DEATH CHAMBERS

by Political Prisoner Raymond Luc Levasseur -Tennessee, 1969-1971



I MEASURE CERTAIN THINGS with mileposts. Today I turned 48 years old, in the Hole of Marion Federal Penitentiary. I turned 21 in Viet Nam. I turned 22 shortly after I mustered out of the Army. I turned 23 in a stinking holding tank of the Montgomery County Jail in Tennessee. I turned 24 within spitting distance of that states electric chair.

MY BRIEF STAY on Death Row began with county jail prisoners being fed spoiled rations from a dirty kitchen. Illness and anger resulted, a vote taken, swill thrown, grievances presented, and my travel ticket punched by a local judge who didn't cotton to disturbances in his jail.

ONCE YOU'VE GOT the troublemaker, organizer, agitator jacket on file, you're never out from under it. Inside "The Walls" of the Tennessee State Prison - an aging fortress that sits like a festering wound in Nashville's West End - I was placed in Unit Six in a cell next to the death chamber. I'd existed next to death and misery in Viet Nam, but this was different. As I discovered, here death could be lightening quick steel, or creep up on you like toxic mold. A domestic war.

POWER TO THE electric chair was temporarily off as the Supreme Court debated weather State executions were barbaric. Death Row prisoners had been moved to a nearby cellblock. Unit Six was now being used for quarantine and disciplinary segregation.

MY CELL FACED a wall. For days I saw no one but guards. It was a hall of voices: the voices of insanity, fear, and rage. A strident voice near me kept going off about the love of Klan and the righteousness of James Earl Ray. This voice believed white babies were being killed by virile African men. Dementia. An. attempt to dialogue was useless. There were many voices that stepped on each other and reverberated off the walls - my window to the discarded and abused. Occasionally, during a lull, a gospel voice would rise in spiritual tribute. I shook the message but held on to the messenger's humanity.

A WEEK LATER, funky and alienated, I was moved to "classification", less a euphemism than a lie. Hundreds of incoming prisoners were bunked over and under, head to toe. You could spread your arms out and touch prisoners on either side - which is what some did and others feared. It was at this gladiators school that I met Jim Crow for real. The filth was overpowering, the toilets backed up, and the blood flowed. Some of what I saw was sadistic, some undiscriminating, some racial - all of it under the nose of the administration and guards.

ONE NIGHT I was snapped awake by the screams of a nearby prisoner. I braced for the worst and peered through the darkness. Clutching his throat was a young man being mauled by a group whose faces were covered with makeshift masks. There was no saving him as he was dragged across the water-soaked, shit stained floor....

I MARCHED TO A DIFFERENT DRUMMER in that my rap partner was African. I'd been involved in a County jail protest involving white & Black prisoners, and I'd hooked up with several Black political prisoners. And Jim Crow had to be defied: I crossed the color line in the Mess Hall. The guards soon jacked me up in a private session and they threatened me with a toe tag. They reeked of pork and division. A week later the classification board ruled me unfit for general population and I was banished to Death Row.

I DURING THE 1970 MORATORIUM on executions, Death Row was relocated to the flats in A-block. The remainder of the cells not used for condemned prisoners were filled by those the administration wanted under close custody. We endured the same conditions except the prospect of death by electrocution. I was doing a 5- year bit.

ISOLATED FROM THE rest of the prison, we took our exercise on a fenced in tier, and once a week in a concrete bunker sans top. They called it a yard, but its more like the inside corner of an abandoned building in the South Bronx. Other than that, we never left our cells.

FRANK X WAS A former Muslim from Memphis, Tennessee. Apartheid City. James Earl Ray passed thru Memphis one fateful time, but Memphis cops are an institution of generational, racist killers. I learned much from prisoners born and raised in West Tennessee being poor white or poor Black, city or country, the machinations of class and race attacked them with a fury.

FRANK X, WITH NO JOB, education, or future decided to cash in on the Amerikan- Dream with 4 other young Black men. They robbed a liquor store. The plan was to take the money and run. At the liquor store Frank X remained behind the wheel of the car as the others went inside. During the robbery someone in the store panicked and a white clerk was shot to death. Frank X never heard the shot. When the 5 were later arrested the prosecutor vowed to march them all to the electric chair unless they copped pleas. The 4 inside, including the shooter, pleaded guilty and received life sentences. Frank X balked at a plea to a murder he did not commit, or was even aware of until later. He went to trial before an entirely Caucasian cast of characters. He was convicted and sentenced to death. His homies were placed in the general prison population and Frank X went to Death Row.

AS A FORMER MUSLIM he still retained some of his faith - in Allah, his personal hygiene, his diet. But he was now more politicized, partly through his study of Malcolm X - Black pride, Black history, and Black power. On the street his life was caught between the dictates of consciousness and the demands of survival. In this hostile environment the trap sprung.

