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

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The Modern Story of Strange Fruit, with Dianne Reeves and John Beasley

Racial discrimination is a sad reality throughout the world, and sadly, still a significant aspect of American culture. From the advent of slavery in the South, to fighting a Civil War in hopes of bringing the practice to a close, and the current state of affairs after many centuries. It is a story we wish had never been written. A story whose narrative arc still requires a remedy.

“Strange Fruit” was written 80 years ago describing the horrific practice of lynching innocent African-Americans by white people. It’s unconscionable and unacceptable that lynching is still happening today and also that the justice system failed Ahmaud Arbery. It was only after public widespread outrage followed the release of the horrific video which showed evidence of a racist father-and-son team shooting an unarmed Arbery to death.

John Beasley and Dianne Reeves collaborated on this video as a way to protest the continuing brutality and racism against African-Americans.

Directed & Edited by Anthony C. Santagati
Executive Produced by Aja Burrell Wood
Music Produced and Arranged by Dianne Reeves (vocals) and John Beasley (keyboards)
Nicolas Payton – trumpet
Terreon Gully – drums
Alex Al – bass
Composer: Abel Metropol

Black people are so tired.
They can’t go jogging (#AmaudArbery).
They can’t sleep (#Breonna Taylor+#AiyanaJones)
They can’t walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin).
They can’t relax in the comfort of their own homes (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson).
They can’t ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride).
They can’t have a cellphone (#StephonClark).
They can’t leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards).
They can’t play loud music (#JordanDavis).
They can’t sell CDs (#AltonSterling).
They can’t walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown).
They can’t play cops and robbers (#TamirRice).
They can’t go to church (#Charleston9).
They can’t hold a hair brush while leaving their own bachelor party (#SeanBell).
They can’t party on New Years (#OscarGrant).
They can’t get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland).
They can’t lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile).
They can’t break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones).
They can’t shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford)
They can’t have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher).
They can’t read a book in their own car (#KeithScott).
They can’t be a 10yr old walking with their grandfather (#CliffordGlover).
They can’t decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese).
They can’t ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans).
They can’t cash their check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood).
They can’t take out their wallet (#AmadouDiallo).
They can’t run (#WalterScott).
They can’t breathe (#EricGarner).
They can’t live (#FreddieGray).
They’re tired.
Tired of making hashtags.
Tired of trying to convince you that #BlackLivesMatter too.
Tired of dying.

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Unraveling the Tangled Web of Slavery

One of the beautiful aspects of storytelling in the digital world involves the inclination of the story you’re reading (or watching) to magically lead you by the hand, so to speak, to another relevant and connected story, sort of like a squirrel scampering from one branch to the next.

In my case, this act of magic happens after I receive a Nieman Storyboard email newsletter. Case in point, within the December 27th edition Jacqui Banaszynski mentioned that she looks forward to magazine freelancer Barry Yeoman’s annual list of favorite longform stories.

The 2019 version is a diverse and thought-provoking list, with something for everyone, so do dive right in, there’s a special treat waiting for you there. One story Jacqui highlighted was “The Long Road Home” by Deborah Barfield Berry and Kelley Benham French of USA Today.

The 40 hour journey of Wanda Tucker from Virginia to Luanda, Angola also spans some 400 years, back to the days when Africans were taken from their homeland and forced to live in, what was at the time, the English colonies.

It’s a heartbreaking story, reminding us that certain groups of humans, throughout history and into the present day, believe that having darker skin is proof enough that someone else isn’t completely human. (although it seems more logical that the reverse is true, but I digress)

Those in power justified slavery with the values at the time – prosperity, survival, the cleansing of souls and the expansion of the empire.

Having moved to Portugal a few months ago I’m still in the very early stages of learning about the country’s history, especially those aspects which involve colonization. My naive view had limited that topic to just Brazil, but I am coming to realize the complexity of Portugal’s history.

It was the article on Wanda Tucker that opened my eyes to Portugal’s involvement in Africa, as well as their participation in the slave trade, especially the slave trade in Angola. How did I not know this? Did they not teach me this in school? Or had I conveniently forgotten? I was shocked by the brutality of it all, as slave traders would often capitalize on the dynamics of warring factions within Angola’s borders.

The Portuguese gave guns to Imbangala soldiers in return for slaves. Armed with superior weapons, Imbangala soldiers captured and sold natives on a far larger scale as every new slave translated into a better-armed force of aggressors.

Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans

“Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans, Angola, 1786-87”, Slavery Images:
A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora

Unfortunately, it is all too common to limit an understanding of history to our own, localized situation rather than fully embrace the big picture. While I knew that slaves were brought to America from Africa, my thoughts centered on the plight of these slaves once they were living in the deep south – how they were treated, how they were ultimately emancipated, how they are still treated by many – not on the point of origin, method of capture, or the participation of European countries playing ethnically superior colonial rulers. I was missing half the story.

I’m far from done with my newfound quest to better understand the history of slavery in America, as well as the lingering remnants of ethnic prejudice and discrimination that still exist within much of the population. And this quest will serve as a reminder to look beyond the immediate scope of any (every) story created within the confines of limited knowledge.

Do read the USA Today story about Wanda Tucker, and if you’re in the process of crafting a personal narrative, ask yourself what truths lie one step beyond, one lever deeper. They may help you create a more impactful story.

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We were all humans until…

It had been awhile since this anonymous quote crossed my path, but I recently noticed it on a friend’s social timeline and realized it had achieved a newfound sense of resonance with me.

We were all humans until race disconnected us, religion separated us, politics divided us, and wealth classified us.

From a storytelling perspective it felt as though we had somehow stopped telling our story of connection, commonalty, a shared human heredity, and most importantly, a united future.

Hate and discrimination had somehow become acceptable, with divisiveness and rancor the norm. Religious travel bans, violence against people of color, and the continued verbal and physical abuse of women have defiled what America was striving to become – a land of open arms and caring hearts, a land that opted for hope over fear, that embraced love over hate.

“We are a nation not only of dreamers, but also of fixers. We have looked at our land and people, and said, time and time again, “This is not good enough; we can be better.” – Dan Rather, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism

Multi-Ethnic Hands in Peace

As I continue to work with a wide array of speakers, from universities, research institutes, major corporations, prison inmates, and special forces, I’m reminded that our stories have the power to heal all wounds, bridge all chasms, and unite all humans.

On a daily basis we have the choice to stand up and say, “This is not good enough; we can be better.” In doing so we can change this sadly fractured American narrative. But it requires our stories to be told, our voices to be heard, and our compassion to be felt.

June 2020 Update

It’s been a week since police killed George Floyd on May 25, 2020, adding his name to a lengthy list of victims that now includes: Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, Jeremy McDole, Jonathan Sanders, Ezell Ford, Andy Lopez, Akai Gurley, John Crawford III, Antonio Martin, Walter Scott, Jonny Gammage, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner.

The world grieves, families cry, people take to the streets in protest, while the president of the United States proclaims, “We have our military ready, willing and able, if they ever want to call our military. We can have troops on the ground very quickly.”

The answer? That’s the question on everyone’s mind. I hear various words mentioned – love, empathy, compassion, equality, justice. But words are not an answer. Someone says we need to embrace and celebrate our diversity. I agree, but how do we get from here to there?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Johnson at the White House on July 2, 1964. Though we should remember that Johnson’s signature came after a 54-day filibuster in the United States Senate. Equality was a struggle then, and remains so to this day, nearly 56 years later.

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The Tragic Story of Bail in America

The bail system in American is nothing short of criminal, a tragic story of incarceration for those who lack the funds to get back on the street while awaiting trial. It means being separated from your spouse & children, maybe missing work, and potentially losing your job. It means being guilty until proven innocent, which is about as un-American as it gets.

In an attempt to turn the tide on this tragedy of justice, Robin Steinberg and her husband, both public defenders, founded the Bronx Freedom Fund, and in doing so, attempt to change the story of thousands caught up in an immoral system.

The Bronx Freedom Fund envisions a society that humanizes instead of criminalizes. We restore the presumption of innocence by keeping clients with their families, at their jobs, and out of jail while they await trial. We work tirelessly to fight mass incarceration and the criminalization of race and poverty, and to end the cash bail system as it exists.

A decade later Robin took the stage at TED2018 to talk about The Bail Project, taking the idea to a national level as part of TED’s newly launched Audacious Project.

The Bail Project, by bailing out 160,000 people over the next five years, will become one of the largest non-governmental decarcerations of Americans in history.

