Authors: Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian (2012, University of North Carolina Press)
Reviewed by Theresa Forsman
If there are fates worse than death, spending decades in a cage with little to do but wait for that death is surely one of them. If capital punishment is “cruel and unusual,” as many have argued, then what can we way about confining a man to a 7-foot by 10-foot cell for 23 hours a day, seven days a week, for 20 to 30 years or longer? In their book In This Timeless Time, Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian show us a place few people know: a Death Row in the United States. Then they show us more—the minds, sometimes coherent and sometimes not—of some of the men who live and die there.
In 1979, Jackson and Christian, a married couple who were, and are, academics, authors, and filmmakers, spent two months on Texas’ Death Row in Huntsville. They photographed, filmed, interviewed and observed, their fieldwork for the documentary film “Death Row,” produced later that year. In This Timeless Time is “what we’ve come to understand about the things we heard and saw on that specific Death Row, about the institutions that created it, and about the process and conditions that maintain and populate all of our Death Rows today.”
The stark black-and-white photographs that dominate the first part of the book are from 1979; the text is up-to-date. Kenny, the African-American man who cut and folded tobacco wrappers into picture frames and crucifixes, received the death penalty in 1977. Four years later, his sentence was reduced to life in prison and he has been eligible for parole since 1997. Those four men hanging out together during their one hour of daily recreation? All have since been put to death by lethal injection—Andy in 1984, Skeet in 1985, Paul in 1994 and Lobo in 1998. Clarence and Jack, the two guys playing dominoes in the recreation room back in ’79, are still on Death Row. Then there’s Kerry Max Cook, shirtless and staring into the camera from his cell. He would spend 18 more years on Death Row before DNA tests proved him innocent. His story became part of an award-winning 2002 play, “The Exonerated,” starring Aidan Quinn, who also played Cook in the 2005 movie of the same name.
Fighting to stay sane: In these pages, Death Row is not a faceless, nameless concept or a socio-political argument. Death Row is human. The people who live there have faces, bodies, thoughts, hopes, prayers and voices. Most are lonely. Most are fighting to stay sane. Some have given up and slipped into psychosis. Each has been convicted of murder, including Ronald O’Bryan, who admitted to killing his son with cyanide-laced candy for the insurance money. O’Bryan died of natural causes two years ago while awaiting a new trial.
After the photos and descriptions of Death Row convicts comes a description of this Death Row itself, its walls and ceilings, plumbing and iron bars, its mealtimes, the guards, the buses that bring the inmates, the trusties who bring the meal trays and mop the floors, the outdoor recreation cage. We are told about the noise and the monotony. We see the lines painted on the hallway floor that restrict prisoners as they walk, one at a time, to their daily shower. We see the televisions bolted to the hallway walls. Because television is an “escape” for the average American, it’s not surprising to read that many of these Death Row inmates closely follow the fictional lives of the soap opera characters they see each weekday.
History of capital punishment: The Death House, where those who have exhausted their appeals spend their last hours alive, contains both a gurney and the obsolete electric chair, last used here in 1964. This second part of the book also describes the legal history of capital punishment in the United States, the seemingly random circumstances that condemn one man and spare the next, the ethnic make-up of those who have received the Death Penalty, the bureaucratic indifference and cruelty of prisons, the obstacles—from incompetent lawyers to photocopying fees to prisoner illiteracy—that plague the appeals process.
In the third, final section of the book, the authors discuss how they obtained such wide-ranging access to this Death Row for two months. Through his research, writing and photography of the U.S. prison system since the mid-1960s, as well as his testimony as an expert witness in federal criminal cases, Jackson had many connections in the publishing world and in the prison and court systems. He and Christian also discuss the risks they took and threats they received during their weeks of filming and interviewing.
In This Timeless Time is a close-up, unsparing look at a place most of us would not otherwise see and at people who generally get little notice after the verdict that condemns them to Death Row. The book is a testament to the power of dogged, committed researchers. This reader is deeply grateful that Jackson and Christian were willing to go where they had to go and do what they had to do to document Death Row—the place, the people and the system.
Theresa Forsman is a longtime member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.