From a distance, an endless 10-metre wall aggressively wraps around the heavily concreted Oklahoma State Penitentiary reminding all that this is a maximum security prison of the highest order.
- Death Row…
Entering the building through a heavily guarded entrance, I sign-in at 8am and leave all belongings at the door including my camera. Immediately I’m ushered down a tight concrete corridor and through a series of heavy steal doors which powerfully open and slam shut behind us as we walk deeper into this fortress. There is no turning back. The prison guard escorting me has no expression on her face.
Twenty metres further in, we reach a small room with eight glass windows facing us, four to my right and four to my left. Each window has a stool in front of it. I am led to window number 2 and sit down nervously. To my right is a phone attached to the wall. There is no keypad, instead it connects directly to a phone on the opposite side of the reinforced glass. I peer through the window cautiously to see a vacant stool sitting in an otherwise small empty concrete room. At the back of the room is a steel door. Suddenly, it swings opens. I jump to my feet. He’s here. I recognise him from a photo. My heart is racing.
By the time the steel door closes again, he’s walked straight up to the window directly in front of me. I take a step forward. We’re only centimetres away. Our eyes lock.
I have never met this man before, but over the past twelve months, we have exchanged hand written letters back and forth in the mail. He is the reason I am here. He invited me. His name is James Mitchell, and he is an inmate on Death Row.
- J-Loc’s on-line profile pic
I feel the urge to shake his hand, but the thick glass separating us denies this. Instead, I make a fist with my right hand and place it centrally on the window. With a big smile, James, or J-Loc as he prefers, does the same. This is as close as we can get. He’s happy to see me. I’m speechless….
“What’s up Seb?”
“Oh mate, I can’t believe we finally meet”
It’s taken me a day of commuting to arrive at this point. Oklahoma State Penitentiary lies in the small country town of McAlester. There is not much here other than cheap motels and dead Raccoons, both lining the bumpy bitumen road through town. Ten minutes out of town I manage to lose my way at a set of crossroads and naturally I look up to the signpost for direction. It reads;
“Do not pick up hitch-hikers as they may be escaped prisoners”
I know I must be near.
Finally I reach the long and windy road that nervously stretches to Death Row. Surprisingly, family homes with kids toys in the front yard sit only minutes from one of the most dangerous places in America.
Stranger yet, as I slowly drive along this road, I notice the first of many groups of people mowing lawns, painting buildings and cleaning paths on the side of the road. It’s some form of community service. Blacks, Whites, Mexicans and Latinos work side by side. They are all wearing some kind of uniform, a dull grey jumpsuit. I slow down to take a closer look and notice that written in faded yellow print across the backs of their shoulders is the word INMATE.
What the hell? I ask out loud. Surely these men aren’t from the other side of the wall?
Immediately I lock the doors, put up the windows and look straight down the road.
Something then glistens in the distance, catching my attention. I squint over the steering wheel and notice a large white building sitting on a small hill ahead, shimmering with razor wire that reflects under the hot Oklahoma sun.
Oklahoma State Penitentiary from the front gate
“What’s up homie?”
“Hey mate! How are you going in there?”
“Hot man! Very hot!”
J-Loc is thirty-two years old. He’s stands at about six foot, and is a good looking guy; this much I could tell from my photo. However in person, I now notice a huge smile and friendly eyes that make me feel comfortable.
James L Mitchell III or J-Loc as he prefers
Twelve months prior to this meeting, J-Loc sent me his first letter. He asked that I be his eyes and ears to the outside world. He wanted to escape his world of darkness as he called it, and live vicariously through others on the outside. He shared ideas and philosophies as insightful as they were refreshing.
Always controlled, J-Loc tried to avoid talking of his plight on Death Row as it got him down, but occasionally he would open up. He was never bitter, just sad.
How can an innocent man be behind bars? he would say, But it’s all good Homie, I believe in justice and God will free me.
Everything was going well until his third letter. I’ll keep the content of the what was said to myself, but in short J-Loc was blatantly flirting with me! I quickly replied with a letter asking him if he knew that I was a guy. His reply simply read;
‘Haha, sorry Homie, I thought you was a chick! It’s all good, at least I don’t have to worry about all that emotional stuff”
Needless to say J-Loc had instantly given my mates a good reason to insist I wear a long blonde wig to this meeting.
J-Loc’s right hand grips a white face cloth. He’s sweating incredibly and uses the cloth to first wipe his shaved head and then his dripping face. The cloth is already drenched.
“Mate, I was going to complain about it being hot out here, but I think you win!”
“It’s all good man, I just came from basketball. It’s hot down there, dog!” Again he smiles.
“Basketball? Were you winning?”
“I always win, Dog!”
We both start laughing. This sets the tone for our chat.
We’re both happy to be here.