HE LIVED AMID the connections between white supremacy and the plantation network of county jails, chain gangs, and penitentiaries. The fortress we were in was over 100 years old. The current prison system descended from the post-Reconstruction backlash which substituted penal servitude for chattel slavery. Profit was extracted from convicts mining coal, chopping cotton, picking beans, doing roadwork and myriad other tasks. Coal mining ended in the 60's but the rest continued.

WE'D SIT ON CONCRETE or lean against steel bars as he dissected American society right down to the lowly racist insult from some cop or storekeeper. He said that his trial was a culmination of doors being slammed in his face since birth. I could relate. I'd come from the big lie in Viet Nam, the bossmen of Jobs Amerika and my own absurd court proceeding, And, for a moment, we shared some of the same space.

FRANK X WAS A CONVEYOR, of certain historical truths and present day realities. He taught me that to persevere against overwhelming adversity, you must carry the fight on your principles.

uprisings continued throughout Tennessee's Gulag. .

HOWARD WILLIAMS WAS A BLACK Korean War veteran. During the war he picked up a drug habit. After his discharge, he returned to Memphis and began a family. But old habits die hard. The morphine wouldn't let him go. When money ran thin, he decided to rob a drug store. He acted alone. What he wanted was the dope - he already had enough grief to contend with. He carried a pistol to threaten, not to shoot. And he didn't. But when the white pharmacist began to struggle, Howard struck him with the gun. The blow was not fatal but the pharmacist died when his head hit the floor. At his trial before an all white jury, Howard was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair.

CAUGHT IN A WEB OF contradictions that placed him on the receiving end of white supremacy-and the brink of extinction, he was bitter. Bitterness fed by the fact that the State was going to kill him despite the unintentional death of the pharmacist. He struggled to remain hopeful, yet he knew that the basis of his hope lie in a racist quagmire called the criminal justice system. He said he'd gone halfway around the world to fight Koreans and Chinese only to return home to find Amerika eating its Black and poor young. To be Black is to be under a sentence of death, he said, it's just a question of knowing how you are-going to die. Freedom is something he'd never know.

THE UNFAIRNESS OF his sentence - which he increasingly connected to the unfairness of his life - tore at the heart of Howard Williams. He was a contemplative man, of good humor and sensitive to the have nots of every race and creed. He served America in the Korean War - for reasons he didn't understand then, and questioned now - yet his military service didn't count for squat in his quest for work nor in his attempt for a just resolution at trial.

FRANK X AND HOWARD WILLIAMS went into their trials with guarded optimism that a semblance of justice would be served. They thought the circumstances of their cases would at least spare them the death penalty. The bottom line was black skin, no money, and the spilling of white blood. It was the circumstances of their lives that triggered the State's extreme response.

EARLY ONE MORNING I AWOKE to the unnerving sound of chains dragging across concrete. Without warning Death Rows' condemned were being transferred to Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in East Tennessee. We called out our good-byes .......

THE NASHVILLE ROW was shut down and I did a short stint in the general population. I met both solid brothers and lowlife motherfuckers - same as the street. I'd stood with prisoners on the high part of the exercise yard as they gazed over the wall to Nashville's housing projects. Their home. I saw prisoners mutilate themselves and others. There were horrible acts of violence. The debasement was worse. I saw 17 and 18 year old boys thrown to the lions. I saw a 50 year old man weep for the loss of his wife. I witnessed many acts of kindness and generosity among good men. I saw Muslims persecuted for exercising their faith, and jailhouse lawyers tormented for helping others with their lives. And always the color line rigid and as sharply drawn as German steel. I kept crossing it, and they came for me in the morning. They said I was scheming to subvert the entire prison system and placed me back in Unit Six segregation. Back where I'd started. Later, I was put in a chain car with 5 African prisoners. Our chains were run through steel rings -anchored to the vehicle's floor. Brushy Mountain bound.....

AT BRUSHY WE WERE stripped naked within a circle of club wielding guards. We bent over and spread them in turn. The hacks weren't satisfied -with the performance of one prisoner - a large, taciturn man I later learned was retarded. They kept him bent over. "Hey, Joe - have a look at this." They closed in and peered. They demanded the prisoner tell them what lie concealed in his anus. "Don't know." Unsatisfied, one of the guards began to probe with the end of his club. In the anus. A roll of laughter followed the discovery of piles. The man suffered from hemorrhoids.

SKIP THE MEDICAL - we were outfitted in coarse gray and white coveralls and brogans. No socks, underwear, or anything else. We were packed off to a flooded hole to await a cellblock assignment.

BRUSHY MOUNTAIN WAS LOCKED DOWN. We went to the outside exercise yard once a week with its massive stone walls and sparse dead grass. Occasionally, when leaving the cellblock, I caught a glimpse of Frank X or Howard Williams as they walked inside Death Row's caged in area. A quick greeting, a smile. Brother, you are missed.......

