Life on Death Row

Roger Buehl was accused of a 1982 robbery-murder of which he is innocent. Since that time, his attorney has uncovered evidence of the prosecution's manipulations and witness-tampering. In early 1997, a federal court vacated Buehl's sentences, and his conviction will soon be reviewed by the Federal Third District Court. But prosecutors are promising to get the death penalty reimposed in a state court.

Roger urgently needs supporters and financial assistance in the fight for his life. Inquiries or donations would be welcomed and can be sent to: Death Penalty Defense Fund, c/o Schuylkill Friends Meeting, 37 North Whitehorse Road, Phoenixville, PA 19460. Inquiries about Roger and his case can also be sent to: Debi Kristyak, Defense Fund Coordinator, 757 Rockwood Dr., Apr. A204, Titusville, PA 16354.

Upon being asked to describe life in prison, on death row, I always find it difficult to formulate sentences sufficient to show this "inside" existence to an "outside" free worlder.

Prison's true purpose is, of course, the control and subjugation of human beings. This necessarily entails the repression of basic freedoms and individuality. Rehabilitation? Forget it! Rehabilitation is merely a political placebo (which costs as much as a real remedy.) Actually, our prisons are a microcosmic representation of our society as a whole, exemplifying our country's social and power hierarchy, but without the velvet platitudes and conciliations. All prison officials are politicians of sorts; prison politics regulate power and status within the prison structure.

Such absolute power over human lives liberates the greed and prejudices latent in most prison officials. As a result, racism, bigotry, sadism and other evils are often unrestrained and overt in prison. (Some few individuals do, however, retain their humanity and decency, despite working in a prison.) As in free world society, the politics, corruption, abuses and injustices in prison all combine to bring misery to the powerless, only much more forcefully.

We are kept in constant confinement, locked in-cell all day long - except for the five days a week we are allowed one whole hour outside (in another, slightly bigger, cage). Cell temperatures are kept cold and breezy by powerful forced-air vents, yet permissible clothing is limited. All meals are served in-cell, on a filthy tray shoved through a slot in the door. Showers? For us, it's three times weekly. As for visiting, we are limited to two hours per week, with added physical restrictions: all death row visits take place in a 4' x4' separation booth, behind a barrier. (All this after prisoners' family, friends and attorneys' drive many hours to reach this remotely-located prison.) These conditions exemplify management's policies for us.

The guards contribute their own brand of misery to death row by utilizing a variety of slick tricks. The tampering and contamination of foods by guards occurs daily. Rushing activities, like meals or showers, is another favorite guards' tactic. (Ever try to eat 5-minute meals or take 5 minute showers on a constant basis?) The guards also employ tactical violence against death row prisoners under the pretext of lawful use of force; guards daily have their hand on our person (every time we exit the cell) to shove or pull us. (The two most common assault moves by guards are twisting handcuffs into wrists and slamming or shoving a prisoner face-first into walls and doors. The severest, outright beatings are reserved for the privacy of "the hole," the disciplinary unit.) All these things go on with the silent approval of the prison management, which quite naturally encourages the guards to explore the limits of their "discretion."

One privilege granted to us on death row - with all prison officials' approval - is permission to buy and use televisions and radios. These items are generally approved because of the pacifying effect, and because they serve as a behavior control tool. As for approval to use a typewriter, on the other hand, and it is prohibited on some "security" grounds. (Or could it be that a typewriter can facilitate communication with supporters, with attorneys, and with courts?) As long as death row prisoners stick to the TV watching and are complacent, compliant and cooperative, they are, for the most part, left alone. Any one of us who is alive or outspoken - or, God forbid, litigious! - becomes a target, and catches hell.

Basically, prison officials' "program" for death row is designed to separate us from our humanity and dignity, while disrupting our access to outside resources and support. Nevertheless, death row prisoners, as a group, have less prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-guard violence than even the general population prisoners in this very prison.

The first major cause of stress and contention on this death row is the systemic pressure of official oppression. It is all very well designed to smooth the way to executions. Every day it's a struggle to keep focused on the important goal - fight for freedom and life! - while dealing with the officially-sanctioned harassment.

But, that's life on death row!

Roger Buehl