Photo by HarshLight (CC BY 2.0)

Bang! Bang! Bang!

“Mail call! What’s your number?” yelled the guard as he beat my rickety cell door with his pale, meaty fist.

Startled out of my subconscious, I droned a response: “Nine, nine, nine, three, seven, seven.”

I am lying on my hard, lumpy mattress, which consists of a stiff, plastic sleeve, stuffed with what feel like a bunch of golf balls. Lying on a bed of dirt would be more comfortable. 

The dingy, white death row uniform I am wearing is a jumpsuit of sorts, made of a denim-type material. The letters “DR” are painted on the back and on the front of the left leg. The thin, gray socks attempt to keep my feet warm. My head is propped up with the old, thread-bare blanket I was issued. 

“Here,” balked the guard in a voice that let me know he is disgusted with me, and slid two letters under my cell door.

It took my mind a second to register the letters on the floor. Once the realization hit, I leapt off my bed, took three big steps to the doorway, and snatched up my mail from the cold, concrete floor. From the evening light that struggled to squeeze through the tiny window in the back wall of my cell, I read the front of each envelope. One from mom and dad, and one from Sara, the mother of my son.

My breath is stifled, and my heart is beating hard and fast. I was starving for communication outside of these steel and concrete walls — especially from my family.

My hands trembled as I read the letter from Sara first. Although our relationship was deteriorating, I was missing her terribly. Holding her letter brought me comfort: the softness of the paper she handled, and the scent she left on it. I soaked up her words like a dry sponge touching water for the first time. Her loving words left me aching for more. I did not realize she was experiencing as much pain and suffering from being apart as I was. 

I read her letter so fast that I had to read it again to make sure I did not miss anything. I read it a third time, slower still, because I needed this reprieve from the darkness that plagued me since my arrival on death row, at that point nearly three weeks prior. I clung to her words like a drowning man clinging to a life preserver in the middle of the ocean.

Reluctantly, I placed her letter on my bare desk, which was nothing more than a thick sheet of metal welded to the wall, right next to my metal bunk that was also welded to the floor. The desk and bunk were dingy and rusted in several spots.

I took a deep breath and opened my mom and dad’s letter. My dad is not much of a writer, so mom wrote for both of them. Their letters are always full of love, comfort and encouragement — things I desperately needed to hear to keep from being swallowed by the darkness. It would have been too easy to let go. 

As I did with Sara’s letter, I read my parent’s letter a second and third time, basking in the comfort with each pass. I missed them so much. I could not begin to imagine what they were going through. Children are not supposed to die before their parents. I placed this letter next to Sara’s and sat on my bed.

It is cold in my cell, which tells me it is still winter outside. The heaters do not work — no surprise there. Nothing seems to work right around here. To operate my steel-encased wall light, you have to beat the front of it. One or two hard hits turns it on, four or five hard hits turns it off. I am surprised the light bulbs have not shattered yet. 

The toilet is the only thing that works properly. It is a stainless steel sink-toilet combo bolted to a stainless steel wall. When it rains, water trickles through the various cracks in the walls — which is probably why my cell smells like a moldy, wet dog.

As I sat atop my bed, the pain and horror of my situation began to creep back in. I was soon consumed with despair. The jury foreman’s words haunted me, “We, the jury, find the defendant, Kenneth Vodochodsky, guilty of capital murder of a peace officer.” 

And then there was the voice of the judge, “I hereby sentence you to death.” All for a crime I didn’t commit. What a nightmare. 

“When will I wake up?” I wondered aloud for the thousandth time. “How the hell did this happen?”

I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could, struggling to block out the memories. Tears began to stream down my face, hot and accusing, puddling on my lap. My eyes are red, puffy and hurt to the touch. I no longer bothered to wipe away the tears. My nose was on fire from attempting to wipe away all the snot that seemed to be trying to keep pace with the tears that were running down my face.

At times like this, I was grateful to at least be in a cell by myself. The sight of a grown man breaking down and crying can be disturbing. And in prison, it is a sign of weakness. If you are perceived as weak, the predators will come after you. Being surrounded by a pack of convicted killers was another reason to be grateful for a cell to myself. And the guards? Their looks of disgust and hatred were overwhelming. I shivered from the fear, the unknown.

I pulled my knees up to my chest, tightly wrapped my arms around them, and rested my chin on top. I took a deep, shuttering breath. The tears were now down to a trickle. I thought to myself, again for the umpteenth time, “What am I gonna do now? Am I going to die here?”

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.

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Kenneth Vodochodsky

Kenneth Vodochodsky is a writer incarcerated in Texas. He has been incarcerated since 1999 and spent four-and-a-half years on death row before his case was overturned.