By Michael Stark and Laura Rose
“I don t know anybody that deserves to be in here.” These words were spoken by a man who sits on death row in Maryland. In a series of Washington, DC area panels, Tyrone X Gilliam – who may be killed in less than 60 days – spoke live via speaker phone to packed university auditoriums about what it is like to live in the shadow of death.
The forums, titled “Live from Death Row” and sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, have been powerful events. Each has featured an audience discussion with death row prisoners Tyrone X Gilliam and Kenneth Collins. Also participating were Gilliam’s lawyer Jay Nickerson, his mother Mary Gilliam, and his spiritual adviser James Mohammed, as well as Collins’ lawyer Peter Keith.
In auditoriums decorated with enlarged photos of Gilliam and Collins, the panelists spoke about legal issues and personal reflections, as well as made broader arguments about the racism and injustice of the death penalty.
In order to gain public approval for executions, politicians attempt to dehumanize the people who are on death row. They dredge up racist and anti-poor stereotypes and portray prisoners as sub-humans who represent a constant danger to the public.
Repeated over and over is the sentiment that these men and woman are not worthy of sympathy and deserve to die. Gilliam responded to this by saying, “I am a human being, not an animal as the state has tried to make me out to be.”
Gilliam also described the conditions at the SuperMax prison as “psychological terrorism” and said they have become worse over the last month, during which their access to phone calls, hardcover books, and personal clothing were taken away.
These latest attacks on their rights sparked a death row prisoner hunger strike, in which both Gilliam and Collins participated. The hunger strike ended when some of the prisoners’ demands were met, but Gilliam and Collins are reluctant to call the action a victory since many other privileges continue to be revoked.
By providing a venue to hear these stories, the forums have opened a window between death row inmates and the community outside. They offer a new and exciting strategy in the abolitionist movement by allowing the public the opportunity to hear firsthand the voices of people scheduled to die by the state’s hands – and of their families, friends and supporters fighting to keep them alive.
At the second forum, Mary Gilliam arrived at the auditorium in a rush after having witnessed the birth of her newest granddaughter at a Baltimore hospital. She testified to the sadness of having to go from “birth to death.”
Tyrone X described the pain of watching his nieces grow up without ever having “touched them or held them… I think that has been the hardest.”
Discussion participants were visibly moved by hearing the prisoners responses to their questions, which included “What was it like to be on death-row on the night of Maryland’s last execution?”
Even those who came to the events as death penalty supporters have been prompted to reexamine their beliefs. One student at the University of Maryland forum said, “I came here as a supporter of the death penalty, but now I don t see how I can continue to think that way.”
These unprecedented discussions have proven effective in conveying the urgency and reality behind the racist death penalty. The Campaign will continue to present the “Live from Death Row” events in an effort to fight Gilliam’s and Collins’ executions and to build a nationwide movement against this unjust institution.