Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row

I’ve spent a lot of time in prison. Not as an inmate, but instead coaching inmates, helping them craft their personal stories. Stories destined to land on a stage at TEDxDonovanCorrectional in 2017 and 2018. Donovan Correctional Facility is a California State prison, located at the very southern edge of San Diego County, overlooking the international border shared with Mexico.

To say that the experience was profound would be an understatement. Many of these men had spent the majority of their adult lives incarcerated, which in the beginning led me to question whether they had much in the way of wisdom to share with an audience. But over a two year period I continued to be impressed by the insights, the compassion, and the empathy that formed the foundation of their stories. If I had been talking to them on the phone, I would have assumed they were college educated.

The Longform Interview

So when I read the description for the Longform Podcast with Tessie Castillo and George Wilkerson, I dropped everything to have a listen. While I had heard many stories from prison, none of those stories had come from inmates on death row.

“I want other people to see what I see, which is that the men on death row are human beings. They’re incredibly intelligent and insightful and they have so many redemptive qualities…I don’t think I could really convey that as well as if they get their own voice out there. So I wanted this book to be a platform for them and for their voices.”
–Tessie Castillo

“For me, writing was like a form of conversation with myself or with my past, like therapy. So I just chose these periods in my life that I didn’t really understand and that were really powerful and impactful to me, and I just sat down and started writing to understand them and make peace with them.”
–George Wilkerson

Instead of the usual format, whereby host Aaron Lammer interviews an author, in this case Tessie Castillo, the twist to this episode was calling death row inmate George Wilkerson to bring his voice from inside prison to the outside world.

As often happens in life (I could never have predicted that I would spend time coaching inmates inside prison) Tessie had no connection to death row or the death penalty when she met someone at a Super Bowl party who happened to be a psychologist working with death row inmates at a prison in Raleigh, North Carolina.

When she found out that the new warden was permitting classes on death row, Tessie applied to teach a journaling class. Her discovery of who these men had become was similar to my own. It would behove you to spend 43 minutes listening to the interviews. You’ll come to view men on death row in a new light.

Essays From Death Row

Beyond the Longform podcast, and the basis for the conversation, was the book Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row, written by Tessie Castillo and death row inmates: George Wilkerson, Terry Robinson, Michael Braxton, and Lyle May.

Crimson Letters by Tessie Castillo

Through thirty compelling essays written in the prisoners’ own words, Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row offers stories of brutal beatings inside juvenile hall, botched suicide attempts, the terror of the first night on Death Row, the pain of goodbye as a friend is led to execution, and the small acts of humanity that keep hope alive for men living in the shadow of death.

Each carefully crafted personal essay illuminates the complex stew of choice and circumstance that brought four men to Death Row and the cycle of dehumanization and brutality that continues inside prison. At times the men write with humor, at times with despair, at times with deep sensitivity, but always with keen insight and understanding of the common human experience that binds us.

Beginning with the journaling class that she started, Tessie frames the narrative from the perspective of someone who has walked the halls and forged story-based bonds with the men. The series of essays that comprise most of the book take you inside the hearts and minds of these inmates, as well as take you back in time to share the trauma of their childhood experiences.

After spending time with these men and listening to their stories, I don’t claim to know them thoroughly or to fully comprehend why they did what they did. Nor do I defend the crimes of any many on Death Row…But I will defend their humanity because I see it every time I walk through those prison doors.
–Tessie Castillo, excerpt from the Raleigh News & Observer, May 2014

It took me back to my time at Donovan, hearing about lives so different than my own, making it difficult to predict how I would have acted in such circumstances, how my life would have turned out. It’s not a matter of blaming others, or wanting a hall pass for mistakes, but the harsh reality is that downward spirals are challenging, even for the best of us, especially when navigating through a turbulent world of drugs, crime and violence.

