[First posted in November 2013 on]

I walk through the opening as the steel door clangs open and head toward the vending machines with my fistfuls of quarters. Nothing new, unfortunately. The same sugary, neon-colored sodas, salt-laden chips, and dry, mystery-meat sandwiches on bread as thin and tasteless as cardboard, wrapped in cellophane. But these will be my friend Wiley’s only chance at lunch. The prison doesn’t serve lunch on Saturdays.

Vending machine

I’ve been visiting Wiley for 16 years. He’s been on death row for 41. I have a hard time sometimes getting my head around that. He went to prison the year I graduated from high school. That was long before email and the Internet, when TV came in three channels and phones were the size of a bread box. Wiley has lived in a very small cell for a very long time.

He has, in his words, “been on death row longer than anyone in the world.” I believe him. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out his death sentence a decade ago when they uncovered the racism and incompetence of the public defender who had been assigned to his case. Despite multiple efforts by his friends and legal advocates to move things along, Wiley has never been resentenced. So he languishes on death row, caught in an unending legal morass.

Wiley’s mother, who died two decades ago from kidney failure, was 12 years old when she gave birth to him. His father was shot to death when Wiley was 2. Wiley never made it through high school. It’s surprising, given what I know of his younger life, that he survived those years at all.

A few weeks ago, during their one-hour-a-day outside for exercise, a younger inmate knocked Wiley’s legs out from under him when he was coming down with a rebound on the basketball lot. Wiley fell on his back, ruptured a disc, and has been in intense pain ever since. Understandably, given the horror stories that have circulated, he told me, “I don’t want the State doctors cutting on me.” So he takes aspirin and lives with the pain.

I hand Wiley’s lunch to the guard at the next steel door. He takes out a huge key and ushers me through and then sticks the sandwich in a microwave. Wiley appears, slightly bent, his hands cuffed behind him. The guard removes the cuffs.

Wiley and I sit on hard, wood stools on opposite sides of a glass-and-wire-mesh barrier, trying to hear each other through static-y phones that don’t always work. I’m the only visitor he’s had in weeks. We’ve barely said hello when the guard appears with a box holding the best I could find in the vending machines: a bottle of Mountain Dew, a bag of broken corn chips, and a slab of thin gray “meat” on two pieces of dry white bread. Next to these are the four small packets of pepper I requested (Wiley loves pepper).

Wiley smiles and gratefully receives the food. Then he bows his head and gives thanks.

What are you thankful for?



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