November 30, 2006

Visit to Death Row

We were on our way to America, my friend Dini, her son Michiel and I. To America, a country I had never thought about visiting before, as I didn't think I would be interested in seeing the country. But we weren't going there to go sightseeing or travelling around, but to visit our friends on Death Row in Florida.

The days preceding our departure had been hectic and chaotic, packing the right clothes, making arrangements for the kids, flying from Greece to Holland to see my mom for one evening and then leaving for Schiphol the following early morning, together with Dini and Michiel.

After a long flight we landed in Atlanta with a delay due to bad weather. Because of the delay we missed our flight to Jacksonville and by the time we finally reached our motel, it was the middle of the night.

The next day, jetlagged and groggy, we drove around the area. I had been told that this part wasn't the most beautiful part of Florida, but I was enchanted with its greenness and the overwhelming forests. Coming from Greece, I had expected Florida, which has about the same temperature as Greece, to be dry like my country. But it was lush and green and somehow very tranquil and peaceful. In some ways the pastures and the greenness reminded me of my native country Holland.

There was not much traffic on the road and while we were driving around, watching the landscape passing by, still musing about the similarities between this area and the part of Holland where I grew up, suddenly grey buildings appeared surrounded by wired fences. First the Florida State Prison and then the Union Correctional Institution. I then realized that any pretence of peacefulness, all similarities with my native country, ended here.

The next day we arrived early at the prison for our visits to begin. First we had to go through the security checks. Both Dini and Michiel had visited the prison several times before to see their friend William, but for me it was the first time and I still needed to be registered. To my surprise, the guards were rather nice and helpful. When I didn't know my height and weight in American measurements, the female guard wrote down her own height and weight as we were of similar body structure. She also apologized for having to pat me down.

After we were finished with the security checks we walked through a fenced passageway to the building where the visiting room was. The fencing went across the top of the passageway, so it looked like a tunnel with rolls of razor wire around it. On the way we passed the building for general population. The gardens around it were nicely kept; there were trees and a fountain with benches around it, very peaceful. Prisoners could take their visitors outside for a walk or sit on the benches under a tree and have lunch together. Squirrels scampered freely around in the trees and some cats were walking about.

Death Row prisoners receive their visitors in the 'visitor’s park'. A room filled with metal tables built into the floor with metal stools around it. As soon as we entered the room, we were assigned a table where we had to wait for our friends to arrive. There were about 25 tables in the room. On one side of the room there were small windows and on the other side there were vending machines and a counter where we could buy coffee, drinks and snacks. Also on that side there were the inmate bathrooms, an inmate search room, visitor bathroom, and a long glass wall, where we could see the “non-contact visitor” booths. One by one the prisoners arrived, dressed in bright orange shirts, they all looked around until they discovered their visitor and then they smiled.

I was a bit nervous as, even though Mike and I had been writing for 1.5 years, we had yet to meet in person. But once he arrived, I knew I shouldn’t have worried. Mike was easy to be with and talk to, especially as he was very talkative himself.

I was struck how everything seemed so normal. This could have been any visiting room, anywhere. There was a feel of happiness in the room. Most of the men were cheerful, happy to be out of their small cells for a while. The men did not look like 'the worst of the worst' to me, and I did not have the feeling I was surrounded by monsters, as they are often portrayed to be by the media. It was hard to realize that perhaps in some time to come, some of these men would not be here anymore, but would have been killed by the State of Florida. Coming from overseas, the thought of putting a healthy human to death is certainly surreal. This country with its ultra conservative ideas about abortions and euthanasia, happily executes its own citizens. I can't help wondering what is being preached in the many churches I saw everywhere.

Sitting there with Mike at a table, I wanted to ask him, “How is it possible that you somehow have risen above your surroundings to be the man that you are today, so different from the irresponsible youth you once were? Where did you find the strength to overcome the injustices done to you, the inhumane and indifferent treatment, and the agonizing experience of facing your own death? How did you keep your sanity, day after day, year after year, locked up in a cage for almost 24 years now? How does it feel being rejected by society and in some cases by friends and family, as well? And yet here you are, intelligent, opinionated, thoughtful, widely read, with a great sense of humour, a pleasure to be with. How did you manage?”. But I did not ask all this, as it was a day to be happy, to laugh and talk and to enjoy each other’s company.

Some of the other men were visited by their children, parents, and wives; they spent their time talking, walking about, eating together, playing table games, some were praying while holding each others hands, and reading the Bible. Several times one of the guards paced up and down between the tables. At every visit the men were being counted. All of them had to leave their tables and line up against the wall while the guards counted them. The men were cooperative; not wanting to cause any trouble, there was no way that they were going to jeopardize this precious time with their visitors. But I wondered why this was necessary, since I had not seen any obvious escape routes. The guards did not seem overly tough though, some were nice and willing to talk, treating the men in a respectful manner.

The rest of the visiting days were spent in a similar way but with the additional pressure that the countdown had started. We have had the privilege of sharing some of our respective life experiences, anchoring our friendship, and developing a sincere relationship; which enriches our lives now.

Inevitably, the end of the visit arrived, and after a last hug, we separated, in the firm belief that we will meet again.