The old man in the cell asked the chief if he believed those words, wondering what would come upon his death. The chief answered as best he could, then went home. Later, another member of the police force asked the chief about his visit. In their discussion about the death penalty, the chief said there is only one way to execute a man that isn't cruel and unusual punishment. Tell him he's set free, let him walk a ways beyond the prison gates, and shoot him in the back of the head.
Those scenes from the '80s television series In the Heat of the Night have stuck with me for more than twenty years. I think of those scenes more often at some times than others, but many, many times over the course of the years. I think of them especially as I, too, focus on the state of Georgia and the fate of Kelly Gissendaner. She's been awaiting her execution since early 1997; after all, that's what people on death row are doing--waiting for the day they die.
In the name of not executing an innocent person, the average time waiting for execution is now well over 15 years. In those years, most prisoners are isolated from the prison population. Some spend 23 hours a day in their cell. Mostly, they just wait, pondering the day that they die. I can't imagine anything like that. Yes, I wish we would abolish the death penalty, but even more than that, I wish we respected the humanity of inmates.
I have never met Kelly. I was inside Metro State Prison when she was housed there. The facility closed in 2011. Part of the tour, though, was naming the fact that the prison housed the only woman on death row. That information was given the same as the fact that we could speak to the women, but they could not speak to us first. The thing I remember most about visiting the prison, though, was that there was hope inside those walls--a wonderfully surprising amount of hope.
They had a puppy training program. Some of those puppies would become seeing eye dogs. It was a sought after privilege to work in that program. One of the women who held a squirming puppy and told us about the program remains one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. The scars on her arms, scars I recognized were from drug use, made no difference in her beauty. I can still see her haunting blue eyes. I was there because of the prison chaplain, so we saw their Bible study room and music practice room and all the things that were part of her work there. The women affectionately called her "Chap" and asked to hug her even though touching was against the rules. She politely declined.
Classmates of mine taught in the certificate program my seminary launched at that prison. Kelly is one of the people who earned that certificate. The Metro State Prison choir came to our seminary chapel for a concert. It was easy to forget they were inmates as they stood on the floor of the chapel in choir robes. Their shoes made me remember. Then, once I paid attention, I saw the guards around the chapel. The van was parked as close as it possibly could be to that chapel. It had to take an act of God to get them there, but there they were, singing their hearts out in a packed church.
Hope. Faith. Gospel: nothing is ever so broken it cannot be redeemed. I saw those things inside prison walls, taking over lives and people who were broken. A justice system that offers little hope is broken. A justice system that mostly just keeps people inside walls is broken. We can do better, for Kelly, who it seems will die on Monday, and for so many others.