The Pains of Life

University Essays: Lesson 7, Reading 2

By Joseph M. Giarrantano

Seven years ago, I began the process of awaiting my man-made appointment with death. Since being condemned to death, my days have been spent dealing with the guilt of having been convicted of taking the lives of two human beings, confronting the very real possibility of my own violent death, and coping with the anger, resentment, frustration, helplessness, and grief of having five friends taken from my side to be ritualistically exterminated. These have been nine long years of fighting to maintain my sanity, of growing, and of holding onto a sense of humanity in an environment maintained specifically for the purpose of bombarding the senses with hopelessness.
It is almost impossible to maintain a sense of humanity in a system that ignores the fact that you are a living, breathing human being — a system where you are recognized only as a number, a compilation of legal issues open for debate, a 20-to-50-page legal brief before tribunals that will determine your fate without ever knowing you, as something nonhuman — a piece of tainted meat to be disposed of.

These nine years, I’ve lived on death row, a unit isolated not only from the outside world, but also from the rest of the prison population. Contact with others not “like” me is very limited: visits with friends or family that take place in an isolated cubical the size of a telephone booth, with thick security glass separating me from those who still recognize my humanness. There are also contact visits with those who work to save my life through the legal channels. These are individuals who continue to acknowledge my humanity and whom I’ve come to love as family. When I am permitted to visit these friends, I leave my “home” escorted by an elite group of guards; the black uniforms and combat boots distinguish them from the ordinary correctional officers (whose uniform is light blue.) But the true essence of life and death is in the unit where my days are spent. Here, 24 hours a day, is where I experience and interact with the basic emotions of life, and face the reality of death.

On the night of 31 July 1986, four guards came to my unit, with handcuffs and waist-chain, to escort me to the telephone. It was a call that I had been dreading, because I would be saying my final goodbye to another friend. Within three hours after that call, Mike Smith, a man whom I shared a life bond with for seven years, would be coldly strapped into an electric killing machine. Then, 2,700 volts of raw current would fry the life out of his body.

Even now, I feel the anger I felt at his death, and the pain of having a friend coldly taken from me to be ritualistically put to death. As I walked down the hallway, several guards commented on the wrongness of killing my friend, and stated that Mike was a good man. Fighting back the tears was hard because of the helplessness I experienced at not being able to save him. Memories of the times Mike and I had spent together flooded through me. I wanted to understand why Mike was being taken from me, but it was impossible. Each day I have to interact with the same guards who came to the unit and took him from me. These guards were the same guards who were telling me, “Joe, Mike is a good man. They shouldn’t kill him.” Each time I heard a guard say that, I could feel the anger churning within me. What they were saying made no sense to me. I wanted to scream, “NO!” I wanted to tear down the prison walls and make them stop. I hated them.

As I lifted the phone to my ear and heard my friend’s voice, I didn’t know what to say. Other than quick hellos, our conversation consisted of a few scattered questions tied together with long silences. I could feel the tears leaking from my eyes as the hopelessness overwhelmed me. I wanted to tell Mike to fight the guards until the last second — to take some of them down with him — but all I could say was, “I love you, my friend. I’m sorry I can’t stop this.” Mike’s reply still rings in my ear: “I’ll be fine, Joe. You know that I’m going home. Please don’t do anything that you might regret later. You have to forgive them.”

Walking back to my cell, I could barely move—it felt as if every muscle in my body were cramped. I could hear the guards asking me questions, but I knew that if I responded, my hatred would spew out at them. I felt the helplessness and hopelessness in the pit of my stomach — I wanted to pull my friend back. It wasn’t until later that I noticed the blood on my wrists where the cuffs bit into my flesh. I tried to pull Mike back, and I couldn’t.