The spankings had started a year before our mom left. At first it was just a few pops on the butt every couple weeks or so. But as time went on, the slaps hardened and became more frequent, the bruises took longer to heal. Then he began whipping off his heavy leather belt and the slaps turned into punches that cracked bones.
–George Wilkerson

One of the most difficult aspects of spending sixteen years on Death Row is being stowed away from the outside world. Unlike other facilities, Death Row implements a measure of isolation that wedges a gap in the mental evolution of its denizens.
–Terry Robinson

Our culture was built on three main pillars: Fightin’, stealin’, and gettin’ drunk. Fightin’ was a rite of passage and it determined your position in the hood hierarchy. The better you were at fightin’, the higher your status.
–Michael J. Braxton

In prison, night’s hourglass has extra holes in it. When sleep comes, gone are the plodding daylight hours, confining walls, and thoughts of letters. Sleep is relief for most of us. With this blessed comfort comes dreams of love, companionship, and peace. Desires glow so vivid and deep that reality is a disheartening comparison. Sleep cannot be degraded, beaten or chained. In sleep lies our freedom.
–Lyle May

“I believe that little separates people inside Death Row from those outside it. We are all a complex jumble of hopes, dreams, virtues and mistakes. We strive to be better people. We often fail. Being human is learning to rise again – as these me do, despite the odds – to prove we are more than our worst crime.”
–Tessie Castillo

Time to Reflect

While there is a dark sadness within some of the pages, there is also bright joy that comes from these four big hearts. And though it may not be an intuitive conclusion, as I finished the last page the notion occurred to me that these men have learned more about themselves, and applied that learning to become far more compassionate humans than most of us ever will while we blissfully enjoy our ‘freedom’.

Death Row isn’t a place that lacks humanity, like some people say. It is where humanity is rediscovered and restored. On Death Row the meaningfulness of life tremendously exceeds the inevitability of death. We are all human beings and as such we’re prone to mistakes, but many inmates are simply paradigms of the great fall before triumph. Our humanities are not beyond repair and any judicial system that conceptualizes such nonsense is flawed. To give up on a person’s humanity says a lot about our own. We can never fully share in the humanity of others until we have recognized and repaired our own tendencies towards cruelty and unconscious bias. This means forgiveness, accountability, faith, and in many cases a second chance. No matter our personal or collective opinions, no one will ever deserve to die.
–Terry Robinson

Interviewing From a Historical Perspective

The process of crafting an impactful story often begins with identifying events and insights from your life’s journey, but such stories become more compelling and diverse when they include the experiences of others, as additional voices will broaden and deepen the narrative landscape, allowing audience’s to better understand the point you’re proposing, or the lessons you have learned.

One way to do this is by interviewing people who can offer listeners/readers a perspective that expands beyond yours. As with the disciplines of writing and speaking, interviewing is an art form that one must study and practice. When clients ask me how to conduct interviews I steer them to the On Being podcast, hosted by Krista Tippett.

Her interviews with renowned scholars, writers, poets, scientists, and religious leaders explore the most fundamental and profound questions. What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And who will we be to each other? If you’re looking to sharpen your storytelling skills, consider this podcast is an interviewing masterclass.

The podcast recently replayed a timely episode recorded on November 17, 2016: This History is Long; This History Is Deep – it’s an interview with Isabel Wilkerson. By reading the transcript while listening you can identify when Krista is diving deeper into a particular topic, or moving their conversation into new territory.

…our country is like a really old house. I love old houses. I’ve always lived in old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done. And just when you think you’ve finished one renovation, it’s time to do something else. Something else has gone wrong. ~ Isabel Wilkerson

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95,000 Names – 95,000 Stories

Traditions are an essential element of every culture. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.” Stories, in other words. But not just spoken, as humans are prone to create celebrations based on these stories. Such is the case with Pride Month.

The Christopher Street Liberation Day March took place on Sunday, June 28, 1970, one year after the Stonewall Uprising, and provided the sparks that would ultimately ignite the LGBTQ+ movement for equality. In subsequent years gay pride marches and parades would spread to cities across the United States and throughout the globe. The number of events continued to increase rapidly, and in 1999 President Bill Clinton declared June as “Gay & Lesbian Pride Month.”