J-Loc is wearing damp grey sweat shorts and an even damper grey t-shirt that reads;
Prison Run Against Child Abuse 2007
Ironically, it’s the death of a child that has landed J-Loc behind this window.
On the morning of the 23th July, 2000, J-Loc gave his girlfriend a lift to work, as he had done many times before. Due to the short nature of the trip, they decided to leave his girlfriends two children in bed. They got in the car at 7.30am but his girlfriend had forgotten something so she ran back in the house quickly. After getting back in the car, J-Loc dropped her off at work at 8am and returned home by 8.30am.
When he got back in the house, he noticed that the youngest child had a black eye and was complaining of a sore head. She seemed disorientated and non-responsive. Something was wrong. He immediately rang his girlfriend at work to ask what to do but there was no answer.
Soon after this, the child died.
Doctors at the scene shortly after discovered that the child had died from trauma to the head. This trauma led to brain hemorrhaging occasioning death.
A case of who dunnit immediately arose, both J-Loc and his girlfriend were arrested.
Since this day, J-Loc has been arguing his innocence. He was charged with murder in the first degree, child abuse and sexual abuse of a child. His girlfriend charged with murder in the first degree and child abuse.
Currently, J-loc has been sentenced to death via lethal injection whilst his girlfriend serves life at a separate penitentiary.
“Man, I seen her slapp’n her kids before you know, and said noth’n. Damn, they’re her kids! And when she went back in the house to get something, she must have done someth’n then.”
I just sat and listened, there was nothing I could say. I had been let into a world that I had never experienced. All my senses were peaking.
“The doctor says that a hemorrhage takes a certain amount of time to occur and seeing as I rang her at 8.30am to tell her about the symptoms, they say the blow must have happened roughly two hours prior, which means something happened at about 6.30am, right?”
“So then she says to the police that she’s been at work that day since 6am, so it couldn’t have been her! I know I dropped her off at 8.00am and so I got them to check her sign-in card at work and sure enough it say says 8am. We caught her lying, dog.”
Granted I was only listening to one side of the story, but I understood what was being said. I was in no position to question, but there was one thing that had taken me by surprise.
“So what about the sexual abuse charge? What’s happened?”
“I didn’t rape no child, man. She just said that so the jury would immediately hate me. As soon as the thought of a black man raping a child is raised, well I’m done for whether I did it or not.”
My lack of knowledge on criminal law and procedures limited my ability to understand all the ins and outs of the his case, but still I didn’t understand how something like this could just be fabricated without proof.
“They had a doctor check the child at the scene and there was no proof of penetration or anything else. Of the three charges, that’s the one I fought first! I never raped no child!”
J-Loc spoke like he had a point to prove.
“So what happened to the charge?” I asked cautiously,
“I beat it, and it got thrown out, man.”
I was relieved,
“She lied, man. But it worked, because the jury already hated me, so now I’m still fighting the other two charges”
The more he spoke, the more it became clear that he had spent a lot of time defending his case. Times were precise, wording exact, and conviction flawless.
“But that’s my saving grace, that’s what keeps me going, my innocence. I’m not going to die in here. I stay strong, but at the same time if I have to die in here simply to prove my innocence, I’ll do it. And if that in some way helps other who are wrongfully imprisoned as well, well I’m willing to die.”
J-loc spoke with a calmness and assertiveness that captivated me. With nothing do but think all day, I imagine that you could go one of two ways; crazy or empowered. J-Loc was certainly the latter. J-Loc had spent two stints in Death Row totaling 8 years. In this time, he had studied many religions and had found a peace within that confused me. He spoke as if sat at a park bench in the middle of suburbia, his temperament and attitude not fitting of a man that was scheduled to die.
“I don’t believe in justice anymore. If that existed I wouldn’t be here. Instead I believe in one God. Prison guards here sell inmates stuff illegally just to make money and so how can I trust in a system that is run by these people”
Looking at J-Loc’s quaint demeanor, I couldn’t help but feel enraged at the corruption that he was alluding to.
Justice is an ideal based on fairness, and it seemed that this justice is only as strong as the honesty of us as people. J-Loc had a point.
I hardly said a word within the first hour of sitting down. Instead I listened. J-Loc on the other hand spoke endlessly; he had a lot to say. Usually confined to his cells for 23 hours of the day, this meeting gave him an opportunity to escape his cell. This, he told me, would also give his cell mate a chance to relieve himself with a Playboy magazine that they had.
“There’s nothing worse than being in the cell when you gotta go you know, man! He’s crazy anyway!”
Again we found laughter in a place far from humor, but this time I felt bad as I was afraid it might echo to other inmates within the jail who might not have the opportunity to laugh too often.
Whilst chatting to J-Loc, a lady who I had met in the entrance earlier, sat down at window number 1 to my left. She was from Holland and told me that she was visiting her husband who was also on Death Row. I noticed she was in high spirits and seemed really bubbly.