Before that day, four other friends had been executed; men whom I ate with, talked with, played with, argued with — men whom I came to know as friends and shared a life bond with. Men whom no matter what their crimes, I could not see as anything but human beings — whom I could not see as animals or pieces of meat. James and Linwood Briley, Morris Mason, and Frank Coppola are the men whose tears I saw, whose flesh I touched, whose pain I still feel. I still know the hopelessness, I am still with the guards who took them away to be executed, and I am still trying to understand.

I know the pain that I brought to my victim’s family. I know their loss, their anger, their frustration, hatred, and despair. I know their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. I know these emotions as they, the families of my friends who have been executed, and my family and friends do — a twisted cycle of continuing violence, loss, pain, grief and helplessness. Unlike those whom we invest with authority, I have learned that killing people is wrong.

Hope is such a frail thing when hopelessness constantly bombards the senses. You can hear its empty sound in the clanging of the steel doors, in the rattle of chains, in the body searches, in the lack of privacy, in the night sounds of death row, and you can see it in the eyes of the guards who never really look at you, but are always watching to see that you do not commit suicide. You can feel the hopelessness each time you are asked to state your number, when you are holding the hand of a friend in chains who is being pulled away from you, never to be seen again. You can hear it in die echo of a system where humanity is constantly denied. Eventually I, like all human beings, will die. But for now I am very much alive and, until death touches me, I will feel the pain, anger, frustration, despair and grief at the loss of those close to me. I will feel the fear of my own predetermined death. For Mike’s family, life must go on, as is true for all who have lost loved ones. The focus shifts back to life, and the death grows more remote as time passes. But here on the row, where life goes on, death is never distant. Here life and death are one. Both are ever-present; while there are times when death seems distant, it is only an illusion; at any time an announcer on television or radio may tell you that your death or the death of a friend is one step closer. You may read about your death in the daily newspaper, or a letter from a court clerk, or hear about it when the guards announce “Let’s go, _____.” Here one can never forget about death for long — on the row where hope and hopelessness coexist daily.

All of these emotions are very real to me, and I can see them in the eyes of the human beings around me, condemned and executioner alike. Anyone who stays on a death row comes to know someone on the row; anyone who visits regularly can feel the passion of these emotions pulsating in the air. One can hear the sound of guards and prisoners laughing together, talking, sharing meals. There are the ministers who come to visit through the bars – some trying to save our souls, all praying and telling us not to give up hope, but none telling us how this can be done. Many share in our helplessness for a time, but they also have their lives to contend with. The condemned and executions live together is a strange paradox.

I have spoken with many of the guards, most of whom avoid the subject of my death, the possible deaths of the men around me, and their own role in this death ritual. There are a few who will avoid my eyes and say: “Joe, it’s not my doing. I don’t want to see you die. There are others who deserve it more than you.” Many find it easy to avoid the subject, since they will not be the ones who actually pull the switch― they will only escort me to the death house and let their coworkers take over. But their eyes tell all that needs to be said. They have very human eyes, just like the other human beings around me and just like those of my dead friends. Yet, they will do their jobs. Standing in this house of death among all these human beings — some who come to visit, some who come to stay, and some never to be seen again — life is not cogent.

Each day, I yearn to touch, hold, and be with my loved ones, just as they want me with them. The closeness of death makes me more aware of my human feelings, and constantly adds fuel to a passion for life. It makes me more aware of how much time I have wasted in life, how very responsible we all must be, and how precious each day of living must be. Each day, I hear Mike Smith’s words to me: “You must forgive them. I love you, too.” Hearing these words does not allow me to ignore the humanity around me, not that of the condemned or the executioner(s.) On 31 July 1986, I hated them.

Each day here has been an experience in life. Although death will eventually come, it has not overtaken me yet and, until it does, I live. Where there is life, there is hope, as both thrive through the recognition of humanity — both yours and mine. Each day I spend here is an experience in Life, as well as Death.

Joseph M. Giarratano came within one day of being executed in 1991 when Gov. Douglas Wilder granted clemency, citing reasonable doubt of guilt. During his ten years on death row, he was active in death penalty litigation/abolition. He is currently client advisor to the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons.

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372.