By Sr. Kathie Uhler, Order of St. Francis
Death row for many there is enforced isolation, with just one hour out of the cell each day. The cell in most cases is described as the size of a bathroom, indeed there is always an open steel toilet, along with the bed, chair and small table. Some cells on the row have a small window, others do not. One condemned to this existence has to face it and deal with it. Some lose their grip on reality and, ironically, this may become a means for their escape from isolation – through a commuted sentence to life without parole due to insanity.
Somehow other persons living on death row find deep within themselves resources that enable them to live on. They become contemplative through the silence; some express their insights through creative writing and poetry. This article, the first in a series, is about two such poets from death row.
Reginald Sinclair Lewis is a widely published, award-winning African-American poet, essayist and playwright soon to be released from Pennsylvania’s death row at SCI-Graterford penitentiary. His death penalty has been commuted to a life sentence, with appeals still open. Reginald’s poetry often relates painful childhood memories. In this poem, he recalls his little sister, her battle with cancer later on and an old, poignant Christmas memory.
“The Lyrical Life of a Dream”
Their faces burst through the cameras now –
all those goofy looking dudes with greasy hairdos,
trying to look cool. Yeah. And the drop top boys
checking you out as they flowed past in shiny Cadillacs
emitting the smell of plastic and incense and burning rubber.
They even dropped by to see you at the end, sis.
The grieving process is a bottomless pit – both new and lingering –
the tears keep gushing out like torrential rain –
I’m not as tough as you think I am.
For some reason I’m still mad at you.
When I called you on Christmas Day, you were giggling.
You never did take things seriously.
You’re a pesky memory fleeting back –
a slapping jolting slice of early life – the happy days of our youth –
and I can see your sweet little brown face, smiling, then frowning,
during our stupid arguments over nothing.
Listen girl, I’ll always be your big brother / protector,
staring down bullies.
But this time, my vehement threats were useless.
Bedridden and tormented by so much pain from Cancer –
I couldn’t stick up for you this time.
I couldn’t go toe to toe with
the Angel of Death, who was much too strong.
Did you escape into dreams like we taught you?
Did you fly away on the wings of all those beautiful songs,
we sang on-key, as children?
Reprinted with the permission of Reginald S. Lewis. Mr. Lewis may be contacted at: email@example.com, but also always mail your message to: Reginald S. Lewis, #AY2902, SCI-Graterford, Box 244, Graterford, PA 19426. For further information about Mr. Lewis and his life and writings, visit http://www.ccadp.org/reginaldlewis.htm.
Delbert Tibbs left Chicago Theological Seminary in 1972. “To walk the world,” he said, “aiming to answer the ultimate questions of life, dying, and so forth. It was to be my wilderness experience.” Two years later, after walking around much of the United States, on his way home, Delbert was arrested for a rape and a murder, two crimes which he did not commit. Though he had an alibi, he was indicted for the crimes and sentenced to die on Florida’s death row. After the trial, an informant recanted his testimony, saying he had fabricated his account hoping for leniency in his own rape case. Eventually the Florida Supreme Court reversed the decision and Delbert was released; he was exonerated and dismissed of all charges in 1982. He sadly passed away in 2013.
Delbert, a published poet, reflects the religious sensitivity deep down in his neighbor inmate’s soul in the following poem:
“A Word of Prayer, Overheard in a Jail”
Have no faith, I mean the Bible.
I use to, before this Jail.
But this cell, God, you know
I mean church. I used to go
Almost every Sunday. But I got
grown, you know. I like to drink
Drink too much. I don’t know
But I think, I don’t know
But I think, I don’t know
Maybe if I get outta this Jail
I believe if I get bail
I might go. Sunday, I might go, Sunday. I might go to church
You know. I might go. But you know. I know the Church ain’t
The Lord is everywhere, at least
That is what I believe
More information about Delbert Tibbs may be found through the Witness to Innocence organization website. Delbert Tibbs’ poem is reprinted with the permission of Witness to Innocence, the nation’s only membership organization composed of exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones.
This article first appeared in CMN’s December 2011 newsletter.