Many years ago, I visited one of the many death rows in the United States of America. I was working for Amnesty International in Switzerland at the time and often visited the US.
I was waiting in the visitor’s room for a particular prisoner. It is a lengthy procedure for a death row prisoner to come to the visitor’s room. Therefore, I had time to look around and to observe the people who were already there.
A few rows ahead of me across the aisle, I saw a man and a woman hugging. They were watched closely by the guards but they clearly held back. I wondered why. Normally no physical contact was allowed between visitors and prisoners in that facility aside from a one-handed hand shake at arm’s length. But this man, a prisoner, held a woman tight in his arms. She had her head buried in his chest. The man was much taller than the woman so when he had his arms around her, he enclosed her completely.
Suddenly the woman moved and I saw grey curly hairs emerge from within this man’s arms. They were not a couple. This was a mother and her son. When he looked up I finally understood. I recognized his face.
The man was the condemned prisoner who, while already in the execution chamber strapped to the gurney the night before, received a last-minute stay of execution from the Unites States Supreme Court (an explanation about a stay of execution in an unrelated case is here.)
His mother looked up and she looked over her son’s left shoulder to the back of the visitor’s room. Her eyes met mine. I will never forget those intense green eyes that told me the story of a woman who had tried everything in her power to keep her son on the right track. She had been at the prison on the night that he was to die for his crimes. They had said their last good-byes. Now he was here in the visiting room.
And that was the reason the guards held back. They watched and were clearly moved as well. They were heavily armed but they did not interfere for the entire visit. They allowed this mom to just sit there and hug her son.
I wish that I could say that there was a good ending to this story. Her son is still on death row however, no longer under immediate threat of execution. There are not enough public defenders so his case is “on hold” until he can get representation.
And so he waits.
And his mom waits.
And I have never been able to forget that mother.