my visits well my visit yesterday will be something he thinks about for months and months on end, playing every detail of it over in his mind. He gets to go back and have something new to talk to his friends about. Its an injection of hope for him. Connection. Something he is desperately needing.

He loved the question of one day of freedom. There was no doubt in his mind that he would want to spend it with me. And what he would like from that is just this. To go to Santa Monica beach in California and spend the day there and eat spanish food. That would be his dream day. I'm going to go in a few weeks to that beach in Santa Monica for him. And send him a picture. I'll take him there through my eyes and my story that I tell him.

I asked him what he missed the most. He said he missed the sound of children laughing and playing. He hadn't heard that for 15 years. And he missed old people. And he missed cuddling his dogs. He said, "You know that feeling when your dog just comes up and looks at you with love and your wrap your arm around it and hug it? I miss that. I miss that a lot."

 
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