Once there's death, there's no more hope

May 15, 2001|By Ricky R. Williams

JESSUP -- I was surprised when a fellow inmate said he was opposed to state-sanctioned executions in one breath and in the next wished a death sentence on himself.

He has served 20 years of a life sentence and said he couldn't accept growing old and dying in prison. He cited the severing of familial ties, the inadequate medical care of older inmates and the treatment they endure from the younger ones who have a blatant disregard for their elders and for life itself.

He spoke of inmates who seem to have lost touch with reality and have given up. Some talk to themselves and no one else. Some do not shower and pick cigarette butts out of the trash and off the floor. Others chase death daily and grow more bitter, hateful, and volatile.

"Before reaching that point of hopeless, uselessness," he said, "I would rather get a lethal substance and a syringe, make my peace with God and release the substance into my vein. I would close my eyes and welcome death."

He was the second lifer in as many days to express this sentiment to me -- no more hope, no sense of purpose.

But why? To circumvent the final indignity exacted upon a lifer by the state: The humiliation of dying alone, slowly and painfully, in a prison hospital ward and then having his emaciated body shipped to the state morgue where the unclaimed are unceremoniously cremated. By injecting himself with a lethal substance, his will to be free would be executed on his own terms.

He had all but justified a death sentence in his mind. I disagreed with him and challenged him to find meaning and purpose by reaching out to someone else.

We talked about at-risk youths. Some regard a life sentence as a joke. They think they will spend a few years in prison, wake up one morning and the bad dream will be over. They don't realize there are men who have been confined in this prison for 30 years and more.

The drama does not unfold like a made-for-TV thriller with a happy, you're-free-to-go-now ending. This nightmare will embrace you as a teen, haunt you for a lifetime and end with you in your grave. Life means life.

We considered younger inmates. Some were raised by criminal elements and have interpreted that upbringing as the only reality. A prison stay does not alter that distortion. Many will one day regain their freedom. Some look to older inmates for guidance on how to survive and serve their sentences.

I asked the lifer if he learned nothing after 20 years in prison. He knew his story could prevent a misguided youth from becoming a murderer or rapist. But his message would die if he injected himself with a lethal substance.

He agreed. His eyes closed. The thought of dying in prison. He shook his head, sighed. The struggle is real.

Some of the best messages ever communicated to society break through the birth canal of immense suffering -- the degradation of man or woman, be it in the form of slavery, a concentration camp or a prison. The human spirit must be unwilling to be conquered by hopelessness.

I believe where there is life there is hope, and a chance at redemption and atonement. I think it would be better if that lifer's story convinced just one person not to violate the sanctity of another human life. Death would deny him that possibility.

Ricky Ricardo Williams, 32, born in Trinidad, raised in New York City and a Long Island suburb, is serving a 30-year sentence in the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup for a drug conviction in 1990.

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