Jean Trounstine : After 18 Years on Death Row

Damien Echols. Photo by Larry D. Moore / Wikimedia Commons.

Damien Echols:
After 18 years on Death Row

Being on death row and in solitary confinement has got to be one of the most inhumane experiences we put prisoners through — and we justify it by calling them ‘the most dangerous prisoners alive.’ But what of those who later turn out to be innocent?

By Jean Trounstine | The Rag Blog | February 20, 2013

Texas carried out the most executions of any state in 2012 — 15 — with Arizona, Oklahoma, and Mississippi tying for second place at six apiece. As of May 2012, the total number of Texas prisoners in administrative segregation, also known as solitary confinement, totaled 8,407.

Death row and solitary, a brutal combination. Twenty-three out of 24 hours locked in a small cell with a cot and a toilet. Barely any human contact. Knowing you’re going to die.

Two weeks ago, I went to an event at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, to hear Damien Echols talk about his 18+ years in solitary confinement. Echols is one of the so-called “West Memphis Three,” all from West Memphis, Arkansas, and falsely convicted for the brutal murders of three boys in 1993. All sentenced to death.

Following a high-profile, celebrity-backed campaign to free the three prisoners, Echols and his two co-defendants were released from prison in August 2011. They agreed to a rare plea bargain that essentially had them plead to guilt and not sue the state in exchange for immediate freedom.

It’s a story made for a movie — and there is one and there will be another. Plus many celebs helped with the case that includes stories to make your skin crawl — false accusations of Satanism, police corruption, i.e. the works. Altogether another tragic indictment of our system.

But that’s not what stirred me to write this blog.

A few days later I came across an article about Echols going back to Tennessee for the first time since he was released from prison in 2011. For whatever reasons, he was invited to talk at a… (ready?) — technology conference. Now, granted, just having Damien Echols come to your conference could add to the draw, but asking him to talk about his reactions to technology since he got out of prison seems at once fascinating and almost a little cruel.

How overwhelming must it be to get out and find yourself in this world where everything goes so fast you hardly have time to breathe!

The West Memphis Three, June 1993.

And juxtapose this with what Echols said at the talk and writes about in his new book Life After Death – he eventually learned to spend up to six hours a day in prison meditating. He bludgeoned his body to stand or sit in cold and heat and pushed himself through the physical pain. He escaped the bars mentally, found himself through deep soul searching, got a modicum of peace. He said that his spiritual practice as well as his wife, Lorri Davis, who fought for his freedom and whom he married while in prison, saved his life.

So imagine after solitary confinement for 18 years, walking into the Apple Store. The computers. The cell phones. The tweets and whistles. Twitter, Echols says, he likes, because it feels like he’s writing poetry. Texting too, a language unto itself. But learning it in a heartbeat?

And what about the other bombardments of the techno-savvy 21st century? Apps? Blogs? Flicker? All the ins and outs of the technological world, not to mention discovering that you can securely (sometimes) use credit cards online and drive straight through those freeway toll booths with Easy Pass. What seems commonplace to us, natural, we actually learned step by step, year by year.

I remember how Dolly, one of the women I taught who spent 15 years at Framingham Women’s Prison in Massachusetts, said that the scariest thing after release was looking at the prices of shoes in the mall. She said she started shaking and couldn’t stop.

Yes, there’s reuniting with your loved ones. There’s the joy of seeing green grass, the ocean, or a blanket of snow across a mountain. And surely, hot fudge in the free world is as blessed as a bath. But the shock of having been years behind the eight ball, the feeling that you are always trying to catch up, has to take time to deal with, and maybe more years to get over.

So while we (and I speak as much of myself here as you) might envy Echols for having a New York Times bestseller or for having the likes of Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson support him with their fame and opportunities, the truth of Echols’s life is not celebrity or fame, but the hard darkness of coming out of the most repressive world in this country where we keep people in intolerable conditions. Coming into the light from darkness — it is no wonder that Damien Echols must wear dark glasses.

[Jean Trounstine is an author/editor of five published books and many articles, professor at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, and a prison activist. For 10 years, she worked at Framingham Women’s Prison and directed eight plays, publishing Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison about that work. She blogs for Boston Magazine and takes apart the criminal justice system brick by brick at jeantrounstine.com where she blogs weekly at “Justice with Jean.” Find her contributions to The Rag Blog here.]

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