Imagine living alone, for the most part, on the very edge of a huge mountainside where a vertical drop into eternity awaits at your feet. It snows, rains, sleets, hails and freezes only to thaw into a torrential river that rushes over your feet and legs in an effort to pull you from your perch.
Daily, rocks and boulders crash and tumble over and around you. The sun burns you and winds chill you to the bone while you are forced to exist on a crumbling ledge barely a foot wide from which you get no reprieve and cannot leave.
You are only able to partake in the smallest fraction of the world’s knowledge, thoughts, and collected wisdom. You know it will never be enough nor of the right type. Trapped at the very precipice of Death’s domicile, you eke out life and you survive.
This has been my life here on death row for the last 25 years. Until now.
I’ve said it before and will say it here once again: Being sentenced to death and sent to death row was the best thing that ever happened to me. Sad? Yeah. Cold hard truth? Absolutely.
I got here when I was 20 years old. This place is pretty much all I know because I have never been anywhere else. Death row is where I grew up, where I became a man. It’s where I rediscovered God in the most deeply profound and personally real way. It’s where I discovered and have endeavored to become my most true, real and authentic self. I’ve made true friends here, friends who I consider my family. This is the place where I discovered life and learned the art of truly living.
This is something that is really hard to say and admit, but San Quentin State Prison’s very own earthbound purgatory in California — with all that comes with it and all the men I have grown up amongst and from whom I learned — has been my home.
Home, to me, is a place where you see yourself reflected in those around you, and find that those around you are reflected in yourself. For me, that’s death row.
But now I’m facing the prospect of leaving, and strangely, I find myself not wanting to. After all these years, it has become a place of comfort.
A few weeks back, I applied for a pilot program by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that allowed qualified individuals on death row to transfer to another prison.
I had initially been leery of this new program because CDCR sometimes acts without forethought, putting people in situations that could endanger their personal safety and well-being. I decided to apply, though, in the hopes of one day getting released.
Here in California, if you were 25 years old or younger when you committed your main offense and have a fixed sentence, you are able to get out on parole after 15 to 25 years. If you are over 50 years old and have served 30 years, you can also apply for compassionate release.
If these laws become applicable to those of us on death row or with life without the possibility of parole, I could be released one day, especially if I were able to transfer to a prison that offered the kind of classes, programs, and group sessions that I need.
I took the plunge, went to the committee and got myself approved to transfer, and am now waiting for a bed to open up and a ride to get there.
I feel somewhat fearful, anxious, sad and hopeful to be leaving. There will be sudden and drastic changes that will be new and alien to me. I’ll no longer be handcuffed every time I leave my cell, will have more freedom of movement and will be around a bunch of people I don’t know. I also have misgivings about suddenly having a cellie after being alone in a cell for the last 27 years. Heck, if I were them, I wouldn’t be comfortable moving into a cell with me!
I will have to adapt and adjust, something I haven’t had to do for 25 years. This must be what it’s like to leave one’s childhood home and family when they finally set out on their own.
The honest to God truth is that I really don’t want to leave death row and go to another prison. I actually like it here. I like the way we do our time. I like and love the cerebral, sort of introspective and introverted vibe that I have found here. I enjoy the peacefulness of this place along with its predictability. I don’t want to leave my best friend, spiritual companion and brother behind. Nor do I want to leave all these men who have become a part of my life through the lessons they taught me, the laughs, the camaraderie and the plain-old goodness that shines through them here in the darkest of places.
Leaving will really suck, even though I know I must.
I am now preparing to leave the narrow and crumbling mountainside ledge that has become my home, not only to help myself prepare for future possibilities, but also to try to help others in prison by sharing the lessons I’ve learned and the wisdom I have gained there. I want to help them with their struggles, rehabilitation efforts and their lives.
I arrived a messed up kid and have grown into the man I am today. Knowing that I could one day be executed brought me a special, unique brand of wisdom and perspective, and I want to share this with others.
I leave with a heavy heart — but I will be cautiously spreading my wings as I try to find my own path in my quest to positively impact lives.
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.