“How often do you come and visit ?”I asked,
I was impressed, that was commitment.
“I’ve moved here for the last month, you see he’s being executed on July 9th”
The sobering reality of Death Row hit me flush in the face.
I couldn’t even come close to comprehending the situation that she was in. I asked if she was alright, and she just smiled.
As I continued to speak to J-Loc, I couldn’t help but notice that her meeting was very intimate, and very loving.
J-Loc noticed that I kept looking over, and whispered
“That man’s being killed in 2 weeks”
“What did he do?” I asked
“Oh man, he murdered someone. He’s not an aggressive man, but he just snapped one time. Most people in here are like that”
Again, I just listened,
“She met him whilst he was in here, she found his profile on a database, started writing and soon they got married”
“What? Really? Married like that?” J-Loc nodded.
I had heard of this happening but still couldn’t understand this. I suppose some people get lonely on the inside and outside.
“You wanna see my girls?” J-Loc quickly offered.
I wasn’t too sure what he meant by this but I agreed. Excitedly, he placed the phone down on the small ledge in between him and the window and turned around. Then attracting the attention of the prison warden by continuously knocking on the steel door, he was let out of his small concrete room. I sat there pondering the thought of J-Loc returning with a group of girls hanging off him, but instead he returned with an A4 size yellow envelope.
He opened it carefully and peered in as if searching for a favourite lolly from a mixed lolly bag. It was full of photos.
One by one, J-Loc grabbed at photos and began to introduce me the girls who were posing in each shot. Each girl had written to him since he had been on Death Row. He knew each one intimately.
“This is my Sunshine. She’s from Germany. She writes once a week and sends me money when she can. This ones here is Laura, she’s from England. She is my baby. Very funny girl! This one here is from America, she’s fucking crazy man!”
Now I’m not talking one or two girls, I’m talking about fifty plus! Each photo he carefully placed against the window so that I could see clearly. Within minutes there was no more room on the ledge for photos.
It was an endless procession of women that left me feeling quite insecure.
“You know more ladies than I do!” I joked.
At this moment, the Dutch lady seated next to me stood up and left. J-Loc waited for her to leave and then looked at me again,
“Some people in here just want the needle” he continued, “Her husband wants to die, he told me. He’s given up. He’s guilty”
I had trouble digesting this thought.
Once on Death Row, each prisoner is allowed six separate appeals of their charge. If these are all exhausted unsuccessfully, you are then given a date. A date to die. In this way, Death Row acts partly as a game of cat and mouse between the death penalty and the criminal sometimes lasting up to thirty years. Following one successful appeal, J-Loc still has six left.
Again J-Loc reached for his hand towel and wiped the back of neck before using his t-shirt to wipe his face.
As he did so, he revealed a huge tattoo on his stomach. In fact for the first time I noticed he had tattoos everywhere!
“You like them tat’s?” he must have caught me looking. Instantly, he took off his tee-shirt.
“This one here is a picture of my daughter” he pointed to his right forearm where a portrait of a child’s face sat close to him. He stroked it once and smiled.
J-Loc never wanted a child and his girlfriend swore that she would not fall pregnant, but she kept her pregnancy hidden from him. Shortly after both of them were jailed, a little girl named Monika was born. She is now eight years old, and is looked after by J-Locs father who brings her in to visit on occasions.
Now sitting in the depth of this maximum-security penitentiary, J-Loc has only memories of the things he speaks about with so much pride.
Now he lives confined, three floors below ground level, allowed only to exercise in a yard for thirty minutes a day. Even the yard is three floors deep, with a only small skylight at the top allowing obstructed glimpses of daylight, sometimes with the right timing; sunlight, into his life.
“You know it’s lunch time now Homey, but I hate it. Boloney everyday, man. Small portions. I eat the salad but that’s it.”
With that J-Loc pointed through the small window that sat mid-way up the steel door at the back of the room. I stood up to get a better vantage point and peered through. Sure enough as I did, a warden strolled past the door pushing a trolley of neatly stacked polystyrene lunch boxes. They looked small.
J-Loc pulled out a piece of paper from the yellow envelope and pushed it against the glass. It was a list of items that inmates could purchase from within their cells.
Spices- 15 cents, salt and pepper- 7 cents, chick stock- 85 cents, snack-packs $3.43, medical kits- $7.35, sweat shirts- $10. The list was three pages long. Then I noticed that each price had been crossed out in pencil and a new price had been added. This new price was slightly higher. Salt and pepper had risen by 6 cents, snacks packs by almost a dollar. All items had become more expensive.
“What’s with the increase?” I asked,
“Global economic crisis my man”
I couldn’t believe it. How could the economy of the world driven by supply and demand, bank money and political decisions affect a man held in a concrete hole three floors below ground in the small town of Mcalester?
