Facing the Wall

FACING THE WALL

By James King CDCR # V-69030 2–W–10

When the correctional officers yell "Escort!" all incarcerated people are supposed to turn and face the wall. Mostly, I do. Occasionally though, I turn ever so slightly to the side and watch as the officer escorts the condemned person through the prison to their destination. The guard and the person who has been condemned by the State to die walk at a slow, measured pace. Every time, the guard walks on the side of the condemned man that is closest to the rest of the population. State policy dictates that the officer hold the condemned person's arm for security purposes. So, the guard rests one hand of the arm of the person he or she is escorting, almost in a courtly manner, and the effect is oddly dignified. In a different time and place, they could be strolling through their estate, while speaking of where they will spend summer.

When the breeze is just right, the tones of their conversation waft over as I stand there, waiting for them to pass. The tones are informal, relaxed, with a familiarity that again contradicts their roles in the State's narrative. On the part of the person being escorted, it is not hard to see their perspective. At the end of this stroll awaits a cage, whether they are going to their two hours of yard time, to the hospital for a medical appointment, to see their lawyer, or back to the cell they spend 80% of their time in. The condemned man is in no rush as they move towards their destination.

And somewhere along the way of the myriad of escorts, the officer has learned to see past the escort's status, and feel empathy for their desire for human contact. The guard is fulfilling his professional responsibilities, but perhaps can't help but recognize that the light touch on the arm is the only connection the condemned man will feel that day, or any other day. So the officer makes small talk, and walks slowly, and holds the man's arm. It is but the smallest measure of kindness in a challenging existence. In those moments, the boundaries and roles, between correctional officer and condemned person are respected, and the humanity of each is acknowledged as well.

When they pass, I'm free to go. All round me, conversations pick back up, and we all rush to and fro, walking with a purpose, that is not quite as important as it once was, when time stood still, and we stared at the wall.

About First Watch

First Watch is a media project started at San Quentin State Prison. All content is shot, directed, edited, and scored by the journalists inside prison.

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