It’s rather sad, and pretty enlightening, being on Death Row. Every day you wake up and you know exactly what your reality is. Regardless of whether it will happen or not, the cold hard facts — at least for me — is that they are going to kill me one day.
They are going to take me to a funky room, strap me to a bed, stick needles into my arms, then after opening a “viewing curtain” so people can watch, they are going to pump five to seven grams of liquid fire into my body until I am graveyard dead.
That cold hard reality, however, gives me something special. Facing it, wrestling with it, coming to terms with it, even accepting it — up to a point, that is — makes each and every moment, each interaction with another person… everything… into something so, so special and of the greatest worth.
And then, something comes along — something we can’t really even square up to and fight. The Death penalty I can fight through the courts. But this new thing from distant shores just showed up like a thief in the night. Man, you can’t even see it so that you put up a respectable battle. I’m talking about the “Beer Virus,” the Chinese Flu, Wuhan Flu, the Coronavirus or just simply COVID-19. It arrived here, threw everything off kilter and all out of whack. It took a heavy toll on those of us here on “The Row.”
Now, most folks see home as a place. I don’t. Home, to me, is people. It’s where you see those around you reflected in yourself, and yourself reflected in those around you. I’ve been here at San Quentin since late 1996. I got here when I was just 20 years old. This place will never be my HOME, but it has become a sort of home, nonetheless. COVID-19 came into my home and left with a few of my friends and associates. I guess since this is a sort of home, it took part of the family. Sadly, it took the following men:
Richard Stitely. An old fella with a bit of Texas in his talk. I called him Godfather sometimes, or Trog (meaning Troglodyte). I played cards with him almost everyday for a good 15 years while he was on my yard. The guy’s ears would kind of flap when he shook his head. Guess they done flapped him on home.
Johnny Avila, from down around Fresno. I spent years on the yard with him. He was quick tempered, kind of short, but not a bad dude. He used to read a Native American legend or tow at AMI Services.
Manuel Alvarez. He was a big old cat from Cuba. I called him Cuba, too, or Elián (after Elián Gonzales from the early 2000s). Ole boy, spoke okay English, but when he got all riled up, man, he couldn’t speak a lick of English no more ‘cause all the Cubano came out. He used to like the Yankees. Only he couldn’t never pronounce “Yankees” right. The man would say “Jankees!” Old Elián is swimmin’ home.
Dewayne Cary. He was a good brother from down around L.A. way. I played basketball with him and against him. He had a little game, too. The man was a United States Navy Veteran. Well, fair winds and flowing waters, I’ll stand and salute the flag for ya.
Joseph Cordova. I didn’t know him personally, but I would see him at the same table and in the same seat on the yard playing cards. He rolled around in a wheelchair, and I believe they called him Geezer. Roll on, old son.
Troy Ashmus. I called him Humphrey for reasons unknown to me, though I wish I could have thought to ask. He was creative as all get out, too. If you gave him some beads and maybe a bit of leather, and the dude would come up with all sorts of cool stuff.
Jeffrey Hawkins. He was an old school convict. It seemed like he had been doing time since he was just a kid. He was a good man though, and he had a good heart. He’s free now.
John Beames. We called him JB. He was a big fella with a mane of hair you could see from way, way afar and he always had a smile. The guy bought me some art supplies one time for no other reason than he heard I needed some, and I barely knew him then, too. Things like that help one remember that we are still human after all.
David Reed, Scott Erskine, Lonnie Franklin, John Abel, and Thomas Potts. I can’t for sure say if I knew them all or not. Then again, they, like so many of us might have had a nickname and that’s what I would have known them by. Nonetheless, they all, I am certain, contributed to the ambiance that can only be found here on Death Row in whatever way they could.
All these men, and maybe more, were taken from us prematurely by a microscopic virus they couldn’t even see to go to battle against. In their own ways, they will be remembered and missed. See you fellas on the other side of them Pearly Gates; just don’t be trying to chip up them streets of gold and go stickin’ the chips in your socks. Heck, wait till I get there, at least.
These men all came here for whatever it was they came here for. And, after many years and a whole lot of thought, I’ve come to realize that whatever it was that a man may have done, didn’t do, and left undone in his past life before coming to prison and/or Death Row, no longer matters in the same way. Maybe they took a life or two, but after years spent here where they took none, they stopped being murderers. They were no longer to be judged by those honest but harsh standards by which dang near all convicts and ex-cons are so often judged.
Think about this. I mean, if you once got caught cheating on a test at school would you like to be known as a cheater, along with seemingly forever being judged as such, for the rest of your life even if you never once did it again? Most people recoil at that and pretty vociferously think, “Heck, no!”
Well, these guys came here and, it is my fervent belief, changed. They grew up and matured, they evolved, and they found some sort of redemption and rehabilitation that made them into better men, human beings, children of God, and just plain ole decent fellas.
So it became, or becomes, not about whatever you did, didn’t do, or left undone, but about what you do with it. How you honor it in a good and higher way. How you learn from it all and share that learning. How you strive to make it all mean something, a little less on the human-level and much more on the level of the divine.
I, for one, just have to believe that these men, friends of a sort, even family members in some convoluted way, touched the lives of the men in here and lives out of here too. Especially mine, in their own ways, and that they found their own meaning, their own purpose, right here in this dank and dark earthbound purgatory. And God bless ‘em all for it. May these men all rest in peace, fly with angels, and pop up in our minds now and then.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.