Poems on Death Row

Last month I shared part of a letter from my prison pen pal “Jon”, in which he talked about the crucial role of books and libraries in rehabilitating criminals. Jon and his co-defendant have just been convicted of a double homicide during a burglary, and now he is waiting for the jury to decide whether to sentence him to life without parole or the death penalty. He writes about his trial:

“The hardest parts were when family members of the departed testified. Then when some of my ex-girlfriends and family I haven’t seen in years testified on my behalf, I was shocked to hear all the good they had to say, but it did hurt a lot as well. I know I’ll likely never get out, but it makes it harder to see and be reminded of all the harm I caused to others, and of all the opportunities I had at having a happy life.”

It’s a sad commentary on the brutality of prison life that Jon, age 30, says he’d actually prefer the death sentence:

“I do not want to die, of course, but on death row I can live in solitude and peace. With life without, I will be forced to have a cellie, and be around others. That is a very negative environment for me, and I don’t believe I can handle it. I cannot focus around others at all. Also considering I walked away from the racist prison politics in my past, it can be rough for me, and I would likely be forced to violence, or not be able to contain myself. I suppose the best way to explain my feelings is to pose a question. Would you choose to live for twenty years in peace and then die, or would you choose to live 50-70 years in torture?”

Given that it’s taken the state of California seven years to bring Jon’s case to trial, his estimate of 20 years to execution may be close to the truth.

Meanwhile, here are some poems he’s been writing while he waits to learn what his future holds.


With bare walls of graffiti,
cut and carved, etched and written.
Halls of hallowed curses,
and purses held on paper.
Smitten with the photos,
of foes and scarlet maidens.
Lost souls, cups for bowls,
salvation becomes the answer.
Animals are cockroaches,
or perhaps the spider that can eat them.
Rats are thieves, swift in the night,
taking crumbs, and leaving their stench.
Light comes through the cracks,
on benches made of stone.
Whispers travel dreamily in silence,
in an alliance of shujin prayers.
Listening closely to the air,
a gentle remedy, defeats the dark.



Clanging chains and rattling hopes
awaiting an outcome
that should surely come to death
there’s no gray lines
no more right and wrong
just have patience
the verdict might come soon
Were they so surprised
that I told the truth
and was it such a shock
when I explained pro-death
waiting for results
to see what they’ll decide
will they understand true justice
or will they cower down inside


When the Sun Goes Down

There was a sunset in the sky
and a fabrication in the stars
it’s falling into darkness
never near nor far
the coldness will come soon
consuming all the warmths
of all the temples’ stones–
What is left will be a shell
of just another shattered youth

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