The modern version of Pride events are largely celebratory, but a remembrance of those who lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic remains a solemn component. Some five decades later, the month of June 2020 has become a focal point for many others whose lives tragically ended before their time, as COVID-19 deaths approach half a million and protesters take to the streets with voices raised in support of Black Lives Matter, protesting to eliminate extreme police violence.

With Pride events cancelled this year due to the virus, it felt as though origin stories which were threads of the tradition would fail to find a public voice. But last week The Kitchen Sisters broadcast an insightful podcast episode that told one of these stories – 95,000 Names: Gert McMullin, Sewing the Frontline.

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A Decades Long Struggle for Justice as told on The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace continues to be one of my favorite storytelling podcasts with its unique way of bringing forth historical landscapes of people, places and events that traverse the arc of time, deftly infused with an insightful sense of relevance that speaks to current affairs.

With the struggle for racial equality front and center we have an opportunity to take a step back and revisit other struggles which continue to compromise millions of lives. Within the time frame of 8 ½ minutes Nate DiMeo compresses decades of oppression against the LGBTQ community, painting with both broad and fine strokes alike, calling out moments that crushed the dreams of countless lives. Yet love, relentlessly, pushed back the waves of oppression.

On the surface this story may seem dissimilar from the current storyline playing out in city streets, but that one phrase, “to be who they were”, binds these two struggles at the wrist. It’s difficult for me to fully comprehend, to grasp beyond the intellectual, to feel the emotions at a cellular level, to walk the streets and feel compelled, as a matter of survival, to be someone else in order to safely navigate society. 

Beyond the topic laid poetically bare, pay close attention to how Nate weaves the history of one physical place and the souls who passed through its front doors to the national narrative, now his pacing gives us space to assimilate each word and phrase.

A White Horse on The Memory Palace Podcast Read more

Behind the Scenes of The Memory Palace

I’ve been a podcast listener for many years, and at the beginning of my daily walk I’ll open the PocketCasts app on my phone to find an episode that will indulge my storytelling addiction. There are podcasts which live there temporarily – I’ll add and delete as my desires change – but several of them have a permanent slot in my listening rotation.

The Moth, This American Life, 99% Invisible, Radio Diaries, Ear Hustle, The Kitchen Sisters, Longform Podcast and Unfictional are on a brief list of shows that have become long-time audio companions, friends I can trust to expand and challenge my perceptions. Another member of that illustrious list is The Memory Palace, a podcast I fell in love with day one.

Created by storytelling genius Nate DiMeo in 2008, you could say it’s been around the digital block a few times. Nate’s no stranger to audio, having spent a decade plus in public radio and heard on landmark shows such as All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace.

The Memory Palace is not unusual in one sense, as it simply presents historical vignettes about people, places and past events. Its uniqueness is comes from DiMeo’s ability to pull a single thread from a complex tapestry of facts and feelings, then offer it to us as a bespoke narrative. Like a wandering medieval minstrel, he takes his audience on a magical exposition of the past, somehow condensing hours of exposition into mere minutes.

As much as I love the well-polished episodes that he produces, it was a special treat to hear this behind-the-scenes conversation with Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich on storytelling and life. It’s a conversation that revealed pivotal moments early in his career, alongside his passion for, and approach to, crafting stories that can touch people.

Whether you’re a professional storyteller or just aspire to gain a greater mastery of the art, DiMeo’s journey from nearly clueless to consummate creator will change your perspective on telling stories in the digital age.

A Conversation About the Memory Palace with Robert Krulwich

“…the lesson that it showed me, was that audio storytelling on the radio had the power to reach into your life and could change your day…”

 

“…the most profound thing of journalism is finding the real person in there, and being able to draw them out, and to find a type of truth that goes beyond mere facts…”

Learn more about Nate DiMeo in this beautiful article by Sarah Larson in The New Yorker, and this insightful piece by Joshua Barone in the New York Times.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved