This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 4, "Still Life: Inside Southern Prisons." Find more from that issue here.
My name is Virginia Foster. I’m a widow and a mother of five. I live in the 4th and Gill neighborhood. It’s a community of poor and working class people, and it is very special to me because the people here work together to make our community a better place to live and a better place for our children.
All my life I’ve known, and my mother’s always taught me, that killing in general is wrong. Not only that, but we have always been strong believers in God and the Bible and what it says. We think that the Bible says killing is wrong. But other than that, after I growed up and became old enough to know, it’s common sense to know, I mean to know in your heart, that it’s wrong. What I’m saying is, if somebody murders a person, then I can’t see taking that person’s life. I would call it revenge, and to me that’s just two murders, two guilty people, and two wrongs altogether. I just can’t see taking another person’s life because he took one. Not that murder is not wrong, but I’ve always felt that taking another life is the wrong thing to do even in punishment. That’s not punishment.
In my opinion, that is not punishment because if you take their life, they know you’re gonna take it. This may sound silly to most people, but to me it means a whole lot. If they’re a believer in God, then all they have to do is just ask their Maker to forgive ’em for what they’ve done. And they know that they’re gonna be forgiven, and everything’s gonna be okay. But if they’re sent to prison for a reasonable amount of time — and that’s what I think should be done because they should pay for any kind of crime they do — then they have a lot of time, and especially the long nights, to lay and worry about what they’ve done and see what they’ve done.
Reach Out, Over and Behind
By Henry I. Powell
aka Isaac Strawberry Jones
Florida State Prison
Without rain, sunshine and care, flowers
And other plants could never groen,
And without love, care and understanding –
A human dies so painfully slow…
Reach out, over and behind
The prison walls and take a
Hand – “of some lost sister
Or some lonely brother
And if they’re human at all, then that has to hurt ’em. To me that’s punishment. It’s punishment for people to hurt within their self for things that they’ve done.
I don’t know if you know or not, but I have a son that was killed. Just murdered outright by a man. He was found guilty of first degree murder. But I just can’t see taking his life. If they had asked for the electric chair for him, I’d have had to ask them not to do this, but to give him a reasonable amount of time in prison. As much as I hate him — I stood there looking at him, and I really did; I didn’t have any good feelings for him — I just couldn’t bear the thought of knowing one day he was gonna be murdered or put in the electric chair. It would really bother me. It would bother me a whole lot because I just can’t see taking anybody’s life, in any way. Of course, people have to fight in wars, but I just can’t stand to see people suffering. It’s just bad, and I don’t believe in it.
I would like to see the death penalty abolished altogether. I hope most people feel this way. I always felt, what if that was my boy, or my girl, or somebody real close to me that was being put in that chair? I think people would think twice if it was happening to them. They would have a different opinion about the death penalty.
A boy in our neighborhood was given the death penalty. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair for the murder of a young girl. He lives directly behind us, and we’re not real good friends, but I did see enough of him to know that even though they had him for murder, there was a lot of good in him. He was always nice to people; he had a wife and children. To us in the neighborhood, he was a real good person. And if in fact he did kill this girl, and I’m not too sure, I just believe he had to be really doped up. And then, too, I think that when people kill, the biggest majority of them, it’s not something they really mean to do or plan. I’ve always felt that there has to be something wrong right at that minute. Everything completely leaves them. I don’t believe that 90 percent of them knows at the time what they’re doing. I was glad when they commuted his sentence to life in prison.
I believe that 90 percent of the people in this neighborhood wouldn’t believe in the death penalty. They’re humans, and they know what it is to be treated bad. This is their feeling, just because they’ve been harassed and roughed up. They’d be against the death penalty — they wouldn’t be for it — because they understand. I know this.
I’ve felt for many a year that there’s been people sent to the electric chair or the gas chamber that was really innocent of the crime they’ve been accused of doing. And another thing — and this is not something I’ve knowed all my life, it’s something I’ve learned from reading the papers and being involved in jail stuff — but most of the people sentenced to die are poor people or black people. They don’t have no money on ’em.
By Calvin Murry
Fort Pillow Farm
Fort Pillow, Tenn.
Like so and she there
Work pulls the chest like old gin.
No rest from the 8-track quad
packed between two wisps of strawberry incense,
only expensive ash remains.
When he sits,
nose a chipped duplex,
her face outdistances his breath. He remembers and
hates Raines Road. At the rear,
beneath the steps,
a dirty rug and shoelace harden.
And her vacancy still drips
like a Harlem faucet,
While in his ghetto cell a voice breaks
the howl of James Brown,
a voice that announced Open House
A voice he vaguely recalls as his,
projected from the empty
bottle in his hands.
Virginia Foster has taken part in numerous community projects including “Citizens for Better Jails,” which she helped to found. She now supervises VISTA volunteers assigned to her neighborhood. Candy A. Culin, a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee Law School, now resides in New York. (1978)