Death row welcomes you Visiting hours in the shadow of the execution chamber

Steven Hale

Book - 2024

"Combining topics such as crime, death, and life inside prison, an award-winning journalist, writing with humanity, empathy and insight, and gaining unprecedented access, traces the interwoven lives of condemned prisoners and the men and women who come to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution to visit them"--

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Brooklyn : Melville House 2024.
Main Author
Steven Hale (author)
Physical Description
xii, 276 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 261-276).
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

In 2018, journalist Hale attended his first execution in Tennessee as a media representative. The state's first execution in nine years, it was surrounded by controversial questions about finding suitable drugs. Following this restart, inmates, many of whom spent decades on Death Row, began to see their own dates set, and their passionate supporters faced the prospect of losing men with whom they had built yearslong relationships. Hale joins their ranks, getting to know the men and writing about their lives, which often share similar traumas. Hale is honest about their crimes, never forgetting their victims. He also portrays their supporters, many driven by their Christian faith to remain by their sides, even standing vigil as they face execution. His advocacy becomes deeply personal as he witnesses additional executions and assesses the toll these experiences have on him. Hale's chronicle is an affecting and important contribution to discussions about the death penalty, especially with its focus on the grassroots supporters for Death Row inmates. There is crucial inside information here and a sense of urgency as execution dates are set and arrive.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In 2018, when reporting on Tennessee's first execution in over 10 years, journalist Hale became intrigued by a group standing vigil at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. As Hale relates in his moving and musical debut, this small but devoted coterie of regular death row visitors had formed haphazardly over the previous decade and hadn't considered themselves activists. Some were journalists who had reported on death row; most began as religious practitioners visiting in a spiritual capacity and had not expected to develop anti--death penalty beliefs. But as the state planned more executions, the group began to advocate for clemency ("They're trying to kill my friends," one member explains). Hale tracks their growing distress as seven inmates are executed over two years. He also outlines his own gut-wrenching conversion to their point of view, explaining that, though he had previously been anti--death penalty, he had not viscerally felt the inhumanity of execution until meeting men about to be killed. The group believes such meetings will irrevocably alter anyone's perspective on the morality of execution, and they continuously recruit new visitors for this reason. In graceful prose, Hale brings that ethos to his reporting, offering unflinching portrayals of the executed men, including their crimes, to give a bone-deep sense of their humanity. This beautiful and spiritually uplifting account finds hope in a dark place. (Mar.)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A reporter takes readers inside Tennessee's system of capital punishment. In 2018, following a decade-long hiatus, Tennessee resumed killing death row inmates. As Nashville-based journalist Hale writes, the last time he'd paid much attention to an execution was that of Timothy McVeigh in 2001--though within a decade another 489 people were executed around the country, "and I don't recall being aware of a single one." This harrowing book is sufficient penitence for his innocence, as he recounts his journey into the penal system as an authorized witness to death by lethal injection. He opens with a man who, mentally ill and traumatized in childhood, raped and murdered a 7-year-old girl, which prompts Hale to grapple with the conundrum that frames the discussion around capital punishment. The author evenhandedly presents the victim's side; the little girl's mother, for instance, voiced her dismay that her daughter's story was overshadowed by the murderer's troubled past. On the other hand, if one of his daughters had been the victim, "I would want to light the man on fire myself." Even so, Hale comes down on the side of ending capital punishment, and for several reasons: Juries are sometimes unaware of extenuating circumstances such as mental illness and substance abuse, wrongful convictions are not uncommon, and judges and juries are fallible. Yet, as another victim's relative observes, "if they give you a life sentence it means [you serve only] about thirteen years in jail before you're out." Tennessee's killings came to a temporary halt during the pandemic because vaccines, not lethal drug cocktails, were the order of the day--but this situation has changed again as the pandemic wanes, making it possible that "men on the row would start getting dates and the line would start moving again." A thoughtful, provocative contribution to the literature on the death penalty. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The first execution I remember being aware of is the lethal injection of Timothy McVeigh. I was thirteen when the Oklahoma City Bomber was put to death at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, on June 11, 2001. I cannot claim to have had any precocious thoughts about his crime -- blowing up a federal building, killing 168 people including 19 children -- or his punishment. I remember the pictures of him that appeared on the television and in the newspaper -- his gaunt face and sunken eyes topped with a military-style crew cut, an orange prison uniform hanging on his lean frame. I remember the way his surname's second syllable sounded menacing to my young ears and that the words "lethal injection" conjured for me the image of a hooded man approaching him with a cartoonishly large needle. I never imagined then that I would witness the strange horror of executions myself or that I would come to know some of the men condemned to them. I grew up in a conservative Christian home, on the east