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Human Rights
United States

Cell 38
Solitary confinement on Death Row in Georgia State Prison
turns Brandon Astor Jones to wondering what the consequences will be.

Brandon with Glenys Alderton, who is organizing the fighting fund for his retrial. The so-called ‘Corrections Officer’ (CO) says: ‘I’ll give you some things to clean up with in there, in a minute...’ Then the barred gate slides shut behind me, the steel-plate door closes and he has gone.

Less than 20 yards from the electric chair, cell 38 is a chamber filled with the silent ghost of deafening preludes to deaths past and, alas, future. My senses reel from mental exhaustion. I find myself stretched out atop the steel bunk.

To the right the toilet is less than 18 inches away. The sink – perhaps 15 inches above – is stopped up. The standing water in it has a sickly reddish hue. There is excrement scattered here and there on the outer rim of the commode.

On the slime-beige wall, perhaps a foot away, there is evidence of recently faded, yellowish streams that must be urine. To the left, a few feet above the rust-brown concrete floor, a pencil scrawl has been gouged into the wall: ‘I will act the way I am treated, so help me god!’

I am cold and shivering. There are fans blowing somewhere, creating a bone-chilling draft. I am dressed in a pair of socks and boxer shorts. Six hours later – I think – a sweatshirt and jumpsuit are brought to me.

I foolishly ask CO Hunter: ‘What time is it?’ He looks down into the cell and at his watch and says: ‘I can’t tell you that.’ He returns in what seems like an hour and it occurs to me that part of my punishment must be for me to lose all sense of what day or time it is. There is a middle-aged woman wearing a thick black jacket with him. I wish I had her jacket.

‘Dr Johnson!’ the man in the next cell shouts. I assume she is the mental-healthcare giver. When CO Hunter and the doctor leave the cell next door I scream: ‘How much time did the man have who was in this cell?’

‘He’ll be on the streets in three years,’ my neighbor reports. Then he goes silent. A while later he adds: ‘Yeah, man, they beat the [expletive] out of him just last Monday!’

‘Is he a Black man?’ I ask.

‘You know it. Who else they goin’ to beat on?’

‘Yeah. It figures,’ I say.

I explore my thoughts, most of which are questions without answers. Visions of a faceless man, who occupied cell 38 before me, invade my wandering senses. Did he write the cryptic message on the wall? Is he stricken with rage, anger and madness? Did they set in motion the ticking clock that will have rendered him little more than a walking time-bomb three years hence? Which community will he explode in? No matter which one it turns out to be, it will be one of those that remained silent while the COs brutalized him in cell 38. If he does explode, that community will say: ‘Let’s get tougher on crime and prisoners!’

Light comes into the darkness as CO Perry opens the steel-plate door. Two prison orderlies walk up to the gate and push a plunger, a mop and some scouring cleanser through the bars. First I free the drain. I scrub the walls and toilet, and I mop the floor. The air changes. They leave. For a while I am warm from the activity. Sleep overtakes me.

Early-morning rays of sunlight have seeped through the steel door’s eight-by-six Plexiglas window. I can hear a lot of hurried footsteps and scuffling. Moments later I can see the heads of COs rumbling by the little window and I can hear what sounds like the nearly unconscious – and no doubt chained – body of another prisoner being dragged by. I hear the steel-plate door, two cells down the line, being unlocked and flung open, the handcuffs and leg-irons being removed. Then there is quiet for a moment, and from somewhere deep within a guttural moan escapes from his place of confinement. I hear the cell door shut, double-locked with a key. The COs file by 38’s little window. There is the sound of hands slapping, perhaps in the ‘high-five’ manner. Because he is in profile I can only see half of the sick smile on Sergeant McCord’s face. Then, as quickly as the group came, they leave.

Shortly afterwards I see the heads of Warden AG Thomas and a number of his high-ranking followers go by, en route to the cell that Sergeant McCord and his henchmen have just left. Some of them are chattering like a curious class of fifth-graders out on a field trip to their local zoo. One is laughing, but I cannot see her face. They linger at the cell of the beaten man. They seem amused.

Now there is more than one person laughing. This time the laughing is louder, but still I cannot see who the laugh belongs to because the little window is filled with the face of the warden. He peers in at me. We make eye contact. Then he produces that practised ‘political grin’ and nods his head in silent recognition of my presence in his ‘hole’. I nod back. I do not smile. Then he and his minions vanish from view.

I ponder in sadness that the majority of Americans are begging for much more of what goes on in these cells. Suddenly a chilling fear of – and for – society engulfs me as I remember the poignant pencil message scrawled on the wall.

Thirteen days still to go.

Brandon Astor Jones, originally convicted as an accessory to armed robbery, has been on Death Row for 18 years. In September he faces a retrial. A fighting fund has been set up and can be contacted by email: [email protected]

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Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997

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