First I will answer the most important question you
asked: "What is the single greatest reform needed in the prison
Simply put, equal access to higher education.
Whether it comes from a post secondary degree, IT training, or
certification in a trade, the opportunity for learning and career
development in prison is essential to public safety.
The current purpose of incarceration is
incapacitation and punishment, to the exclusion of all else. Too
often prisons are punishment factories where you do not learn
ethical conduct, or marketable skills – quite the opposite.
Rehabilitation programs that do exist are underfunded and
ineffective, a "checkmark" on a list for offenders trying to get out
of prison. Administrators only interest themselves in a
rehabilitative program when there is direct political pressure.
Those few people who actually care about reforming prisoners are
forced out of the penal system. Volunteers are frequently harassed
for daring to do for free what the prison refuses to do at a cost.
The murder of five prison guards in North Carolina
prisons in 2017 exemplifies the price of not having any outlets, or
incentives for prisoners’ continued good behavior: life without
parole, no time off for good behavior, mandatory minimums, no
parole, no jobs that pay more than dollar a day, forced labor and no
mercy from the public or prison system. Even in their scramble to
sentence to death those responsible for the murders of the prison
guards, there has been no talk about why the violence occurred.
Calls for more staff and better security – but nothing about how
idleness, desperation, and mental illness incite violence.
Historically violent penal systems like California,
New York and Texas have begun to figure out North Carolina’s current
prison violence dilemma. The best solution is a combination of
security, staffing and rehabilitation. These states tried extreme
punitive measures and found it breeds more violence. The harsher
they treated prisoners, the fewer opportunities there were on the
inside, the greater the risk to the community when the majority of
these offenders were released. By investing in counseling,
mentorship and higher education in prison, recidivism and the
overall cost to the state were reduced. There must be a fundamental
change in what happens to people while they are in prison, if we
ever hope to end mass incarceration.
Higher education can no longer be viewed as a
privilege. By maintaining this status quo and limiting college to
those who are free and can afford it, a permanent underclass will
continue to fill America’s prisons. Educating prisoners helps to end
the poverty of thought that begets crime and violence. We represent
the most needy and marginalized sub-citizens in the United States.
To break this cycle there must be a greater investment in the idea
that people go to prison to learn more than "a lesson": they go to
learn how to become decent human beings and productive citizens.
What good is confinement for public safety, if most of those who go
into prison are released back into the community less skilled, more
stigmatized, isolated and desperate?
You asked: What have I learned about myself through
education, or otherwise?
In my experience, even limited access to
rehabilitative programs and higher education teaches autonomy from
the prison mentality and accountability for one’s time. Some of my
friends admire the work I have done, while others don’t quite
understand. A handful of guards are impressed and see the difference
in my demeanor. Others hate that I have been granted such an
opportunity. Because I am on death row there is a general
expectation I will fail and there are plenty of obstacles along the
way to ensure it happens – but I am determined to succeed.
Personal accountability requires that I defy the
expectation of failure and prove myself against the state’s
declaration that I am not fit for life, or liberty. It’s hard all
the time. I persevered through exams while guards joked about
executions; continued my studies in the face of peer skepticism and
wariness; and persuaded reluctant staff that proctoring a two-hour
midterm exam isn’t that difficult. All of this and more. I’ve fought
every step in the journey toward a higher education because it is
essential to my growth and survival.
As you know, if you do not have a degree in the
modern world you will struggle to support yourself and your family.
You will likely be poor. Where improving the way you interact
with the free world is a matter of career development, how
incarcerated people interact with the world is a matter of basic
My goals are rooted in transforming the criminal
justice system. Beyond establishing my voice in the field of penal
reform I want to see and be a part of ending capital punishment,
life without parole, juvenile life sentences, privatized jails and
prisons, mandatory minimums, and tough-on-crime rhetoric that
inflames juries and pits the legal system against the disadvantaged.
I want to work toward greater judicial discretion, revitalizing
post-release transition programs, implementing restorative justice
programs as a natural part of reentry and establishing mandatory
higher ed, trade school and IT training in prison.
I know these sound like impossible, long-term goals.
Death row has a way of making impossible odds seem normal. It is
also not enough for me to learn about crime and punishment and the
prison industrial complex. I have a duty to share my experience and
knowledge of the criminal justice system by writing, speaking and
reaching out to the public to challenge the narrative.
This leads to the next question about how death row
is different from what people might expect.
Barely 20% of all death sentences result in
execution. In every other way that matters, a death sentence is an
extremely expensive life sentence. The cost is largely associated
with legal representation that lasts throughout the capital appeals
There is a common expectation that people sentenced
to death are either irredeemable; that they are not fit for life or
liberty. 19 years ago I was sentenced to death at the age of 21.
Numb, scared and exhausted after my capital murder trial, I didn’t
expect execution would take long. The jury delivered their verdict
inside of two weeks. In the same time since then a lot of things
have occurred that I never thought were possible. After living
through the executions of 33 people, many of whom were friends,
numerous others have been removed from death row. The removal rate
includes six acquittals and two exonerations; the most recent of
which, Henry McCollum, was discarded by the state once they learned
he was innocent. It took 30 years on death row to resolve Henry’s
innocence. There are a lot of people on the row who have appealable
issues and evidence that disproves first-degree murder, but they sit
and wait for some kind of relief, totally dependent on their
attorneys just as Henry McCollum was. The North Carolina Innocence
Inquiry Commission ultimately cleared Henry – not his court
I am not going to explain or unscramble the puzzle
that is appellate relief, but what occurs in the meantime is an
existence, of sorts. What that existence looks like the defies all
expectations. I thought earning a degree and positioning myself for
a scholarship while on death row was an unlikely future. I never
would have considered addressing a UNC Chapel Hill class about my
education, incarceration and capital punishment, yet I’ve done just
that. What I’ve learned about life on death row is this: how I live
depends on opportunity and the desire to prove we are all more than
our worst mistake.
Time on death row is hard; the threat of death an
overwhelming burden that clouds the future. But, is this the most
torturous thing about the sentence? The appellate process creates
constant uncertainty about the finality of a death sentence. Legal
arguments, like the North Carolina Racial Justice Act extend some
hope of relief, until they become political fodder. After eight
years, even those prisoners who won under the RJA had their death
sentences reinstated because the law was gutted by Republican
legislatures. When a 2010 SBI audit of the crime lab revealed over
210 cases of faulty DNA testing, blood patterning and ballistic
tests many of us, whose cases hinge on such things, were hopeful.
Except help never came because prosecutors control the court
calendars and new evidence is not an appealing issue. Discussion of
the SBI crime lab misconduct disappeared. On the row we were not
surprised. Every time hope is generated you think, "Maybe it’s my
turn next," then nothing happens. You never receive an explanation
and the state says, "See? The system works."
Hope is a drum that wears out with overuse. Torture
is being told you have hope of relief, because of some new legal
argument, or technical error, but it amounts to nothing. Eventually,
as the years go by and your friends and family drift away, or die,
you begin to realize hope is a distraction from the grim reality of
spending your life in prison.
What you do with your time matters. Waiting for
appellate relief from a death sentence can lead to madness and it is
not enough to occupy your mind with trivial things. I see it in many
of my peers. It’s hard to resist the lure of hope when the
alternatives are despair, arbitrariness and uncertainty.
Somebody asked if I think I will one day leave
prison and this seems like a good place to end before I go on a
rant. I would love to say, with utter certainty, there will be a
happy ending to my story; that everything I am working toward
ultimately leads to freedom. The truth is, I don’t know. The only
certain thing I have is hope and a will to live and for now, that’s
going to have to be enough.