Getting a Glimpse of Life on Death Row

An Italian journalist evaluates life on death row and the American penal system as an outsider.

| March 2015

A death sentence is the ultimate punishment. In Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty (Seven Stories Press, 2015), Mario Marazziti, an Italian journalist and activist against the death penalty, shows the vast number of people who are impacted by death row and why the stakes are so high for us all whether we are on death row or not. This excerpt, which describes some of the people that Marazziti met while visiting death row, is from Chapter 7, “Voices in the Silence.”

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“No sandals, no visible toes, no tank tops.”
—Rules for death row visitors

The unspoken aim of death row is to break the wills of the prisoners and to emphasize the idea of their inhumanity. In that way, when the day of the execution arrives, it will seem that the person whose life is taken is in a sense not really a human being. But against all odds, Dominique Green has grown up in here. He’s become a man. He writes poetry, he paints. His art expresses anguish. There’s a rose, emerging from a man’s eyes, with tears that drip from the thorns and travel far, like a letter sent from prison. There are small spaces, intertwined bodies, grilles and bars everywhere. The death chamber stretches out, its shape like a crucifix.



John Paul Penry has grown here, too, and learned how to read a little, even if it is clear that he will never be a grown-up in any of the ways we understand that word to have meaning. When I met him, the US Supreme Court had annulled his sentence twice, saying the lower courts did not take his disability into account, but each time the state of Texas has had the last word and he is still on death row.

Eddie Johnson used to call himself “the Warrior” in his letters. He was under eighteen when he was arrested, and eventually ended up here on death row. He’s always been at war with the system, fighting a losing battle.