Murder is our national sport. We murder tens of thousands with our industrial killing machines in Afghanistan and Iraq. We murder thousands more from the skies over Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen with our pilotless drones. We murder each other with reckless abandon. And, as if we were not drenched in enough human blood, we murder prisoners—most of them poor people of color who have been locked up for more than a decade. The United States believes in regeneration through violence. We have carried out blood baths on foreign soil and on our own land for generations in the vain quest of a better world. And the worse it gets, the deeper our empire sinks under the weight of its own decay and depravity, the more we kill.
A television camera mounted on the ceiling of a witness room is pointed toward a prison death chamber. (Photo: AP/Danny Johnston)
There are parts of the nation where the electorate, or at least the white electorate, routinely and knowingly puts murderers into political office. Murder is a sign of strength. Murder is a symbol of resolve. Murder means law and order. Murder keeps us safe. Strap the criminal into the gurney. Plunge the needles into veins. Haul away the corpse. It is our Christian duty. God Bless America! And one of the next on the list to be murdered in Florida—a state that has decided, under its new and cynically named “Timely Justice Act,” that it needs to accelerate its execution rate—is William Van Poyck. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. June 12 at Florida State Prison. He is a writer who has spent years exposing the cruelty of our system of mass incarceration. On June 12, if Gov. Rick Scott has his way, Van Poyck will write no more. And that is exactly how our political class of murderers wants it.
“Only God can judge,” Matt Gaetz, a Republican who sponsored the Timely Justice Act in the Florida House of Representatives, said during the debate. “But we sure can set up the meeting.”
Van Poyck, 58, knows what is coming. He has seen it many times before. He chronicles existence on death row in his blog, posted by his sister, Lisa Van Poyck, at deathrowdiary.blogspot.com, where there is a petition to Gov. Scott asking for a reprieve.
“I wasn’t really surprised when they showed up at my cell door with the chains and shackles,” he wrote his sister May 3. “For the last month or so I’ve had a strong premonition that my warrant was about to be signed, but that wasn’t something I wanted to share with you.”
“Sis, you know I’m a straight shooter, I’m not into sugar coating things, so I don’t want you to have any illusions about this,” he wrote. “I do not expect any delays or stays. This is it. In 40 days these folks will take me into the room next door and kill me.”
“After 40+ years of living in cages I am ready to leave this dead end existence and move on,” he concluded. “I leave with many regrets over the people I have hurt, and those I’ve disappointed, and over a life squandered away. My spirit will fly away hugging all the life lessons learned over 58 years on Schoolhouse Earth and with an implacable determination not to repeat these mistakes the next time around.”
Van Poyck, before the signing of his death warrant and his abrupt transfer to a cell next to the execution chamber, was one of the few inside the system to doggedly bear witness to the abuse and murder of prisoners on death row.
“Robert Waterhouse was scheduled for execution at 6:00pm this evening,” Van Poyck wrote to his sister in 2012. “In accordance with the established execution protocol he was strapped to the gurney and the needles were inserted into each arm about 45 minutes prior to his appointed time. Just before 6:00, however, he received a 45-minute stay which morphed into an almost 3-hour endurance test as he remained on the gurney as the seconds, minutes and then hours slid by at an excruciatingly slow pace, waiting for someone to tell him if hope was at hand, if he would live or die. Just before 9:00 he received his answer, the plungers were depressed, the syringes emptied and he was summarily killed.”
“Here on the row we can discern the approximate time of death when we see the old white Cadillac hearse trundle in through the back sally port gate to pick up the body, the same familiar 1960?s era hearse I’ve watched for almost 40 years, coming in to retrieve the bodies of murdered prisoners, which used to happen on a regular basis back when I was in open population,” he went on. “I’ve seen a lot of guys, both friends and foes, carted off in that old hearse. Anyway, pause for a moment to imagine being on that gurney for over three hours, the needles in your arms. You’ve already come to terms with your imminent death, you are reconciled with the reality that this is it, this is how you will die, that there will be no reprieve. Then, at the last moment, a cruel trick, you’re given that slim hope, which you instinctively grasp. Some court, somewhere, has given you a temporary stay. You stare at the ceiling while the clock on the wall ticks away. You are totally alone, not a friendly soul in sight, surrounded by grim-faced men who are determined to kill you. Your heart pounds, your body feels electrified and every second seems like an eternity as a Kaleidoscope of wild thoughts crash around franticly in your compressed mind. After 3 hours you are drained, exhausted, terrorized, and then the phone on the wall rings and you’re told it’s time to die. To me this is cruel and unusual punishment by any definition.”