coast of Florida, a state with a long history of grisly executions of which it is not particularly ashamed. But if the death penalty ever came up in our house, I don't remember it. I believe my parents would have told a pollster at the time that they supported capital punishment in certain cases; it was not an animating political or religious issue for them, and so it was not a subject on which I felt I inherited a position. They did, however, raise my sister and me in the church, and into a sincere Christian faith. Despite growing up in a community whose politics tended toward the law-and-order Right, I heard far more about the grace of Jesus Christ growing up than I did the state's duty to repay killing with killing. I suppose this is why, at some point in my teenage years, I came to the belief that an earth as it was in heaven would not include the execution of prisoners if it had any prisoners at all. Still, the death penalty remained largely abstract to me, the subject of the occasional adolescent philosophical debate. Nearly 500 executions were carried out in the United States between McVeigh's in 2001 and the day I graduated college -- 485 men and 4 women strapped to a gurney or an electric chair - and I don't recall being aware of a single one. That changed in the late summer of 2011. My wife and I were fresh out of college, newly married, and living in a small condo on the west side of Nashville, Tennessee. She was working nights as a nurse, I was working at a sandwich shop and writing as a freelancer for two local publications -- the since-shuttered City Paper and the alt-weekly Nashville Scene . On the evening of Sept. 21, I was scrolling through Twitter when I started seeing reports from the preposterously named Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison, where a Black man named Troy Davis was set to be executed for the 1989 murder of a police officer in Savannah, Georgia. He'd also been convicted of shooting a man and assaulting another. But for more than twenty years, he'd maintained his innocence. I pulled up a livestream of Democracy Now! and watched rapt as host Amy Goodman reported from outside the prison where crowds were gathered waiting to find out if Davis had been put to death or granted an eleventh-hour reprieve. In the end, it would be both. After the appointed hour came and went, word came that Davis was still alive, and that the execution had been delayed pending a review of his petition for a stay by the Supreme Court of the United States. Several hours later, though, the court denied his request. In a final statement, he expressed condolences to the victim's family, declared his innocence one last time, and asked God to have mercy on those about to execute him.Davis was declared dead shortly after midnight in the central time zone where I was still following on my laptop. The experience lingered with me like a stubborn cold. I was troubled by the possibility that Georgia had executed a man for a crime he didn't commit, but I had not followed the case closely up to that point, and I felt ill-equipped to take a firm stance on his guilt or innocence. I was compelled, though, by the activists and journalists who had insisted that the nation - and the world, even -- knew what the state of Georgia was doing, that it was killing a man behind closed doors. Three years later, Tennessee was planning to do the same, and I was preparing to go behind those doors. The state was set to execute a man named Billy Ray Irick, and I -- then a staff writer at the Scene -- had been selected as one of seven members of the media who would witness it. I'd volunteered without much hesitation, but the truth is I had done very little research on the case or the man at the center of it. I hadn't the slightest idea how Billy Ray Irick became the sort of man capable of the unfathomable crime that sent him to death row, nor the faintest sense of who he'd become in the decades since. I did know that he was one of ten men on Tennessee's death row who were suing the state over the constitutionality of its then-newly adopted and heavily shrouded lethal injection protocol. That was the basis for an order from the Supreme Court of Tennessee on Sept. 25, 2014, calling off the execution which was then less than two weeks away. I was relieved. But the state's invitation to the execution chamber would come again soon. In January 2018, the state supreme court set a new execution date for Irick later that year -- a date the executioners would keep. Over the next two years, Tennessee would execute seven men, and on three occasions I went to the execution chamber to watch them do it. It was an execution spree unseen in Tennessee since the 1940s. As that streak of state killings was just beginning, though, I also received another invitation, this one to the death row visitation gallery. It turns out that for many years, a quiet community has existed in the shadow of Tennessee's execution chamber, one made up of death row prisoners and the men and women who visit them regularly. As I would learn, these gatherings are so ordinary as to be extraordinary and so life-giving as to feel defiant. They prove, I would come to see, that the very premise of death row is false. This book is, in large part, the story of evenings spent in those two places -- the execution chamber and the visitation gallery -- and the lives of the people I have encountered in each of them. It is an attempt to show what our death penalty system has been built to obscure -- the true horror of executions and the full, beautiful, and painful humanity of the condemned. And it is an account of how I went from writing about the men on death row to becoming friends with one of them. The people, experiences and research that make up this book have changed my life. I hope that by preserving them here I can contribute in some small way to the idea that we are, all of us, capable of terrible and beautiful things, that people are so often harmed before they harm others, and that, as the lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson says, each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. This is the story of how I went to death row and found I was welcome. Excerpted from Death Row Welcomes You: Visiting Hours in the Shadow of the Execution Chamber by Steven Hale All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.