What if we ended the injustice of bail? by Robin Steinberg at TED2018


I will never forget the first time I visited a client in jail. The heavy, metal door slammed behind me, and I heard the key turn in the lock. The cement floor underneath me had a sticky film on it that made a ripping sound, like tape being pulled off a box, every time I moved my foot. The only connection to the outside world was a small window placed too high to see. There was a small, square table bolted to the floor and two metal chairs, one on either side.

That was the first time I understood viscerally — just for a fleeting moment — what incarceration might feel like. And I promised myself all those years ago as a young, public defender that I would never, ever forget that feeling. And I never have. It inspired me to fight for each and every one of my clients’ freedom as if it was my own.

Freedom. A concept so fundamental to the American psyche that it is enshrined in our constitution. And yet, America is addicted to imprisonment. From slavery through mass incarceration, it always has been. Look, we all know the shocking numbers. The United States incarcerates more people per capita than almost any nation on the planet.

But what you may not know is that on any given night in America, almost half a million people go to sleep in those concrete jail cells who have not been convicted of anything. These mothers and fathers and sons and daughters are there for one reason and one reason only: they cannot afford to pay the price of their freedom. And that price is called bail.

Now, bail was actually created as a form of conditional release. The theory was simple: set bail at an amount that somebody could afford to pay — they would pay it — it would give them an incentive to come back to court; it would give them some skin in the game. Bail was never intended to be used as punishment. Bail was never intended to hold people in jail cells. And bail was never, ever intended to create a two-tier system of justice: one for the rich and one for everybody else. But that is precisely what it has done.

Seventy-five percent of people in American local jails are there because they cannot pay bail. People like Ramel. On a chilly October afternoon, Ramel was riding his bicycle in his South Bronx neighborhood on his way to a market to pick up a quart of milk. He was stopped by the police. And when he demanded to know why he was being stopped, an argument ensued, and the next thing he knew, he was on the ground in handcuffs, being charged with “riding your bicycle on the sidewalk and resisting arrest.”

He was taken to court, where a judge set 500 dollars bail. But Ramel — he didn’t have 500 dollars. So this 32-year-old father was sent to “The Boat” — a floating jail barge that sits on the East River between a sewage plant and a fish market. That’s right, you heard me. In New York City, in 2018, we have a floating prison barge that sits out there and houses primarily black and brown men who cannot pay their bail.

Let’s talk for a moment about what it means to be in jail even for a few days. Well, it can mean losing your job, losing your home, jeopardizing your immigration status. It may even mean losing custody of your children. A third of sexual victimization by jail staff happens in the first three days in jail, and almost half of all jail deaths, including suicides, happen in that first week.

What’s more, if you’re held in jail on bail, you’re four times more likely to get a jail sentence than if you had been free, and that jail sentence will be three times longer. And if you are black or Latino and cash bail has been set, you are two times more likely to remain stuck in that jail cell than if you were white.

Jail in America is a terrifying, dehumanizing and violent experience. Now imagine for just one moment that it’s you stuck in that jail cell, and you don’t have the 500 dollars to get out. And someone comes along and offers you a way out. “Just plead guilty,” they say. “You can go home back to your job. Just plead guilty. You can kiss your kids goodnight tonight.” So you do what anybody would do in that situation. You plead guilty whether you did it or not. But now you have a criminal record that’s going to follow you for the rest of your life.

Jailing people because they don’t have enough money to pay bail is one of the most unfair, immoral things we do as a society. But it is also expensive and counterproductive. American taxpayers — they spend 14 billion dollars annually holding people in jail cells who haven’t been convicted of anything. That’s 40 million dollars a day.

What’s perhaps more confounding is it doesn’t make us any safer. Research is clear that holding somebody in jail makes you significantly more likely to commit a crime when you get out than if you had been free all along.

Freedom makes all the difference. Low-income communities and communities of color have known that for generations. Together, they have pooled their resources to buy their loved ones freedom for as long as bondage and jail cells existed. But the reach of the criminal legal system has grown too enormous, and the numbers are just too large. Ninety-nine percent of jail growth in America has been the result — over the last 20 years — of pre-trial incarceration.

I have been a public defender for over half my life, and I have stood by and watched thousands of clients as they were dragged into those jail cells because they didn’t have enough money to pay bail. I have watched as questions of justice were subsumed by questions of money, calling into question the legitimacy of the entire American legal system. I am here to say something simple — something obvious, but something urgent. Freedom makes all the difference, and freedom should be free.

