Notes from the National Coordinator

By: Marlene Martin

"Excess Property." That's what William Goskee, superintendent of the Pontiac, Ill., state prison, called the personal items of death-row prisoners which couldn't be squeezed into three boxes. "We confiscated the excess property, and the men will have 30 days to decide if they want it shipped home, or else it will be destroyed," Goskee said.

Much of this property was bought at the prison commissary, but that doesn't matter. If it doesn't fit, you can't keep it. It's excessive. It doesn't matter either that most of the guys can't afford to ship packages home - or have no home to ship them to.

But that's not the concern of Superintendent Goskee. He's just doing his job. Illinois' death row is just getting in sync with all the other maximum security prisons in this country, explains Goskee. That's just how it is. And Superintendent William Goskee wants us to know that he didn't make the rules but he will make sure they are carried out.

I visited death row in Pontiac not long after the new rules were put into effect. Cells that these men live in for 23 hours a day can no longer have shelves. They can no longer have pictures or paintings on the wall. Shoes cannot be left on the floor but must be put in a laundry bag. "A tube of toothpaste that's been open is allowed to be left out, but if the tube has been squeezed, then it's not allowed to be out," explains Goskee. That's a rule violation.

Violating these rules means you will be issued a ticket. Many of those on death row have already been issued tickets over these petty "offenses." And getting tickets means you put into jeopardy your visitation rights - one of the only things that keeps these men sane in a world of sheer insanity.

"My blue sweatshirts have been confiscated," said Dedrick Coleman, who's been on Pontiac's death row for eight years. "I bought them at the prison commissary, and now they've confiscated them." Goskee admits that this is true. "We no longer allow inmates to wear blue sweatshirts, only gray sweatshirts, so he will not be getting his sweatshirts back. That's just the way it is. Rules change, and that's just the way it is."

Anthony Enis says that all of the painting materials he purchased through the prison commissary have been confiscated. But Goskee has an explanation for that, too. "He was being defiant," Goskee said. "He knew the rule that your property had to be kept in your boxes, but he purposely left everything out of the boxes. We can't have that."

That at least helps explain this new policy at Pontiac. It has nothing to do with "excess property." It has to do with dehumanizing the prisoners on death row. These people already face a death sentence and are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. But these new rules are aimed at taking away any other sign of individuality - to make it seem like these prisoners are nothing, just men waiting to die.

That is the goal of the politicians and their law-and-order policies. They don't want us to see the people who are being victimized by these rules.

As abolitionists, our work has to be about more than knowing the facts about the death penalty. We have to show the human faces hidden behind the rules and the stereotypes. This is why taking up individual cases should be an important part of the activity of Campaign chapters. We need to make connections with family members of prisoners on death row. And we need to give a voice to those behind bars. The Campaign's "Live from Death Row" events have been an important step in putting a human face on this issue. We need to show the human consequences of the death penalty - and stop the politicians and the administrators who enforce capital punishment from hiding behind the rules.