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    Life Stories from America’s Death Row

    A review of Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row, edited by Lynden Harris

    By Amanda Abrams

    January 27, 2022

    Right Here, Right Now, a new collection of personal essays by men on death row around the country, provides a glimpse into the experiences that shaped those whom our society has deemed irredeemable, while simultaneously holding a mirror up to our society, challenging us to create something more just, more compassionate, and more merciful.

    This isn’t the perspective we usually get. Most published first-person tales of deep poverty, family dysfunction, and incarceration are written by people at great remove from their past lives – they made it out. But it’s easy to forget that making it out is exceptional. The people who haven’t been able to rise above their surroundings, who are genuine products of their environment, rarely get their accounts into print.

    These are some of those accounts. And in all their horror, they deserve our consideration.

    The stories were collected and edited by Lynden Harris, an artist and writer based in North Carolina, who worked directly with many of the men. (There are also women on death row, though far fewer.) The stories relate miserable poverty, drug-addicted parents, abusive family members with untreated mental health issues, and violence and fear as a constant, underlying drumbeat.

    The essays are divided by the life stages they discuss, from early childhood and elementary school to middle school and being arrested, to life on death row with execution looming. The earliest ones are the most shocking. The writers recount seeing people get killed, watching a family member threaten or shoot another, and being forced to learn to fight as a small child. Readers can feel the innocence and bewilderment of the authors as small children as they struggle to comprehend the chaos around them, often with no one by their side.

    “Drugs and alcohol were the house music of our lives. … When I was five, I watched my stepdad die from alcohol convulsions. I remember my aunt clinching a belt between her teeth, trying desperately to find a vein for her heroin. But reefer, that was my mother’s trade,” reads one entry. (For the authors’ security, the essays are anonymous.)

    Another begins, “I was a straight-A student and proud of it! It was pretty much the only thing I had to be proud of. My father was a single parent and schizophrenic. Our home had burned to the ground, destroying everything we weren’t wearing. So we’d landed in the projects where even the playground was littered with crack pipes, broken bottles, and bullet shells. My heart and back were littered, too, from my father’s beatings.”

    And one of the most heartbreaking essays starts like this: “Growing up in my house was a fucking horrific, crazy, sad experience. I remember this one cinder block house we lived in. Man, the windows busted out and covered with plastic. If we wanted warm water, we had to heat it on the stove. And my dad, he beat my mom all the time.” The writer goes on to tell of a rainy night when his father kicked him, his mother, and his month-old baby brother out of the house. With nowhere to go, the three huddled under a tree all night. By the next day, the baby was sick; he died of pneumonia less than a week later. And no one spoke of him again.

    An underlying theme of the book is unhealed trauma. Not a single essay mentions anyone asking about these children’s feelings or acknowledging the wrongness of the scenes they observed, let alone any kind of professional mental health intervention. Instead, they were encouraged to become tougher, to show no emotion other than anger. Overstretched caseworkers called in to investigate domestic disturbances overlooked problems rather than take on more paperwork. Teachers gave up on poor students.

    light shining through bars

    Photograph by Tim Hufner (edited)

    By adolescence, many of the writers describe having hardened themselves and learned that unless they wanted to be victims, they needed to be aggressive and ready to fight. They were on their way to becoming the “monsters” that prosecutors, just a few years later, might have described them as to a jury. But inside, they were still confused and hurting.

    Those who were arrested as teenagers and entered juvenile detention or prison received little or no help. Some were given medication to numb their feelings; many encountered unfettered brutality verging on torture. None mentions therapy or rehabilitative programs.

    One man writes about a juvenile detention facility’s “behavior modification” program, which was known as Intensive Care. “In Intensive, they stripped you naked, turned the AC on high, and shoved you into a cell with a hole in the floor for a toilet. No light. At some point, they’d give you a pair of skivvies and a thin mat. If you fought, pissed off the staff, or harmed yourself, you could spend weeks in there, twenty-three hours a day in the dark.”

    Another describes correctional officers’ behavior when, at nineteen and awaiting trial – not yet convicted – he accidentally hit a guard while trying to advocate for another inmate. “‘Get the motherfucker!’ one of the deputies yelled, and a 300-pound white deputy put me in a choke hold till my head was almost resting on my upper back. I couldn’t breathe. An inch more and I knew my neck would snap. ‘You son of a bitch, you don’t ever hit an officer! We’ll kill your goddamn ass in here, boy!’ Immediately, the others began punching me in the head and face.”

    The writers scarcely mention the crimes that landed them on death row. While this is a notable absence in the book, it allows a reader to hear the men’s stories without jumping to a moral judgment on the balance between harms they suffered and harms they caused. After all, their crimes are the facts of their lives that are public and searchable. This is the other side, a side that rarely gets told.

    The book’s surprising bright spot is many writers’ descriptions of the peace and brotherhood they’ve found on death row. Men there have been able to connect with one another and form deep relationships based on shared experience. They understand what it means to miss family milestones, to grapple with heavy guilt, to reach for transformation and sometimes come up empty-handed, to live with the threat of execution hanging over them.

    “We live together, sometimes for 20 or 30 years. We eat together, pray together, elbow each other’s teeth out on the basketball court, borrow each other’s books, teach other to read, draw, play chess, write poetry. When one of us dies, it’s like losing a limb. We are, unexpectedly, friends,” writes one man. His essay is titled “The Huggy Boys,” after a nickname one of the officers gave the death row inmates.

    Another writes, “In the free world, I rarely witnessed acts of kindness; I could probably count all of them on maybe two hands. I discovered that on death row, kindness and compassion are everyday occurrences.” There, many of the men have found what they’d always needed: love and kindness, plus stability and structure. Ironically, while there’s never an official intention of rehabilitating men on death row – what would be the point? – some have actually been able to find a measure of healing there.

    Right Here, Right Now is much more than a death penalty critique. At its heart, the book is about the challenge that has always faced us humans: to see the beauty, dignity, and value in every single person, and to create a society around that. What would it mean to live in a culture that looks at convicted murderers and determinedly sees the humanity there? What would it take to become a society that genuinely serves the least among us before celebrating the achievers?

    We may, slowly, be making some progress. The overreaches of the American criminal justice system over the last few decades are gradually being recognized and addressed. New approaches like restorative justice are gaining ground. And the death penalty appears to be losing popularity around the country. But there will always be more we can do to treat those who commit crimes with love and compassion, acknowledging just how often the victimizer was first a victim.

    Contributed By AmandaAbrams Amanda Abrams

    Amanda Abrams is a freelance journalist based in Durham, North Carolina.

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