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2005-10-18 Emotional handshake on death row

Behind the glass stood a pale, hollow man in a white boiler suit, his empty eyes camouflaged pin-points in sunken eye sockets.

 

His flat lips weakly formed into a smile - "James Nelson?", he said.

 

"Ten years Eric, I told you I'd come, eventually", I replied with forced composure. He spread his right hand against the glass. I mirrored it with mine - our handshake.

 

I had been invited to attend a music convention in Memphis, Tennessee, on the Arkansas border. Since 1995, I had been in weekly correspondence with Eric on Arkansas Death Row. I was added to his short visitor's list at the outset, but never managed to make that long journey.

 

Now I had a day-off, and was 250 miles away. After a lot of pleading, and slight adjustment of prison rules, I was granted a last-minute visit. In an over-sized white Ford Explorer, I set off with Celtic Matthew along the Interstate 40 across the Mississippi into Arkansas.

 

We keyed the prison address into the In-car-navigational system, and a quasi-female voice guided us all the way. Arkansas is the home of Wal-Mart, Bill Clinton and Glen Campbell - a very agricultural state, famous for rice, which is even exported to the Far East. Camping, fishing and hunting are all big in Arkansas.

This is `Bible-Belt country': `Jesus' is big business too. For prisoners in the state prisons, Jesus is often the only constant. The contrast with what was facing me at the end of my journey could hardly have been more pronounced - the broad lillied Arkansas river, wide open plains and prairies, never-ending acres of cotton and rice, eagles floating high above. Freedom and expanse all around. On the Interstate 65 from Little Rock to Pine Bluff, the topography switched from agriculture to forestry.

 

Finally, our almost-friendly voice announced - "You have arrived". We were in the middle of nowhere. On our left, we spotted the Varner Maximum Security Department of Corrections. Our first sight was of a line of black prisoners, chained together, working in the fields. Armed black prison guards on horseback kept a close eye. Later on, we took a walk around the car-park into a cotton field, but when threatened by one of these guards with her shotgun, we made a hasty exit. My name was on the front-desk. After metal detectors and searches, I was let in through two gigantic automated gates, watched from a lookout tower. Matthew remained in the waiting room, people-watching.

 

I walked to the final gate, leading into the Maximum Security High-risk area, and found myself surrounded by medium-risk prisoners, wandering freely. Some smiled blankly at me. Others were gardening, armed with clippers and other sharp implements. I was doubly uncomfortable, in 40 degree midday heat. A guard gestured to me from the High Security Building. He unlocked the door, let me in, and left me in the main hall, alone.

 

Another door was unlocked by a hidden face, and I was in the Visitor's Room. I heard a shout - "Nance, your visitor from Ireland is here". Thursday is not visiting day at Varner, and so, I was alone. I eventually found Eric in the 15th cubicle. After the initial shock of the first sight, the conversation arising from ten years of correspondence flowed uninterrupted. Eric had explained to me for years how his mind was enduring a slow death first, but as we talked, his brain became stimulated, his eyes twinkled, we smiled, we laughed, we cried.

 

This was a normal friendship between two normal guys, except that there was glass between us, and one of us was waiting to die, being meanwhile slowly dehumanised. I recalled my meeting with Kerry Max Cook, exonerated after 22 years on the Row, Jan Arriens book "Welcome to Hell", Edward Earl Johnson and all the others proven posthumously innocent.

 

Then I thought about the unique friendship I had with this man, Eric, how my postcards were a window to the world for him. I had set one of his poems to music, recorded it, and released it worldwide, but was not allowed to show him the booklet with his name in it - "Lyrics by Eric Nance".

 

Saying goodbye to a man on Death Row is strange. I said I'd be back. I just hope he is in this world when I return.