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Dark prison cell with light reflected through window bars on the wall
Photo by BrilliantEye on iStock

Living on death row is like a fish sinking into deep, dark water. Many find the pressure debilitating, while others create their own light in the darkness.

In my state of Texas, I am one of 185 people on death row, sentenced to be killed by the state. Texas has executed 581 people since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a four-year ban on capital punishment in 1976. That’s the most executions by any state in modern history. 

A whopping 279 of those executions took place from 2001 to 2014 under Gov. Rick Perry, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. That’s the most under any governor in U.S. history.

Oklahoma has had the second-highest number of executions at 120, far behind Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center

On my death row, we are all individually segregated from each other in our own cells. Our cell is the only space over which we have control on a daily basis — a space that provides relief but, somehow, still feels alienating. 

A sense of indifference is common among the corrections officers on our death row unit, although it varies, depending on the officer. Some officers are not intentionally cruel; they just lack the will and power to fix the flaws in the system. 

For example, when I receive cold food that should be hot, many guards just shrug their shoulders. Few are food service managers, so they have no authority to order the kitchen to do better. As a result, I either eat cold food, or no food at all.  

This culture of indifference and inaction is perpetuated by statewide policies — which I know because I’ve lived in eight different units operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The most chaotic aspect of incarceration under the department’s supervision is the suddenness with which events can happen. Whether it be a shakedown, a random riot, an abrupt transfer to another unit or even a policy change, these situations are all vexing. 

Envision yourself kayaking down a river and suddenly being drawn in by a whirlpool. Prison can be as chaotic. Just as you might try to paddle futilely against the current, incarcerated people struggle to adjust to the sudden chaos in prison — which inevitably leads to occasional panic too. 

On execution days, I live in all this chaos and darkness a mere 30 steps or so from the chained prisoners, who are escorted outside my cell’s rectangular window. I have watched as a transport van drives away down a dirt road, carrying a life toward death. 

In those moments, what I witness hardly seems real. In those moments, I wonder how I can invest in a reality that will outlive me. The most significant answer I have embraced is focusing the time I have left on investing in other people.

Compressed in time by a looming execution, one person may focus on exercising, while another may focus on painting pictures. But the habits, traditions and the kaleidoscopic community we have created here are collectively ours — fragile and destructible as they may be.

On death row, I live with a paradox: I am isolated yet connected, independent yet bonded. I find it somewhat ironic that a person can learn to live life in a place where they were sent to die. 

The illuminating success of our community is the ways in which we build one another up, rather than the ways in which we might tear one another down. Every word of encouragement, every shared laugh, item of food donated or magazine passed along is a positive investment in our community. 

Meeting newcomers who are unused to this positivity makes me happy and sad. Happy because they have found an uplifting community at last, but sad because this may be the last place they will have community.

The uplifting support of outside groups also brightens our sunken world. Public ostracization by numerous media outlets banishes death row prisoners from civil society, but when volunteer groups express their compassionate humanity and support our well-being through music, food, letters and visits, we are reminded of the surface world and our best nature.

I wonder if it is fair to say that our death row unit houses prisoners who are transformed. Fish who live in the depths of the ocean might exist under crippling pressure, but they shine in their illumination. 

Similarly, on some level, choosing to build new life skills on death row has its own radiance — a subtle glow amidst a world deprived of color. 

On death row, I have learned that life — even one compressed by heavy pressure — is still worth living.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

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.

Chef C is a writer incarcerated in Texas. He uses a pseudonym.