My First Night on Death Row as an Innocent Man

Anthony Graves was convicted in 1994 for killing six people in 1992. He was exonerated in 2010 after having served 18 and a half years in prison, 16 of which were spent in solitary confinement and 12 of which were on death row. The prosecutor in Graves’ case was eventually disbarred for misconduct, and Texas had to pay Graves $1.45 million in compensation for the damage the state had done to him. Graves now works at the ACLU of Texas as the Smart Justice Initiatives Manager. Below is an excerpt from Graves’ recently published book, “Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement, and 12 years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul” (Beacon Press, 2018). It is reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Early November 1994: Entering the Lion's Den

I arrived at death row on November 1, 1994, the same year director Frank Darabont turned Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” into the now classic movie about a wrongfully convicted banker and his wise black friend. A green stone tower at the entrance to the Ellis Unit prison looked a little like the structures that rose from the Maine dirt in that film. A white female guard stood atop the tower. A pistol holstered to her hip, she also held a rifle in her right hand. She looked to be in her 50s, and her Southern drawl told me she’d been plucked from a roster of job applicants who lived somewhere nearby.

“You’re in the wrong place!” she hollered down from the tower to the officer that brought me to the gates. “You’ve got to run him over to the diagnostic unit. They’ll process him there.”

Processing took a few minutes. Agents of the state asked my name. They took down some information and scribbled a few indecipherable words onto paper. I did a lot of waiting. A few minutes later, we returned to the green tower with the female overseer. The officer who brought me there placed his gun and some paperwork into a plastic bucket attached to a rope. The woman in the tower pulled up the officer’s supplies like a banker sucking a drive-through deposit through the magic transport tubes.

I closed my eyes to block the shining sun. The gate opened and three officers placed their hands on me. They let me walk at my own pace toward death row. I tried to take in the scene. It wasn’t much to behold. Death row is intimidating. It’s designed as a testament to the ultimate power of the state to kill and control its citizens. I knew what had happened at my trial, but I still wasn’t quite sure how I ended up there.

Coming to death row is like stepping back in time a few hundred years. When slave traders transported men and women from Africa across the Middle Passage, they’d drop those slaves off in cities like Charleston. Four in 10 African slaves passed through Charleston, where they were sold publicly, in the streets, until the city banned the practice in 1856. Thereafter, slave inspection and buying moved to the local slave mart. The slaves were stripped and weighed, their distinctive qualities noted for potential buyers. A light-skinned female slave would go for $50,000 or more in today’s dollars. A slave with a skill like carpentry would also command a high price. The caretakers of death row learned from that legacy. I stepped inside a pen. I was strip-searched in case I’d managed to pick up a gun or knife on the ride over from my previous jail. I had become used to the strip searches. It was just a routine of humiliation that had run its course. If a man can stand there and watch me move my private parts around for him, then that’s what I would do. My mind-set was to follow all the rules and keep it simple. Next, an officer handed me prison clothes, which consisted of a white jumper and a white pair of cloth slippers for my feet. I finally got a haircut. A shower would follow. Once sufficiently clean, I was ready for the short ride to Ellis One Unit. Named for a former Texas prison administrator, it housed the state’s death row.

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Like most Americans, I hadn’t given much thought to death row before my arrest. The writer and anti–death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean famously said that support for the death penalty is a mile wide but only an inch thick. She meant that the death penalty’s many supporters rarely investigate the basis of their own beliefs. As I walked into Ellis One Unit, I didn’t know what to think. People typically focus on the death part of a death sentence. What they don’t tell you is that life on death row is a torture all its own. I had no idea that I’d be living in a six-by-nine-foot cage, or that I’d do my business in a steel toilet in plain view of male and female officers alike.

If the officers didn’t enjoy making me take my clothes on and off, they surely acted like they did. It was a routine that quickly grew old. In a back room, officers helped me lose the clothes I’d worn for just a few minutes during the intake process. I got a new outfit. The shirt featured large stencil lettering on the back that read “dr.” Once I was freshly dressed, officers handcuffed me and led me down the long road to perdition. The prison buzzed with energy. At that time, death row wasn’t set off in some distant facility. It was just another wing of a functional penitentiary. Inmates came and went. Some stood around. The officers that led me quickly seized control of these inmates.

“Turn around and look at the wall!” one officer yelled. The officers didn’t want general-population inmates looking at me. I’d later learn it was for my own protection. Even inmates in prison have an opinion about those sentenced to death, one officer said.

You didn’t have to guess when you’d crossed the line between the ordinary prison and the place where Texas placed the worst of the worst. At the end of a hallway that seemed to go on forever, a gate with an emblem spread the news, seeming almost proud with its pronouncement: Texas death row. I was scared. Thoughts of my family flooded my mind. No place contrasts as hard with home as death row. When I crossed over that threshold, it was hard to believe I’d ever make it back. I thought of my children. I thought of my mom.

