July 16, 2019

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Jarvis's Story: "Dead Man Living"

Not long after the movie Dead Man Walking was shown in theaters all over the country, I felt under my skin that I wanted to see it too. Living on San Quentin's death row made my prospects very unlikely. I wanted to watch the film to see if I could somehow get an up-close glimpse of what being executed would actually be like if it comes. Maybe a movie like this had an inner truth beyond those I was experiencing every single day by being "on the shelf" on death row. If I could see this movie projected onto the back wall of my cell, maybe I could imagine those last frightening hours, minutes, and the tick of the last seconds, and in my own way prepare for what the human psyche goes through in confronting death by execution.

Months after the movie left the theaters a friend sent me a copy of the screenplay of Dead Man Walking.

I awakened in the wee hours of a cold night planning to read the script while death row slept like a troubled Dead Sea. The silence gave me the quiet to hear each page read itself, showing me detailed images. In my mind's eye, I was watching it. As I read, in an almost surreal and frightening way I became the condemned. Then I also became the Warden and his team of executioners who all had a job to do, and we were going to make sure it would be done right. I was also Sister Helen Prejean, whose faith gave her strength and who prayed for humanity. Fitting into the shoes of everyone involved made me suddenly realize at my very depths that capital punishment is not a machine that runs by fuel or electricity alone. Even living here, I hadn't seen the human face of it. I realized I had thought of the gas chamber and the lethal injection apparatus as contraptions. Suddenly, I became almost frozen in fear, thinking that the same guards who could cheerfully chat with me about the Superbowl, or even those who have actually sought my help and advice about keeping their own troubled teenagers away from drugs and peer pressure, could one day be the very guards assigned to carry out my execution.

I had known, of course, that officers I knew participated to some extent. In the Spring of 1998, in the weeks before the execution of Thomas Thompson, I had been shocked to see guards I knew acting stony-faced while escorting him to his last visits with his family. These are people who talk to me every day about something. And the night Thomas Thompson was killed I had been shocked to see officers I know and like on television. They were outside holding batons, overseeing the demonstrators who were vigiling in front of the gate of San Quentin.

I put down the screenplay. I stared at the dark back wall of my cell, where the movie had been "playing," and wrestled with this horrifying possibility. Who among all the many guards I have come to know, the men and women I chat with out in the visiting area with my family, friends and attorneys, are the ones who will have the gruesome assignment of extracting this human being from a death cell, either peacefully or forcibly, and escorting him into the death chamber? Which ones will look into the Warden's eyes, waiting for the nod to begin the execution?

I think of guards who have even talked about taking me trout fishing if I ever get out of prison-men I've come to know over many years in spite of how much this system and prison culture discourages such relationships. Could these same guards, on another cold night like this one, under cover of darkness, instruct me to step up to my cell bars, and then say, "Jarvis, Hey, Buddy, it's that time."?

I stood up to stretch a bit. Looking across the tier to the fenced window in the wall opposite my cell, I rested my arms on my bars. They were so cold. I had no idea what I would want. Would it actually be worse to have a friendly guard come for me? Why would I want some gung-ho s.o.b. to come? But would a friendly guard hurt more?

I watched another day beginning with more on my mind than I'd ever expected from this movie. I distracted myself by trying to guess the time. I figured I probably had less than half an hour of Dead Man Walking left, and I thought I could finish it and still have time for a few minutes of my morning meditation before the sounds I call "prison reveille" began. That's the rusty creak of the wheels on the food cart, followed by, "Lights on, lights on, gentlemen! If you want to eat, stand by your bars." The thick steel doors at the end of the tier crash as the cart comes in, and at the same time, there's the suction roar of dozens of toilets flushing.

I still wanted to take my time reading, not speed through the fragile minutes slipping towards the execution scene. It would happen in these last pages.

In no time, I was back in the last gripping scenes. Sister Prejean, frustrated, sees a prison nurse, goes up to the nurse and asks, "Are you the one who will do it?"

I looked up from the page in my hand to see a woman standing in front of my cell. "So, you aren't meditating this morning, huh?" the smiling nurse asked. I freaked. I had not heard her come onto the tier. For long seconds, I stared into the familiar smiling face of the nurse who stops by my cell every morning to say hello and tell me the time. But now for a moment the ground shook beneath me as I became uncertain whether I had all this time been returning a smile to my executioner.

"Gee, you look ill," said the nurse. "Are you well today?"

"Oh, yes, I'm fine," I answered, taking a deep breath.

"Well...well you let me know if you ever need anything, okay?" she said softly.

"Okay, I will. Thank you," I said, feeling relief as she walked away. Then I jumped up and pressed my cheek into the corner bars and peered down the tier after her, to make sure she was gone.

I never have finished reading Dead Man Walking.