Two-thirds of Oklahoma’s death-row inmates have been incarcerated for more than 10 years. Seven of the 45 inmates at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary have been on death row for more than 20 years. One inmate has been there 34 years.
These prisoners are confined in the functional equivalent of solitary confinement, a tremendously stressful situation. After serving a lengthy time in solitary, the prisoners undergo a transformation. These men should no longer be regarded as the worst of the worst. They killed someone when they were younger, but studies show that violent offenders age out of crime. The great majority of them are no longer a threat to public safety. I see them as “the least of these” of the 25th chapter of Matthew.
They live in the basement of H Unit at Big Mac. The cells are roughly 100 square feet with one inmate per cell. Three walls of the cell are concrete. The front wall is also concrete, but has a door with a small window with unbreakable clear material and bars. About 18 inches from the bottom of the door is a bean hole through which the guard pushes a food tray at mealtime. There are two concrete bunks, a sink and a toilet. There are no chairs. The inmate can sit either on a bunk or the floor. The guards come by only at mealtime or for head counts. The inmates cannot see or talk to each other. This is where they spend 23 hours a day.
An inmate is allowed to shower three times a week for five minutes. He is shackled and handcuffed to be transported to the shower. He showers alone.
There is an exercise room that each inmate is allowed to visit one hour each weekday. He is shackled and chained to be transported there. Each inmate is alone while in the room. The room itself is 500 square feet and has four concrete walls, 18 feet high. It is open at the top with iron bars and mesh netting. The equipment consists of an 11-foot-high basketball goal, a basketball and a handball. There is no water fountain and no toilet. If the inmate needs a drink or to go to the bathroom, he cannot return to the exercise room. There is no wind. It is unbearably hot in the summer. Most inmates choose not to go.
They are not allowed contact visits except with their attorneys. Any visitors they receive are in a separate room. They talk through a small window covered by unbreakable clear material. There is a concrete stool for visitors to sit on. There is no bathroom. Most of the men rarely get visitors. There are no religious services.
The inmates are allowed to write and receive letters with outsiders and are allowed to make phone calls three days a week to family members and friends. This is their only respite from solitary confinement.
I am the spiritual adviser for one inmate. I asked him, “When was the last time you saw a tree?” “When was the last time you touched grass?” “When was the last time you heard a bird sing?” When was the last time you hugged your mother?” His answer to all these questions was, “12 years.” He has not been outside in 12 years.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter from a Nazi prison camp in 1943 in which he said, ”Spring is really coming now. In the prison yard there is a thrush which sings beautifully in the morning, and now in the evening too. One is grateful for little things, and that is surely a gain. Good-bye for now.”
Oklahoma denies its death row prisoners even the littlest of things. These conditions are not considered cruel and unusual in Oklahoma. We call them animals and monsters and deny that they are made in God’s image. Capital punishment will end in Oklahoma only when we realize that we are better than this.
The Rev. Don Heath is a Disciples of Christ minister in Edmond and Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty chairman.