“So with a little money from friends, we can make life in here slightly more bearable.”
Early on in our mail correspondence, J-Loc had mentioned that he wanted a TV. This cost around the $200 mark. Admittedly, I never sent the money. I mean I didn’t know him at that early stage, and I was weary that perhaps some inmates would ask for money and that be the end of any relationship. However now sitting in front of this man, I could feel for the first time that he was genuine.
“I don’t need no TV any more Homey, my Sunshine bought me one”
I felt terrible, yet relieved. Having now met J-Loc in person though, I made a decision that I would help him where possible.
I even asked him that if given the chance to live one more day on the outside, what would he do. I would try and acheive this goal on his behalf, and I told him this.
J-Loc looked down at his feet, and again wiped his head with his dripping rag.
“Oh man, I just want to live and see the world. Kind of what you are doing right now”
“Well I promise to send you every story I write, and all the photos, but is there something more specific”
J-Loc smiled and looked up at me,
“Man, I always wanted to be the best known gangster in the world?”
This I thought might prove quite difficult for me to achieve. By virtue of owning a scooter back in Sydney, I feared my street cred would be would be fighting an uphill battle from day 1.
“Anything else?” I laughed,
“I want to buy my Mum a car?”
This wasn’t going as planned,
“Tell me more about the gangster thing” I joked.
“Let me think about it something else, and I’ll write it to you.”
“Please do mate. I’m serious about this”.
J-Loc and I had certainly connected over our talk. Whether he was guilty or not, it was clear that we enjoyed talking on a similar level, and I think that he appreciated the time we were spending together.
“Please keep writing Homey. I live through you and my girls. Each thing that you tell me about, I live that moment too. And every time I send a letter to Paris, Sydney, Holland or England, a piece of me travels to that place. It keeps me living in this hell that I’m surrounded by. You know I once heard someone say this thing that really gave me hope ‘Our life is like a burning flame, and no matter how much darkness surrounds our flame, it can never extinguish our light. In the end our light will always win”
Again I smiled,
“ They won’t keep me here, Sebastian.”
I believed him.
There was no clock in the room, but I knew we had been talking for a while. My numb backside told me so. I had a 2-hour drive ahead of me in order to catch a plane that evening.
We had covered a lot of ground, and by the end of our talk, I forgot about the reinforced glass and the steel bars that surrounded the room. I felt like I was chatting to a friend at that park bench in suburbia. If I could have stayed longer, I would have but we both knew that time was passing quickly.
“Mate, I can’t begin to explain what this has meant to meet you here today” This, I would soon realise, would take days,
“I know Homey, it’s good to put a face to the letters.”
“I’ll be back man, and I promise that you’ll hear everything that comes from my travels. Remember to let me know what I can do on the outside for you”
“I will Homey. I will”
We both stand up slowly and face each other one last time. Again I place my fist on the glass. J-Loc does the same. It’s time to go. I turn around and escort myself down the same corridor I had walked through earlier. The automatic steel doors open and shut behind me as I leave.
I reach the entrance twenty metres further down and grab at the sign-in book on the table in front of me. The clock on the wall gives me my official sign-out time. It’s 1.30pm. I have spent five and a half hours talking with J-Loc. I’m emotionally drained.
“So did you find out what you needed to find out?” asks the same prison guard that had walked me in earlier that day.
“I didn’t come here to find something out!” I snap, “I just came to talk with someone. Have you ever spoken to James before?”,
“Well you should try it sometime. It’ll make you think”
With that I push the entrance doors open, and leave.
The day is still hot and the sun still intense. Without hesitation I take my shirt off and take a deep breath. I look at the clear blue sky high above me and am thankful that there is no darkness surrounding my light. I only hope that justice serves J-Loc fairly and that his darkness is lifted as well.
As I drive out of town, I again pass the same inmates that I had driven past that morning. Still they work in unison on the edge of the road. This time though I pull over to the side of the road, get out of the car and approach a near by officer standing amongst a group of inmates. A quick conversation later and my earlier suspicion is confirmed. They are indeed inmates,
“None are from Death Row of course” says the prison guard. This offers some relief, “Only a few have actually murdered people”.
“Only a few?”
“Yeah, but they’re fine now”
If I wasn’t so tired, I would have found humour in this last comment, but instead all I can manage is a rye grin.
Moments later, I pull away in my car, but this time I leave the windows down and the doors unlocked. I need all the fresh air I can get. Today will take a long time to fully digest.
Is J-Loc guilty? I have my own opinion. This of course is based on one conversation only, and it is nothing more that just my own opinion. All I hope is that wether it be through prayer, karma or justice, the right outcome eventuates.
Hopefully this means that one day, we can actually meet at a park bench in suburbia.