This month, Carolina Justice Policy Center Intern Olivia Pennoyer visited an inmate on death row. She documented her experience in an essay:
This summer I met a man on death row. Usually when this fact finds its way into conversations with friends and family, they ask questions: Why? Were you scared? What did you say?
To answer the first, this summer I had the incredible opportunity of interning with the Carolina Justice Policy Center and the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in downtown Durham. Both of these organizations are comprised of some of the most talented criminal justice reform attorneys in North Carolina. I chose to apply to these community partners because even as a freshman in college, I knew I wanted to learn more about the system. My life leading up to this work had been reading statistics about race, poverty, privatization and the law, but my research was only scratching the surface. In order to be truly informed, I had to dive head first into the work that would inevitably lead me to meeting a prisoner on death row.
In relation to fear, I felt none. Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina definitely is intimidating though. Located only a five minute drive from a busy intersection and a smattering of fast food restaurants, it’s funny to think I could have driven right by it and have never even known it was there. The buildings themselves are placed back behind barbed wire and high walls. Once I passed the initial guard’s post and walked up to the front doors, I was met with grim fluorescent lighting and a front desk with two more guards. I have heard horror stories from female attorneys in my office, but luckily, I have yet to experience any sort of guard harassment. Next, I climbed onto an elevator with no buttons. It was operated by a man watching me from behind a glass mirror. Those tense few seconds before the elevator doors opened were probably the only moments that scared me. I was genuinely worried someone would forget I was in there. Finally, I checked in again with three more guards and there, through the window, I could see several men in bright blood orange jumpsuits.
Now, I’m sitting across from him, and I have redacted his name to respect his privacy. There is a glass window between us that has to be more than 6 inches thick. And we talk. He tells me about his favorite NPR stations, delivers a few solid Trump jokes, discusses the most recent books he has read and tells me how eager he is for George Martin to finish Game of Thrones already! We sit for two and half hours. In this time, we have managed to cover everything from Led Zeppelin to Cesar Millan, and he has left me with a lot to think about.
He was convicted before I was even born as are many of the men on death row in North Carolina. He told me about his time in the military, and I think about how much respect is given to veterans in normal day to day life in my community. He asked me about iPods. As an inmate, he had never seen or used one. Our technological cultures are so different that it feels impossible to wrap my head around. There were aspects of our lives that overlapped in dramatic ways, and yet I left feeling that I had never met a man more isolated from modern life.
We, as a society, have a habit of treating people like they are disposable; this visit has solidified that to me. We imagine the men on death row as Jeffrey Dahlmers or Ted Bundys, but if you seek it out, you realize that is not who is there. The conversation I had with this inmate could have taken place anywhere. We could have been talking over dinner or run into each other at a shopping mall. He could have been a childhood friend of my dad’s who came over to visit. The truth is I genuinely enjoyed spending time with him, and he enjoyed talking to me as well. His attorneys have told me he receives visits few and far between and any human interaction is a positive one. In all honesty, I plan to visit him again on Monday. When we fail to face our humanity, we risk losing it all together.