How an hour can represent a lifetime
I was banged up in a cell last week. Luckily it was a stunt and I could walk free after 60 minutes, but the incarceration made me start to understand how incredibly hard life is for prisoners in solitary confinement.
I arrived at a church near Trafalgar Square and introduced myself. A volunteer led me to the cell, and I blanched. Although I was volunteering, nothing can prepare you for being locked in a cage just 9 feet by 6 – it really does look tiny. A bed, a toilet and sink, a locker, a hook for a towel, a shelf with some books. This is how over 3000 American citizens spend their lives – on Death Row.
The cell is being displayed by the charity Reprieve to draw attention to the case of Linda Carty, a British citizen who is imprisoned in Texas and due to be executed any day now. At trial, she was represented by a lawyer who had only met her for 15 minutes, and she was implicated for murder by two men, in a plea-bargain deal to save their own skins. This led to Linda, a Sunday school teacher, receiving the death penalty. Reprieve’s prison cell exhibition is aptly entitled “Death’s Waiting Room”.
I went inside, perched on the hard bed, tried to make myself comfortable. The whole cell was as small as my greyhound’s racing kennel used to be. When I mentioned this to a Reprieve volunteer, he reminded me that the drugs used in lethal injection have been banned for use on animals as they are ineffective and inhumane. You really couldn’t treat your dog as badly as America treats some of its human beings.
While spending an hour in the cell, in solidarity with Linda, I wrote a letter to my penfriend on Death Row in Alabama. Slowly, details from his letters made sense. He told me he couldn’t exercise and now I understood why – there is no room even to run on the spot, as space is taken up by a toilet and sink. He spends 23 hours out of 24 in this cell – the boredom must be unthinkable. The average time a prisoner spends in this way before his appeals run out and he is finally executed is an incredible 12 years. Whatever your view on capital punishment, this isn’t fair – the execution is the penalty, not the years of being left to rot. At least when Saddam Hussein was convicted, his death followed soon after.
After an hour, my time in the cell was up, but something strange had happened: the enclosure had started to feel strangely comfortable, secure. While strangers were peering in, something had shifted within me from feeling like an exhibit to starting to feel safe, doing my own thing, protected by the walls all around me. I felt uncomfortable leaving and even asked to stay longer, which I did.
The whole experience was immensely thought provoking. I’d known it would be interesting, but I hadn’t allowed for the depth of my emotional response. Throughout the day, a video of Linda played in a loop on the tiny TV in the cell. Initially I tuned this out and got on with writing my letter, but slowly it began to penetrate. On the 20th play of Linda Carty singing Amazing Grace I was finally compelled to stop and listen. I damn near cried.
“Death’s Waiting Room” runs until 5 September so if you pass near Trafalgar Square, do take a few minutes to pop around the back of St Martin in the Fields and see it for yourself.