Death row has rules. A captain sitting behind a desk inside the gate peered at me over a stack of papers. He must have been trying to determine if I’d cause him problems or not. His expression never changed as he looked through my file. Finally, he reached for a handbook that sat amid the mess on his desk.

“Read this,” he said. “All of it.”

I thumbed through the first few pages as he explained the dos and don’ts of death row. I nodded because nodding was the only thing to do. He handed me a sheet of paper that included my housing assignment. I’d be living on Wing J-23. It all seemed the same to me, but as it turns out, death row has its share of troublemakers too. That’s where they put me, right in the middle of known gang members and those who’d opted out of the prison’s work program. The work program was an incentive for good behavior. We could become eligible to work as trusties around the officers. The prison also has a garment factory where, as part of the program, death row inmates were allowed to make and sew the officers’ uniforms. You had to be there at least six months before becoming eligible for the program, so it was too early for me to opt in.

The captain explained our schedule. On the weekdays, we’d spend 22 hours alone in a small cage, only a few feet long and wide. Weekends brought 24 hours of solitary confinement because many officers took the weekends off. To save money, the prison would simply reduce manpower and keep us in our cells all day Saturday and Sunday. We weren’t worth the substitute guards’ wages that would be required to move us to the rec yard and back.

As an officer led me to my wing, I asked him why I landed on J-23. “It’s the only place we’ve got, Graves.” Texas’s death row was almost out of vacancy. Five hundred men were waiting for the state of Texas to kill them. My cage had an address of sorts: Tier 3, Cell 10. The cage doors had bars and wire. They seemed designed not only to keep me in but also to make it as hard as possible to see the television. Maybe it was just my part of the neighborhood, but the third tier in J-23 was far from quiet. I looked around at the sparse accommodations as my neighbors hollered. It reminded me of the jails that held me while I’d waited for trial. Every inmate had something to say, and most wanted to say it louder than the guy next to them. One guy wanted aspirin. Another screamed for an officer to bring him a sick-call request. A few whispered to the trusty, himself a general-population inmate, to bring them newspapers, magazines, food. The trusties often became couriers, moving items from cell to cell out of view of prison personnel.

My neighbors went to great lengths to devise any source of entertainment. Rivals bet on whatever sporting event happened to be on television. It wasn’t just the outcome of the game either. They bet on every single play with whatever currency they’d bartered for. I remember thinking that they’d bet on two crippled cockroaches racing on crutches if ESPN was foolish enough to put it on television. Death row was alive with men doing whatever they could to stay sane.

The sound of my cell door slamming closed behind me cut through the surrounding noise. I backed up to the door and placed my hands through the bean slot, the horizontal opening that would later serve as a portal for daily meals. An officer removed the cuffs. I was at least free to roam my space. There were no windows in my cell; the little light that filtered in came from small windows out in the hall area, through which I could just see a pond in the distance. The cage was filthy. Wet toilet paper and trash covered the floor. It seemed that whoever had the room before me didn’t know what toilet paper was for, because the toilet was smeared with feces. I tried not to think about who might have left the mess. My emotions were already all over the place. There were so many things I missed. I missed home, I missed my life, I missed having sex; it had been two and a half years since I’d had the company of a woman, and I longed for it. If this continued, my penis would be sharp as a needle or as dull as a cucumber; I wasn’t sure which, but I didn’t want to find out. But more than anything, I was sad and confused in between bouts of determination.

I had been given powdered soap and a rag. At least I had something to do. Cleaning that awful filth wasn’t the sort of task I’d have signed up for in my previous life. But that cage was going to be home, and I’d have to make the best of it.

My tiny cell didn’t take long to clean. I scrubbed the floor while the floor scrubbed my knees. After 20 minutes of this labor I’d worked up an appetite. An officer and trusty brought by my first meal on death row: chicken and dumplings. This homey dish combines meat, dough, and gravy in a charming little glop. The way death row served it up, the chicken must have been of advanced age and a long time dead before its guts went to make that meal. Something passing for juice accompanied the meal, offered in a plastic bucket. I later learned that the juice served many purposes on death row. Some inmates used it to clean the stains from their coffeepots.

I couldn’t have been more than two bites in when I decided I’d rather go hungry that night. I walked to my cage door and slid the tray under it, passing my uneaten food to the porter, the trusted prisoner lucky enough to have been given the job of clearing my tray. It was his problem now.

I toyed for a minute with the thin blue mattress that sat atop my steel bed. It seemed like everything was steel. Not the mattress, though. It was the kind of plastic that would stick to your skin when the temperature rose. I lay down and put headphones over my ears. I was surprised that the officers had given me a pair of headphones since, after all, this was death row. When I first arrived here, we were able to watch television, and the headphones were given to us to plug into a portal in the wall that would allow me to hear the television from afar. Or I could turn the knob and listen to a radio station that had been preset. I think the headphones were a little thing that they could give, with a pretty big impact on the environment in there: It made it a lot quieter and caused the guys to chill out rather than be at one another’s throats all the time.