But how are we going to make that happen? Well, that’s the question I was wrestling with over a decade ago when I was sitting at a kitchen table with my husband, David, who is also a public defender. We were eating our Chinese takeout and venting about the injustice of it all when David looked up and said, “Why don’t we just start a bail fund, and just start bailing our clients out of jail?” And in that unexpected moment, the idea for the Bronx Freedom Fund was born.

Look, we didn’t know what to expect. There were plenty of people that told us we were crazy and we were going to lose all of the money. People wouldn’t come back because they didn’t have any stake in it. But what if clients did come back? We knew that bail money comes back at the end of a criminal case, so it could come back into the fund, and we could use it over and over again for more and more bail. That was our big bet, and that bet paid off.

Over the past 10 years, we have been paying bails for low-income residents of New York City, and what we have learned has exploded our ideas of why people come back to court and how the criminal legal system itself is operated. Turns out money isn’t what makes people come back to court.

We know this because when the Bronx Freedom Fund pays bail, 96 percent of clients return for every court appearance, laying waste to the myth that it’s money that mattered. It’s powerful evidence that we don’t need cash or ankle bracelets or unnecessary systems of surveillance and supervision. We simply need court reminders — simple court reminders about when to come back to court.

Next, we learned that if you’re held in jail on a misdemeanor, 90 percent of people will plead guilty. But when the fund pays bail, over half the cases are dismissed. And in the entire history of the Bronx Freedom Fund, fewer than two percent of our clients have ever received a jail sentence of any kind.

Ramel, a week later — he was still on the boat, locked in that jail cell. He was on the cusp of losing everything, and he was about to plead guilty, and the Bronx Freedom Fund intervened and paid his bail. Now, reunited with his daughter, he was able to fight his case from outside. Look, it took some time — two years, to be exact — but at the end of that, his case was dismissed in its entirety. For Ramel —

For Ramel, the Bronx Freedom Fund was a lifeline, but for countless other Americans locked in jail cells, there is no freedom fund coming. It’s time to do something about that. It’s time to do something big. It’s time to do something bold. It’s time to do something, maybe, audacious?

We want to take our proven, revolving bail-fund model that we built in the Bronx and spread it across America, attacking the front end of the legal system before incarceration begins.

We’re going to bail out as many people as we can as quickly as we can. Over the next five years, partnering with public defenders and local community organizations, we’re going to set up 40 sites in high-need jurisdictions. The goal is to bail out 160,000 people.

Our strategy leverages the fact that bail money comes back at the end of a case. Data from the Bronx shows that a dollar can be used two or three times a year, creating a massive force multiplier. So a dollar donated today can be used to pay bail for up to 15 people over the next five years. Our strategy also relies on the experience and the wisdom and the leadership of those who have experienced this injustice firsthand.

Each bail project site will be staffed by a team of bail disrupters. These are passionate, dedicated advocates from local communities, many of whom were formerly incarcerated themselves, who will pay bails and support clients while their cases are going through the legal system, providing them with whatever resources and support they may need. Our first two sites are up and running. One in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and one in St. Louis, Missouri. And Ramel? He’s training right now to be a bail disrupter in Queens County, New York.

Our next three sites are ready to launch in Dallas, Detroit and Louisville, Kentucky. The Bail Project will attack the money bail system on an unprecedented scale. We will also listen, collect and elevate and honor the stories of our clients so that we can change hearts and minds, and we will collect critical, national data that we need so we can chart a better path forward so that we do not recreate this system of oppression in just another form. The Bail Project, by bailing out 160,000 people over the next five years, will become one of the largest non-governmental decarcerations of Americans in history.

So look — the criminal legal system, as it exists — it needs to be dismantled. But here’s the thing I know from decades in the system: real, systemic change takes time, and it takes a variety of strategies. So it’s going to take all of us. It’s going to take the civil rights litigators, the community organizers, the academics, the media, the philanthropists, the students, the singers, the poets, and, of course, the voices and efforts of those who are impacted by this system. But here’s what I also know: together, I believe we can end mass incarceration.

But one last thing: those people, sitting in America, in those jail cells, in every corner of the country, who are held in jail on bail bondage, right now — they need a lifeline today. That’s where The Bail Project comes in. We have a proven model, a plan of action, and a growing network of bail disrupters who are audacious enough to dream big and fight hard, one bail at a time, for as long it takes, until true freedom and equal justice are a reality in America.

Thank you.

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