Shared Emotional Connection
While membership lays down the foundation, and fulfillment of needs shows community interactions and proactivity, it is the shared emotional connection that unites death row inmates and solidifies the community. One way the Texas death row inmates connected emotionally was through their living conditions and experiences within the Ellis Correctional Unit. Inmates in the past and present have little control over their living conditions and their quality of life. Prison administration systems can fail to provide fundamental care to inmates, and can manipulate bureaucracy in order to cut corners at the expense of inmates. And correctional officers can abuse their power by using cruel forms of punishment on inmates, ranging from physical abuse to long periods of solitary confinement. While each inmate experiences different types of misconduct, they share an emotional connection in their relatively powerless state, along with their emotional desire for change. In late January of 1992, death row inmate Ponchi Wilkerson experienced racism and physical abuse at the hands of two correctional officers. Ponchi shares his account of what happened with the newsletter, not for “sympathy”, but to encourage other inmates to speak up about the misconduct and abuse they have experienced. Ponchi mentions that while not everyone has experienced abuse, they have seen and heard about the abuse encountered by other inmates. The coordinators (editors) of this issue also released a statement praising Ponchi for speaking up, and condemning the “dehumanizing system” and the atrocities the inmates have experienced. Again, while not every inmates is abused or neglected, it is evident the community is aware of the inadequacies and failures of the prison administration, and connected by their experiences of misconduct.
In another way, death row inmates share an emotional connection towards their eventual fate. Most, if not all of the inmates who worked on or read the What’s Happening newsletters were executed by lethal injection. While the civilian population will never know what emotions and psychological effects come with a capital punishment sentencings, last words and statements by executed individuals give some insight into the human qualities and emotions felt by death row inmates. In the second edition of the newsletter, the coordinators published a farewell statement by James Russell, written a day before his execution. James writes that he will “take your love beyond this madness with me” and “build a more beautiful tower of love and compassion”. James ends his statement with “The state can not murder me anymore. I love you.”
The coordinators do not share their reason for publishing the farewell statement. Perhaps they are abiding by the wishes of the deceased, perhaps they are giving other inmates the chance to grieve and say goodbye to James Russell through his statement, or perhaps they included it to allow inmates to connect and unite in their experience and their fate. While the cause is unknown, the inclusion of the statement reveals an emotional and sympathetic community. James most likely developed individual friendship with other death row inmates, but yet he addressed the entire community as “my friends”. The fact that James wrote a farewell statement shows the emotional connection he had to the community, and the inclusion of his statements suggest that the community reciprocated his feelings, and was sympathetic towards his execution. Based on the facts of his case, it is undeniable that James Russell committed his crimes. But it is also undeniable that James showed some evidence of warmth, self-improvement, and empathy through his statement. The farewell statement and its inclusion in the newsletter challenges some of the inmate stereotypes held by the general population, and reveals a more sophisticated, humane, and emotionally developed side of a death row inmate, full of “love” and “compassion”.