Music gave me some semblance of peace. I’d pull a blanket over my head. My fellow inmates might have thought I was scared. I was actually trying to escape the doom for a while, by blocking out the present, and thinking about exactly what I would be doing at home. Literally, I tried to live minute to minute in another place, rather than one second in this one. I spent most of those early days lying on my bunk with my headphones on, checked out. I thought that if I just resisted the environment, it might not feel so real. I didn’t want to talk or make friends. The food offered no distraction. I remained mostly a mystery to the men who weren’t immediately a cell door away from me. Who is this new guy? I heard them ask.

The following week, my mom came down to visit me. We were sitting in front of each other for the first time since I had been given the death penalty. We didn’t really know what to say, so I took control of the conversation and let her know that I was OK. I needed to assure her that people weren’t just back there trying to kill each other since this was the first time I did not have access to a phone to call her every day.

My first trip to the shower was better than I expected. A beautiful black woman approached my cage. “Are you ready to take a shower?” I was taken by her eyes. For a couple of years, the faces above the badges had been almost all white and male. She was different. Her hair wasn’t fancy. Her demeanor suggested that it didn’t need to be. It sat in a bun, revealing light brown skin and perfectly symmetrical collarbones. She was more relaxed than most guards, smiling more than the men who believed that intimidation was a part of their job description. I walked with her to the shower, wearing only white boxer shorts and socks, with my towel and soap dish in my hands, which were cinched behind my back.

A door separated the interior of the shower from a makeshift viewing area in the hall outside. Little other than mesh obscured the view. She sat on a trash can just beyond the door and didn’t pretend to look the other way. It was a part of the deal down there. Privacy was not an option. I stood in a pair of white socks and nothing else, and the socks served as makeshift shower shoes to protect my toes from the fungus that surely lurked on the faux-tile floor.

As we walked from the shower back to the third tier, inmates cat-called her. They hollered whatever came to mind in the moment. All were in search of the same thing — a distraction from the tedium of our condemned condition. She turned to me, as if to explain why she hadn’t responded to their nonsense.

“I am not going down there just so they can look at my ass.”

I smiled.

“You can’t hold it against them.”

“Yeah, well, this is all day long,” she replied.

The place didn’t suit her. Back in my cell, I wondered how she got there, why she’d taken a job walking inmates from their cages to the showers. I imagine this woman knew some of the things I was thinking about while looking at her, but she never acknowledged it. It was wishful thinking on my part that she would.

I later found out she wasn’t as innocent as I thought. She was trafficking in all the ordinary contraband that took on greater value in prison. Inmates paid her hundreds of dollars to deliver cigarettes and weed. One guy even arranged for her to bring him $500 from a friend on the outside. She had taken the money for herself. Those sorts of deals could be dangerous even for female officers. Some of the men on death row were there specifically because they didn’t discriminate in their crimes between men and women. Our trip to the shower was the last bit of meaningful time I spent with her. She transferred to another unit after a couple of weeks.

However, she got me thinking more about everything I was missing on the outside. I would often lie in my bunk at night listening to Majic 102.1, the radio station out of Houston. The DJ Rudy V, host of a program called “The Quiet Storm,” played all the old-school slow jams, like the O’Jays’ “Stairway to Heaven” and Prince’s “Scandalous.” When that song came on, you would hear guys holler out to one another from their cells. Being with a woman was definitely on everyone’s mind. I would lay there and imagine myself back at the little bar I used to go to and dance. I fantasized about the kind of life I wanted to live when I was free again. I envisioned having a wife and kids, and the great life we’d have together.

I had this one scene in my head that would replay itself over and over again. I would have a wife and daughter. I would be at the park playing basketball. My wife would pull up with my daughter, who in this particular fantasy was always about three. My daughter would see me and take off running toward the basketball court for me. I would stop and pick her up all sweaty while she would hug my neck. I used to think about my own sons and going to a game or them coming to talk to me about girls for the first time, and how I would respond. Now I was missing it all. I’d been kidnapped by the state of Texas.

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Anonymous

Powerful stuff.

Chris Sanders

Mr Graves. A man of fortitude and a victim to corrupt officials! $1.45 dollars can't buy back 18 years of a man's life!

Dawn Westmoreland

So sorry for everything you have gone through. You deserve so much more then what you received monetarily. Thank you for the wonderful work you do today. I know you will be blessed for everything you suffered from. Wishing you the very best!

Anonymous

Very powerful. Want to read more.

Anonymous

Kinda grabs hold of you - definitely wouldn’t put you to sleep.

Dr. Timothy Leary

Mr. Graves was in fact at the scene of the murders in the company of the actual murderer when they took place and therefor was reasonably a suspect in the case.

Clint Hyslop

and what physical evidence do you have to back up this statement of 'fact'?

Dr. Timothy Leary

What physical evidence do you have that he wasn't there Mr. Hysloppy?

Get Real

He wasn't there, he had nothing to do with the crime, and he is now free and rich. I guess you just want to make it up as you go along, but you'll still be wrong.

Disgusted

Innocent until proven guilty, which they never did. And you're just another lying, bigoted asshole.

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