Voices from Death Row

The book cover for Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row. The words of the title are on top of an image of a Black man as well as text from letters from people on death row.
Image from Hidden Voices

A priest came to NC to wash the feet of those on death row, a re-creation of the way Jesus served his disciples on the night he was arrested. A new book called Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row recounts one prisoner’s reaction:

I’m considered to be the scum of the State…. Christ would serve the lowest of the low without hesitation. Seen through the eyes of Christ, there is no better or worse.

Our society considers the incarcerated to be scum and thugs worthy of civic dismissal. Even those in prisons themselves have internalized this narrative. The priest’s act so shocked the other men that many chose to remain in their cells, unable to stomach such a break from cultural norms.

Another man on death row in North Carolina — where 12 people who received a death sentence have been exonerated — read an article about a group called Hidden Voices. He was so intrigued by their work that he tore out the piece, gave it to a programs director, and asked if a representative could come. This incarcerated man refused to accept the narrative that he was something other than a human made in God’s image.

Lynden Harris was that representative. Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices, an arts collective whose mission is “to challenge, strengthen, and connect our diverse communities through the transformative power of story.” It is her calling to bring these often ignored stories to the fore so that the rest of us reckon with ways people are harmed and how we can work to be agents of healing, rather than passively ignore the needs around us.

Harris meets with these hidden voices — the homeless, the newly literate, military service members, or survivors of sexual violence — and leads them to collaborate on a project: a play, an exhibit, or, in this case, a book that collects experiences from dozens of men on death row, voices that, Harris writes, “we hide in dark obscurity.”

Right Here, Right Now, edited by Harris, features nearly 100 vignettes from those on death row about racism, police misconduct, and family violence but also instances of innocence, intimacy, beauty in nature, and longing. The stories are arranged chronologically, from early childhood up through up through the days where those on the row had to face the reality of the death chamber.

Photograph of editor of Right Here Right Now Lynden Harris standing in front of a hutch filled with plates.
Artist and editor Lynden Harris. Image from Duke University Press.

Stories are a defining feature of Harris’ life. “We understand in story form, in narrative…. That’s the architecture of how we make meaning in the world,” Harris said when we spoke. A story “lives inside you,” she said. “They enable us to make heart connections.”

The U.S. is the only remaining country in our hemisphere to practice the death penalty.

Over eight years, Hidden Voices’ collaboration with men living on death row evolved and includes two plays, a series of story cycles, two traveling exhibits, and most recently this collection of life stories in Right Here, Right Now.

But the first stage in the project was to sit down and speak with a group of six men on death row. To a man, each said his primary goal would be for people on the outside to see those on death row as more than monsters.

Harris was moved, saying, “They have this capacity for love and tenderness and caretaking.” Rather than seeing these men only as damaged people, “we have these profoundly human people…in spite of everything.”

The “everything” Harris refers to the individual horror stories from these men before and during incarceration as well as institutional data. With only 5% of the world’s population, the United States still houses 25% of the world’s prisoners. We have a higher rate of incarceration than anyone in the world. There are more Black men in our correctional system than were enslaved in 1850. Not only does incarceration define us as a nation — we spend more money per prisoner than we do per student — but execution also plays a prominent role. We’ve executed hundreds since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 and nearly 16,000 since 1700. And over just the past 45 years, authorities have exonerated and freed 187 people. The U.S. is the only remaining country in our hemisphere to practice the death penalty.

This system harms everyone: murder victims’ family members, the family and friends of those executed, corrections officers, prison wardens, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and so many more.

Right Here, Right Now requires a response from its readers. One’s emotional bandwidth is expanded, despite any efforts to distance oneself. Harris gathered these pages “to help connect and humanize” those who didn’t go through what these men endured. But the book also calls people to engage our ineffective criminal legal system.

A Christian cross mounted on top of a death house building in Texas. The building is surrounded by a brick wall topped with barbed wire.
A cross on top of a death house in Texas. Image from Scott Langley.

That arc of understanding to activism begins with seeing those in prison not as monsters but as humans. It begins with being willing to consider whether or not punishment truly changes people or simply satisfies an understandable yet unsatisfiable drive for revenge.

Harris said her deepest hope for Right Here, Right Now is that it “moves us out of a space of being afraid of a stereotype and into a space of connecting with reality.” Scripture tells us that God draws and shapes people with love, not that justice equals punishment. Reality tells us that humans bear God’s image — even when people bring or experience harm — not that committing a crime makes one less human.

It all begins with being willing to see those incarcerated humans as humans

There are options beyond execution, beyond life without parole. Organizations and cities around the country are turning to community-based violence prevention, violence interrupters, restorative justice, police-free schools, and other methods and frameworks that allow for responses to violence that recognize and understand the trauma that often produces violence.

At times, we are all in need of having the dirt washed off our feet. We also need to be willing to stoop down in a gesture of cultural reversal and defiance against barriers. We are all human beings together.

Harris’ book suggests that it all begins with being willing to see those incarcerated humans as humans capable of perpetrating trauma and experiencing trauma, humans capable of harm but also in need of healing — just like each one of us.

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Sam Heath

Sam Heath

Sam works at Equal Justice USA as the manager for their Evangelical Network, a national group doing criminal legal system and racial equity work.