Living while waiting to die: Writings from inside death row

Living while waiting to die: Writings from inside death row

Paul Brown (Photo: NCCADP)

Meet Paul Brown, a man living while waiting to die. He has been on North Carolina’s death row since 2000, awaiting an execution that may never come. He makes no excuses for his crime, and he doesn’t lament his punishment. He began writing a few years ago simply to answer the question: How do I make something of the life I have left?

His essays offer a rare window into death row, one of the most isolated places on earth. His stories offer no simple conclusions; they are the record of a complicated and broken life. Yet, they speak poignantly to what it means to be human.

This summer, the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty shared some of Paul’s writings on its blog. Below you will find excerpts as well as links to each of the essays in the series.

Speaking from the grave: An introduction

I live; subjugated. I live under the judgment of my conscience; unforgiven…I’m alive and still asking, “What can I do ?” The human spirit is peculiar in that even when you want to give up and die, it will still find ways to live and grow; it won’t let you quit… Even as I await death, I don’t know how to stop being human. I’m not really sure what to do though, so I write.

Shake it off: Witnessing murder at age 10 

It was a Saturday in August, a perfect summer afternoon. As I was about to toss the next pitch, two figures emerged from the wood… [One of them] had a shotgun slung over his shoulder…I thought maybe he was just taking it home to put away. I was more annoyed at the way they just strolled through the field. Like they owned the place, holding up our game. When they finally passed, I got set to pitch, but everyone else took off, running as fast as they could. I called after them, “Hey, where ya’ll goin’? I want my ups!” I was so intent on winning the game: I wanted my turn at bat. As soon as I had spoken, I heard the shot.

Nurturing new life on death row: Caring for a family of geese in the prison yard

There were no discussions or meetings; everyone just knew instinctively to care for the birds. Being forced to live in an unnatural setting that devalues life, the birds have given us a chance to behave in life-affirming ways. Having no contact with our families for such a long time — for some of us, it’s been more than twenty years since we’ve had any meaningful human contact — the instinct to care still comes naturally. It is really good to see, and to know. Some of us are barely hospitable with each other, yet we’re all attentive and accommodating to the birds.

A whirlwind: Visiting with a 5-year-old granddaughter through bars and glass

Guilt rains down on my head like brimstone when I think of the challenges she’ll face, knowing that I’m supposed to be there to help her navigate the pitfalls she won’t be able to see or anticipate. I try to be creative and say grandfatherly things, and hope they’ll somehow make a difference in her life. I know I must speak with assurance even though my own circumstances are tenuous… After only minutes, she said, “I wanna go home.”

Kristin Collins is the Associate Director of Public Information at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. This compilation of Paul Brown’s writings was first published on the blog of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.