It was a surreal experience. One that not many people have in their lifetime and for good reason. "We're going to walk straight down to the wall, turn around, and come back." Those were the instructions the armed security guard told us before my husband and I entered death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum security prison in the United States.
It's been a few years since this short yet memorable journey down the hall. It was a row of men in separate cells awaiting their moment when they would take their last breath. The left wall was nearly-bare and solid leading down to an equally impenetrable wall. The only items on the hall were mounted TV monitors. The right side was starkly different. It was lined with a small group of cells, each with three solid walls and one glass covering looking out toward the hallway and limited entertainment.
But it wasn't like what you see in the movies. Surprising? I know! But I'm going to burst your bubble and share that not everything you watch is true and even the internet sometimes spreads lies. See . . . death row was eerily quiet. You could literally hear a pin drop. The cells were soundproof as well as the cement pathway we walked. The TV sound was funneled into each cell so inmates could decide which show they wanted to watch and listen to in their confined space.
I remember thinking before entering the heavily-bolted area that I would look at the men behind the glass walls, but once I entered, I was hesitant. I could feel their eyes watching my every step. Almost like a lion stalking its prey from behind a bush, waiting patiently for the right time to pounce. And, I felt guilty for treating a human like an animal at the zoo. I realize that their decision put them in that place, but it left me with a sense of sadness.
I'll never forget the older gentleman I saw in the first cell. His appearance wasn't alarming. He had grayish hair and his stature was average. Nothing about a first glance made you think he was a murderer. If I passed him on the street, I could easily assume he was a loving grandpa with a bustling houseful of grandkids at Thanksgiving dinner. But behind that glass wall, he was creepy. He was strange. And he was a convicted criminal who took the life of another humanbeing. Again, a sense of sadness.
I kept thinking, this is not how it was meant to be.
I don't want to take this unique experience for granted. You can't just call up a prison and ask to walk death row. See, we had a friend who worked at the Prison and was also the pastor for the staff living on-site. So, we got the opportunity to chat with the Warden for awhile in his office and was taken around by a guard on a very in-depth tour of the 18,000 acre property which is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River (a man-made fence to keep the prisoners from escaping).
We met inmates and walked their quarters . . . we watched an inmate craft beautiful wooden coffins . . . we visited the half-wolf, half-german shepherd dogs they breed and use at night to roam the outside barbed-wire border of each prison building . . . and we even touched the second-largest horse in the U.S., which inmates use to work the fields.
An amazing experience? Yes! The Penitentiary does give pre-arranged tours of the 5000 inmate campus to groups, especially adolescents (a tour not like our's). It's an educational experience for youth to see where bad choices will lead them. Now that I have a teenager in house, I've even contemplated taking the long drive back there for a special visit with my son for this unique life lesson.
But, I don't believe we were created to end up this way. And to actually look men in the eyes knowing they would be put to death was a humbling experience.
So here's what I leave with you . . . this is not the way it was supposed to be. We were not created to hate, to harm, to kill. It's up to me. It's up to YOU! We need to spread love . . . kindness . . . gentleness and be the difference this world needs.
#BETHECHANGE and don't let the prison walls of this life stop you from doing what's right. You hold the key to break free from the chains of brokenness that weigh us down.
Don't look at your life as a single sound-proof cement hallway. Life has many doors and hallways and although some lead to pain and trials, many hold unimaginable beauty, wonder, and adventure.
Life journey, not death row.