All I can see now is a blackbird on a barbed-wire fence. I met prisoner 120258 in a maximum-security prison yesterday, and he showed me freedom like I’ve never seen. We walked into the prison located northwest of Nashville, and after security check, the guard led us toward the pods. I looked up and saw a black bird on a barbed-wire fence, perched between prison and release.
The security guard walked us through the courtyard, grey skies above. More birds startled from inside the prisoner’s cage and flew over our heads as we walked past. The buzzer rang and we walked into death row. As the harsh noise entered my ears, fear flooded my mind. I was walking into a room with convicts of the worst degree.
Ron grabbed my hand before I knew who he was and he gave me a hug, as though we were already friends. He guided us into a small room for visitors, and my jaw dropped. Ron spent his yearly allowance to make two dozen pepperoni burritos for us—the best food he’ll eat all year—and he spread it out on a tabletop made of cardboard.
He makes a mean burrito, for sure, but he can make just about anything. He uses his limited free time in prison to make bracelets, earrings, and key fobs. He sends them to my friend, Logan, who distributes them to the outside. Logan met him on a school project, they kept up through letters, and now, she brought us back to visit Ron. Within minutes I knew why Logan had come back. Ron makes the best of things. He told us, “You’ve got no one to impress here in prison,” Ron said.
Here’s who Ron is: he wants to create a suicide hotline so when people call, they talk to death row inmates on the other end; he wants to start a guide dog training program inside the prison to help the blind; another idea of his is taking root—they just started growing vegetables in a hydroponics garden so prisoners can eat fresh food.
Tennessee alone holds 80 death row inmates, sixty of whom have no regular visitors. Yesterday, I saw the person behind inmate number 120258, just one lonely soul of eighty. And that’s just death row in one prison. Over a million people sleep inside a North American correctional facility every year. I visit one person, one time and I think I’m doing something great. Imagine if all of us living on the outside had the attitude of Ron on the inside.
During Ron’s first years on death row, he lived in the old prison they shut down for “inhumane conditions.” Rats the size of cats crawled on inmates as they slept, but Ron made the best of it. The windows were busted out, so he trained the birds to scare rats away by feeding them bread just outside his prison door.
Today, death row inmates are allowed at least an hour of light each day, inside the prisoners “cage” as they call it. Ron still feeds the birds, not to scare away rats anymore, but to have company. I visited Ron only once so far, but I’m sure that every time he sees daylight with the birds inside the barbed-wire fence, he gives them more than bread.
Photo credit: Kevin Banks. Music credit: Tony Anderson.