Dispatches | June 20, 2014

litOnLockdown (2)

By Alison Balaskovits

Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at literatureonlockdown@gmail.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is Tom WS Richey. 

There’s over four hundred headstones. At least seven rows of sixty. But they’re unlike anything you’d see in a public cemetery. They’re flat rectangular stones no bigger than a letterbox set flush into the earth, each bearing a number, no name. There are no flowers, and the surrounding grass hasn’t been clipped in some time.

The graveyard is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, its top coiled with razor wire, though I can’t explain why; prisoners there are unable get out and no prisoner is trying to get in. As large as a football field, the graveyard lays between the prison baseball yard and one of the cellblocks. The times I’ve stood at the fence, capable of reading some of the numbers that appear in no sequential order, I’m gripped by the past, by the curiosity of how these prisoners came to lay before me, just represented by a number in the ground. Why did their families refuse to take possession of their bodies? Didn’t they have loved ones? Had they served so long in prison, they became no more than a memory to all those who knew them? What were the circumstances of their death? Questions flooded my mind.

The lowest numbered stone I can see is a 10, and I suspect this two-digit number belongs to one of the first felons in the Washington State Penitentiary, which has stood for over a century. The highest numbers have five digits. Currently, Washington State issues six-digit numbers. My eyes are drawn to a three-digit number: ?55. The stone is newer, replacing the old stone that had obviously become so weathered, they couldn’t read the first number so they replaced it with a question mark. It indicates they maintained few or no records of the men laid to rest.

Fear sprouts from the dread that settles my stomach as my eyes drift over the numbered stones. I don’t want to be laid to rest here so far from Britain, my home, confined for eternity. But I’m all too aware it could come to that. I’m 45 now, approaching my 28th year in prison. Growing old in a penitentiary isn’t how I imagined my life would be.

I left Britain in 1985, at the age of seventeen. Sylvester Stallone influenced my decision. I’d watched his film, ‘First Blood,’ a year earlier and it made an impression on my immature young mind. I wanted to be a Special Forces soldier just like the Rambo character. My dad, an American, encouraged me to join the US Army’s elite forces. Jobs were scarce under Margaret Thatcher’s regime, so I thought I’d give the army a try. I promised my mom I’d return after a three-year tour of duty. By then, I hoped to have an idea of what to do with my life.

Things went well for a while. In the months ahead, I became an Army Airborne Ranger. I returned home in December 1985 for thirty days leave. But the joy on my mom’s face over having her son home for Christmas would be removed a few months later when I was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. I took LSD, had a bad bender, and shot two people, killing one.

When I came to my senses the following day, I turned myself into Tacoma authorities and confessed, preparing to face punishment for my actions. I didn’t expect the sentence of 65 years a judge handed down. But I’m in no position to complain. My senseless actions took a life and destroyed so many others including those I loved most: my parents.

A few months later, police in Ohio arrested my brother, Kenny, for arson and murder. The prosecutor would use my admission of guilt to tar him with the same brush, which led to his conviction. He stayed on death row for twenty-one years before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals finally overturned his flawed conviction and freed him. Yet, the brother I knew died on death row. The broken man he became would see his way back into prison. I feel responsible for that.

My actions at the age of eighteen were akin to throwing a grenade into a crowd. The shrapnel hit many people. I deserved punishment for that, and I’ve never believed otherwise. But, when I began my sentence in 1986, I couldn’t fathom the prospect of spending decades in prison.  When we’re young, our lives seem to have no expiration date. I deluded myself with the belief that, in time, Washington officials would realize I wasn’t a bad person; that I had made a bad mistake and was worthy of a second chance at life. I hadn’t been in trouble before. Surely that would count for something? I can’t say how many years I hung onto that hope. The trouble with hope is that it’s light as a feather, but when you carry it long enough, it begins to weigh you down.

I’ve now served more years than I thought possible. The young man I remember has died along with his dreams and all that seems to be left is an aging body full of regret. There’s nothing worse than taking a person’s life. You can never give it back. I can never heal the shrapnel wounds that scar those I’m responsible for hurting. I admit, sometimes when I focus too much on what I cannot fix, I’m visited by temptation to take my own life. Some people will say it’s an outcome I deserve. I’m in no position to argue against that. I committed an unforgivable act so I understand the opinions of those who regard me with disdain and wish the worst for me. I find no fault in that. No fault at all.

Yet, I must hold on because I can’t inflict more pain on my mom and brothers. I’ve been the cause of too much of that in this lifetime. So I find myself hanging on in this cloister cave of misery. In time, my mom will pass as my dad did a few years ago, and so too will my brothers.

The graveyard chills me. I know I’m looking at my future. I know I might resurrect hope to keep me going a little longer and that it will all be in vain. I realize that the graves before me probably tell stories similar to mine, of men struggling through lengthy sentences, holding on while their loved ones die, leaving them no one to claim their bodies when, finally, hope dies along with them. Is this what my life will amount to? A rectangular block of concrete with the number 929444 stamped into it?

Perhaps I deserve no more than that.

Tom WS Richey’s work has appeared previously in British publications such as “The Guardian”, “The Independent” and “The Edinburgh Evening News”. His book, “Kenny Richey; Death Row Scot” was published in the UK by Black & White Publishing in 2005.