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Interview: Juan Melendez, prison campaigner

17 November 2010

I have come to Britain to speak at the Human Writes conference on Satur­day. Human Writes is an organisation that matches pen-pals with death-row inmates in the United States. This is very important, as many prisoners on death row are depressed, isolated, and have been abandoned by their families. The letters they receive make them feel like human beings and give them hope.

I speak against the death penalty because, as an innocent man who spent nearly 18 years on death row, I know just how cruel the death penalty is. By sharing my story, I hope to change hearts and minds about the death penalty.

Death row was hell. I lived in a six-by-nine-foot cell. Every time I was moved out of the cell, I had handcuffs on my wrists, chains around my waist, and shackles on my ankles. I lived in the cell alone for 24 hours a day, except when I was taken out for two hours on a Monday and two hours on a Wednesday for exercise with other prisoners in the yard; and I was taken out for a five-minute shower three times a week.

The only other time I was allowed out of the cell was to meet with my attorney and to meet with visitors. I didn’t have many visitors. I met with my mother just two times while I was on death row. When I saw my mother after I was released, it was the first time I had seen her in 12 years.

Having the constant threat of death hanging on your shoulders makes the whole environment different. Many of the prisoners are mentally ill to begin with, and many more be­come mentally ill under the stress of being on death row. One of the hardest things for me was when they executed someone. We knew the exact moment that the state of Florida was burning the life out of our friends in the electric chair, because you could hear the buzzing of the electricity and the lights went on and off.

I remember some of my friends committed suicide, because it was just so oppressive in there. I came very close to committing suicide.

My faith was very important to my survival. I remember one time I had made a rope with a plastic garbage bag and I was going to commit suicide by hanging myself, the most common way of committing suicide in there. I had just lost yet another appeal, even though several new wit­nesses testified that the real killer had confessed to them.

Before I was going to commit suicide, I lay down and fell into a deep sleep. I had an awesome dream about being a young boy again, swim­ming in the Caribbean Sea. It was a glorious day, and dolphins were flipping and jumping around me. I was so happy. When I looked to the shore, I saw a beautiful young woman. She was happy, too. She was waving and smiling at me. It was my mother. Then I woke up.

I felt like God had sent me this dream as a sign of hope that one day I would be free. The support of my mother and five aunts was also very important to my survival. They wrote me lots of letters, and those letters, like the dream, also gave me hope. Finally, many of the other prisoners helped me survive. People who were considered monsters by the outside world taught me how to read, write, and speak English. They also taught me about the importance of finding peace, letting go of anger and hatred, and putting my trust in a greater power.

I noticed that those prisoners who didn’t find something spiritual to hold on to either committed suicide or went insane.

I was not religious before I went to death row. As a child, I went to church every Sunday with my mother and my brothers, but when I em­ig­rated to the United States when I was about 18, I left my faith behind. My mother’s faith also inspired me while I was on death row. She prayed three rosaries every day on her knees for all those years. She never gave up hope and she always told me to have faith in God. She believed in miracles. She believed I would be set free.

Sometimes pastors and priests come and visit prisoners on death row. Prisoners do not have a place to wor­ship except in their cell, but they can have their Bible, their Qur’an, or whatever other book of faith they choose.

I was released on 3 January 2002 — 17 years, eight months, and one day after I was convicted and sentenced to death. I was released basically because of the miraculous discovery of a transcript of the taped confession of the real killer.

It has been a struggle since then. When I was released, the state of Florida sent me on my way with $100, a pair of pants, and a T-shirt. That was it. I didn’t even receive an apology. There is no halfway house for people who are exonerated from death row, no jobs-skills training, no mental-health or drug- and alcohol-counselling, no health care, and no assistance at all to help us transition into the free world. I have survived because of the support of my mother and my friends, who have been patient with me and understanding of my problems.

I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and, because of that, I can get very frustrated by simple things. It is still difficult for me to make choices because, for so many years, I was never able to make choices for myself. Almost every aspect of my life was controlled by others.

I actually told my former wife early on not to come and visit, and not to bring my daughters to visit me. I felt like it was too hard for them, and that it was better for them to start a new life without me. Although I am in touch with them from time to time, I am really not close to them at all, because of the many years apart.

My girlfriend is from Belfast, but now lives in the United States. She is an activist against the death penalty, and we met after I was released from death row.

Amnesty International gave me a donation of $4000, and that gave me a little breathing space. I wouldn’t have survived financially unless I had lived with my mum, who provided a roof over my head and food. Just a few months after I was released, I began speaking against the death penalty at public events. I was able to make a little money from this work, but not enough to make ends meet. Since then, I have spoken all over the United States at universities, law schools, high schools, and faith com­munities. I have also spoken to thou­sands of people in Canada and Europe. Although I speak quite regularly, it is still not consistent work and I am not able to sustain myself with it. But, thankfully, I live with my girlfriend, and she is very supportive of my work.

Public opinion is turning away from the death penalty. We’ve seen three states abolish the death penalty between 2007 and 2009: New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico. New Mexico abolished it in March 2009 after a 12-year intensive grass-roots campaign. Other states will not take so long. It is like a domino chain.

I think within ten to 15 years, the death penalty will be completely abol­ished. Fifteen states do not have the death penalty on their books. Thirty-five still have it, and, of these, only a handful actively execute pris­oners, almost all of them in the South. Even there, we have seen a significant decline in death sentences in recent years — even in Texas. Once enough states have abolished it, the United States Supreme Court will declare the death penalty unconsti­tutional. Inter­national opposition to the death penalty will also play a role. As more countries abolish, the United States will become more and more iso­lated — standing alone with notor­ious human-rights violators like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

The most important choice I have made is to not use my anger in a negative way. Although I have for­given the prosecutor and others who were responsible for wrongfully convicting me and sentencing me to death, I am still angry. Not at any people in particular: I am just angry about the system. But I have made the choice to turn my anger into some­thing positive.

In sharing my story, I hope to open hearts and minds about the death penalty, and expose the system for what it truly is. When I speak to disadvantaged youth, I hope to teach them to turn their anger around as well — to use it in a positive way.

My biggest regret is not having stayed in contact with my former wife and my daughters.

I would like to be remembered as a person who fought for his friends on death row. That is why I do this work. I left so many good people behind in there. If we don’t abolish the death penalty, they will all be killed.

Césár Chavez has inspired me most, because he did so much for labourers. He fought for the little guys, and he always remained humble. I try to be like him as much as I can.

My favourite place is Puerto Rico, where I was raised. Although I was born in Brooklyn, New York, I moved with my brothers and mother to Puerto Rico when I was about six years old. I love the sound of ocean waves coming to the shore.

My favourite part of the Bible is Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd . . .” My least favourite part is Revelation.

What do I pray for? You probably know the answer — I pray for an end to the death penalty. I also pray for all murder victims’ families. I pray that they are able to find some peace in their lives.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Nelson Mandela. He spent so many years incarcerated, and one of the first things he did when he came to power in South Africa was to abolish the death penalty.

Juan Melendez was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


Prisons Week starts on Sunday.

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