Human Rights
United States

Thinking of you, Amelia
A fragment of wood on death row in Georgia turns Brandon Astor Jones
to writing for a three-year-old friend in Liverpool.

‘The food here is so tasteless you could eat a meal ...
[then] belch, and it wouldn’t remind you of anything.’
Redd Foxx*

Brendon Astor Jones. photo courtesy of GLENYS ALDERTON Sensory deprivation can cause unusual, even strange responses. Prisoners are among the most deprived in all so-called ‘civilized societies’. As a consequence, in an effort to maintain sanity, prisoners create and develop a myriad of coping techniques.

One of the ways I cope is constantly to be on the look-out for a shred of ‘good’ in even the worst of daily prison experiences – a task, I should add, that is not for the faint of heart. For example, I love wood; and unless you like hanging out with a mop or a broom there is little wood to be found in prison.

So I began to compensate for the lack of access to wood by going to the visiting room as often as possible. You see, in the visiting room there are steel posts bolted to the floor, but on top of them there are two-inch-thick circles of wood that serve as stools. Touching that wood is good for my soul. Wood has always fascinated me.

As I do not get very many visits, I had to develop lots of other wood-strategies. I soon gathered up a bunch of wooden pencils. When you hold several wooden pencils in your hand you have, albeit in a somewhat fractured way, a single piece of whatever you want to imagine it to be.

Because I write a lot it was not long before I had worn all of those pencils down to nubs. When I tried to purchase more of them from the prison store, for reasons not entirely clear to me, I learned that wooden pencils are no longer sold. It seems that plastic pencils are all they sell nowadays.

Some time ago a cracked broom was sent into the cell block. When I accidentally dropped the broom, while sweeping out cell 51, a small piece broke away. I turned the broom in and went back to the cell. I picked up the small piece of wood, closed it tightly in my fist and sat down on the bunk. I saw myself in the mirror of my mind’s eye and for a moment I felt like a crying infant whose parent had just shoved a pacifier into its mouth. That tiny piece of wood had brought a quiet calm over the storm that was raging within my wood-deprived soul. Unfortunately that calm did not last. For in less than a week, during a routine cell-search, a corrections officer found and confiscated my tiny wooden treasure.

For three years after that I went without wood. Then one day they served spaghetti, with the usual prison meat sauce poured over it. Prison food is, to speak charitably of it, bland at best. It takes a bit more courage than I have at my disposal to eat a serving of prison spaghetti sauce.

Undaunted in my never-ending quest for something good – even if it looks so bad I dare not eat it – I always stir around in whatever is served. You never can tell what you might find. It is not uncommon to discover a toe nail, roaches, rocks or any kind of hair you can imagine. In that particular batch of meat sauce I found a bay leaf, but surprisingly nothing more.

I picked it out, took it to the cell, washed it off and placed it between two layers of wax paper. I then put it amid the pages of my heaviest book. That was over six months ago. Yeah, yeah, yeah... I know, just because it is all dry, flat and hard that does not make it a fine ebony board, but for me it does share a familial kinship (in a leafy fashion) with the tree of life that is rooted deeply in my soul.

I thought I should share it with you. At three years old, all of this is a little hard for you to understand right now, but one day when your mother shows you this essay, and that old bay leaf, you’ll know I was thinking of you, Amelia.

Brandon Astor Jones has been on death row for many years. He can be written to as G2-51, EF-122216, GDCC, POB 3877, Jackson, Georgia 30233, USA. No executions are expected in Georgia until after the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Atlanta; the Olympic village is just 70 kilometres from death row.

*Redd Foxx was, in my humble opinion, the premier risqué African-American comedian. Were I to describe Mr Foxx in comparison to another I would call him the Will Rogers of color, with a dirty yet pleasant mouth.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 276 magazine cover This article is from the February 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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