BRUSHY HAD BEEN the joint for convict-mined coal. Now it was idle. It was the place of the "disciplinary" razor strap. It was a place of intense boredom, 3 prisoners to a cell, seething rage, and racism. The place was going to blow - it was just a matter of time, and accumulating abuses.

ONE DAY A GUARD delivered a letter from my wife. I opened the envelope to find the contents shredded to confetti. He laughed as he walked away. I wanted to kill him.

A KNOXVILLE TV STATION blew the whistle on Brushy with a program demonstrating that a third of the prisoners there suffered from mental illness. The question was did they arrive this way or did Brushy conditions push them over the edge. The Department of Corrections promised reforms that never materialized. Inmate "trustees" continued to feed good meat to the bloodhounds while we ate fatback. Brushy would bum to the ground before there would be changes.

I PAROLED IN 1971 on condition I leave the state. Clutching a paper sack of banned books and the remnants of prison time, I rode the bus north.

TWO YEARS LATER, BRUSHY exploded. Prisoners and guards died violently and without remorse. The cancer which went unattended so long extracted its pound of flesh. The survivors moved back to The Walls -in Nashville or the unemployment line. Uprisings continued throughout Tennessee's Gulag.

THE MEN I MET ON DEATH ROW were not executed. in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court nullified the existing death penalty laws. Frank X and Howard Williams were not sacrificed on the altar of American capital, race, and mindset. Eventually, Frank X was released from prison. Howard Williams remains in a cell.

IN 1992, "THE WALLS" were ordered closed after a 20 year battle in the courts and trenches. As the last prisoner left Tennessee State Penitentiary, a smiling and waving Governor Ed McWherter pressed himself before the cameras. Unlike the previous Governor, the prison's medical director, and numerous former State legislators, he'd managed to avoid jail on corruption charges. Credit and votes were due him, he suggested.

ACCOMPANYING THE GOVERNOR'S' brazen opportunism, an "open house" was held inside The Walls. The general public was welcomed and curiosity seekers romped and stomped through the abandoned cellblocks and empty death chamber, titillating themselves amidst the silent screams.

A MAJORITY OF THIS same general public now want to execute children as young as 12.

THE LAST PRISONER TO EXIT TSP was sent to the States new control unit prison - Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. It is an "institution" that comes equipped with an electric chair. Under new laws there are now one hundred men and one woman condemned to death in Tennessee. Under the guise of progress the State is pouring almost $400 million into its expanding prison system while ranking 49th per capita spending on the educational needs of children.

THE ULTIMATE TRUTH of America lies in its roots which are deeply buried in the decomposed bodies of its victims. It's branches yield the bitter fruit of violence, poverty, and racism.

I DO NOT OPPOSE THE DEATH PENALTY solely on moral grounds. There are some - war criminals among them - that I wouldn't mind seeing expire from other than natural causes. I oppose the power of the State and Federal governments to execute its master plan of class and racial superiority whether through court sanctioned murder or the saturation bombing and defoliation of Third World countries.

WE LIVE IN A COUNTRY that imposes the death penalty for the murder of federal chicken inspectors, yet allowed conditions at the Imperial Food Plant in North Carolina to kill off 25 workers and savagely injure many more. This is a country that passed a recent crime bill imposing over 50 new death penalty statutes. During the bills' formative period a national day of mourning was declared for a degenerate mass murderer - Richard Nixon. We exist in a morally bankrupt system that uses law to ethically sanction its own violence.

MONEY AND SKIN COLOR are what matters most in this society. Money buys options. Money buys life. The depth of racist thinking is plumbed within attitudes concerning crime, prisons, and executions. Amerika is about to carry its plantation mentality into the next century.

CLASS AND RACE DETERMINE who dies in the State's death chambers. Can you imagine the 13 year old child of a Rockefeller being sentenced to death? Of course not - but states DO execute children and the target age is becoming younger - thanks to "progressive" legislators like Carol Mosely-Braun and a host of others. It makes perfect sense when you see how many children are already sentenced to death by social neglect. The poor of every race are increasingly perceived as worthless and vulnerable - lesions to be subjected to shock therapy and excision, including execution.

I OFFER NO REMEDIES in these pages. I'm in prison for trying to apply remedies. I offer a journey taken many years ago into America's Gulag Archipelago where I shared briefly in the lives of two men that barely escaped execution. Those not born at the time are now filling today's death rows. Our brother Mumia Abu-Jamal is condemned to die. To stop these killing fields we must do whatever it takes for as long as it takes.

Editor's note: Frank. X and Howard Williams are pseudonyms. When Ray returned from Viet Nam, he became active and effective as an antiwar organizer on a college campus in Tennessee. He was set up by police for a pot bust, and sentenced to 5 years as a first offender.
 

Ray Luc Levasseur, 10376-016, PO Box 150160, USP Atlanta, Atlanta, GA 30315