I walked through the gates and had no idea what to expect. As I waited for one gate in particular to open a guard across the chain links remarked, “you look lost, ” and I felt lost. I was entering the first and second gates at Riverbend maximum-security prison in Tennessee. If you’re like me and it’s your first time to a prison, you’re unfamiliar with how gates work. Some open on the guard’s buzzer, while others, such as the one between the truth-speaking guard and me, are on timers. As I waited for the first to completely close before the second one would be permitted to open, I took in the razor wire protruding above my head, pushing down on me as if to remind me that my fate rest in the ground not in the heavens. My mind raced and my palms were sweating as I attempted to remove the lost feeling from my face. The second gate opened and I proceeded.
Once inside, I proceeded alongside my group of three to Unit 2: Death Row. About halfway there we stopped to pray outside the Death Watch chamber: the last place individuals go before they are killed. Our guide, the prison chaplain, explained that many death row inmates have not seen the open sky or touched grass since they entered Riverbend, as their recreational area resembles a dog kennel more than a park. She said the last request of many individuals before entering Death Watch is for a moment to stand on the grass and look at the blue sky: a sight withheld from them for a majority of their lives.
We processed on through more doors and gates before entering the final space where we’d meet the “inmates, ” a term I used going in but won’t use going out. I was scared, nervous more so, but scared as well. Just days before I had been asked why I’d want to see these people: what was I thinking, what was the point? At each question my answers were definitive. But now that I was about to enter the room I felt uncertain: what was I thinking, what if they tried to kill me, they’re murderers after all, right?
The door opened and we moved inside.
The room was primarily white with purple trim on the handrails and doorframes. In front of us was a white table where seven individuals sat in conversation. Slightly to the right of the table stood a row of bookcases about shoulder height dividing the room in half. We moved forward to the table and the seven individuals.
Questions really bombarded my head now. Should I walk around the table, introduce myself, and join in? Or would that end bad? “These are death row inmates!” my mind kept screaming. “They didn’t get here by accident.” While I stood having a debate in my mind, Kevin got up, walked around the table and gave me a hug, introducing himself and protruding a hopefulness that implied this was a Bible Study in a small country church rather than a meeting in death row.
Gradually I walked around the table and met each person: Terry, Don, Derrick, David, Abu, Nickolus, and, again, Kevin. We sat down and began to talk. 90 minutes went by like you were in conversation with a best friend you hadn’t seen in year. We talked about community, fellowship, and faith. We discussed prosecutors and families left behind. They told us about their prayer circle and mentioned their desire for Governor Haslam to come and pray with them (which I’ve heard is now circulating!). I heard statements I’ll never forget: Kevin, “today is the best day of my life, ” and questions I resolved to discern answers to, “what is your stance on the death penalty?” “What are you teaching your congregation?”
The conversation was forward thinking, nothing was in the past. Everything was hopeful; nothing pessimistic. Before leaving one of the individuals I came with asked, “what can we do? What tangible thing can we do?” The response: “tell our story. Tell how you met us and what we were like. Encourage other people to come and visit.”
I left that room broken. My stereotypes no longer fit. I encountered peaceful, kind, thoughtful men, on death row. The words sound cliché but they stand true, that compartment in my brain didn’t exist before this time.
As we walked out I learned a bit more about how the death penalty works. The chaplain told us that prior to each execution a brand new team of guards is brought in to conduct the killing. No guard who has known the men for any period of time can go through with killing them. “It’s much harder to kill someone once you know them” she said. I also learned that just two weeks ago, on Maundy Thursday, the Tennessee House overwhelmingly passed a bill to reinstate the electric chair. Even as I write these words my skin shakes and anger kindles.
When I arrived back at my hotel in downtown Nashville I wasn’t up for much. I turned the basketball game on for a bit but turned it off rather soon after. Before falling asleep I scribbled down these words: Lord have mercy on all of us. Have mercy on the families of those who’ve suffered because of the acts of the men I met today. Have mercy on the men who’ve served decades in prison because of their crimes. And create in us a fire to change the broken systems of justice, to rehabilitate individuals with care, and to break down stereotypes so that we might go and see Jesus in each person.