Van Poyck was convicted in the death of a corrections officer in 1987, although he insists he did not pull the trigger. But even if he did, it does not justify murder in the name of justice. Do we rape rapists? Do we sexually abuse pedophiles? Do we beat violent offenders? Do we strike hit-and-run drivers with a moving vehicle? And what if Van Poyck is telling the truth? What if he did not kill the corrections guard? He would not be the first inmate on death row to die for a murder he or she did not commit, especially in Florida. The state has sentenced more people to death than any other in recent decades. It has executed 75 since the death penalty was reinstated in Florida in the 1970s. There have been 24 death row inmates in Florida exonerated—one exoneration for every three executions. Not only might we kill the innocent, we have killed the innocent, as sadly illustrated by contemporary DNA tests that have cleared some of those who were put to death.
“When I heard from Bill’s lawyer about the warrant I lost it,” Van Poyck’s sister told me as she was driving Sunday from Richmond, Va., where she lives, to Bradford County, Fla., to see her brother. “I was on my lunch break. I broke down sobbing and crying. Gov. Scott signed warrants for prisoners who had committed heinous crimes, people who murdered children or serial killers. I thought Bill was safe for a long time. I still have visions of him walking out of there. And now he is in the death watch cell.”
“While he did commit a crime in trying to break a friend out of a prison transport van where his accomplice, Frank Valdes, shot and killed one of the guards, Bill never intended for anyone to get hurt, much less killed,” Lisa said. “I feel that 26 years on death row with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head has been punishment enough for the crime he did commit. I have received so many letters from people saying that his writings, especially his autobiography ‘A Checkered Past,’ have changed their lives. He is not the man he once was. He underwent a profound spiritual conversion. He is a beautiful soul. He deserves [to live].”
In “A Checkered Past” Van Poyck describes his troubled boyhood, including the death of his mother from carbon monoxide poisoning when he was a year old. His father, who worked for Eastern Airlines and had lost a leg in World War II, turned the children over to a series of housekeepers, most of whom were neglectful or abusive. By 11 Van Poyck was in a juvenile home, along with Lisa, who was 12, and a brother, Jeffrey, who was 18. By 17 Van Poyck was in prison for an armed robbery. And then in 1987 he and Valdes attempted to free a friend from a prison transport van in downtown West Palm Beach. A corrections guard was fatally shot, apparently by Valdes, who a dozen years later died after eight prison guards beat him in his cell. Van Poyck’s brother, who is ill with lung cancer, has been in prison since 1992 for a series of bank robberies in Southern California.
Van Poyck has written two novels, “The Third Pillar of Wisdom” and “Quietus.” One of his short stories, “The Investigation,” will be included in an anthology of prison writing edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
“I started working with Bill [Van Poyck] in 2007 in the PEN prison writing program,” said Elea Carey, a short-story author based in San Francisco who was his writing instructor for two years. “There is a sense of isolation in his writing, as if he grew up alone in nature. He defined his experience without anyone around to help him understand it. He often appears as if he was dropped into a foreign land. His sensitivity to others, his compassion, his awareness and his empathy grew with his writing. He moved from his aloneness to grappling with the basics of human relationships.”
“People die every day,” Carey said when we spoke by phone. “I lost my dad in January. I am not afraid of death. I don’t think Bill is afraid of death. I am not shocked that Gov. Scott did this. But I want to do everything possible to stop this from happening. We are asleep as a society. We too do not know what it means to be fully human. This asleepness was once part of Bill’s life. He was asleep, in this way, when he carried out his crimes and committed the wrongs he knows he did. But this unconsciousness is not limited to people like Bill—it is part of all who think it is OK to do this kind of harm to other human beings. I want my government to be above murder.”
Van Poyck has an eye for detail, a terse, laconic writing style and a deep compassion for those trapped in the system. He explores the daily degradation of prison life, a Stygian world where some 50,000 people are held in solitary confinement in supermax prisons or special detention units and where hopelessness and despair threaten to overwhelm those inside.
“Yesterday the prison was locked down all day for the standard ‘mock execution’, the practice run which occurs a week prior to the actual premeditated killing,” he wrote to his sister in February 2012. “For the mock execution they lock down the joint, bring in an array of big wigs, and go through a dry run to make sure the death machine is in working order, everyone on their toes. The big wigs are just voyeurs, here to vicariously kill someone while allowing themselves the bare moral cover of not actually pushing the knife between the ribs. Their minions do the actual dirty deed while they can go home with technically clean hands. These mock executions are as depressing as the real thing, in the sense that it’s dispiriting to watch an entire organization (a prison, with all its constituent parts) so seriously dedicate their time and energies to practice killing a fellow human being, as if this is a good and natural thing to do. It takes some peculiar mental (not to mention moral) gymnastics to justify this to oneself, but we humans have proven ourselves immensely adept at self-delusion and hypocrisy, especially when we bring religion into the equation. We are really, really good at killing others in the name of God. We are a strange species, aren’t we? To those who argue that the death penalty isn’t killing (or murder, which is merely a legal definition) because it is all done ‘according to the law’, I’d remind them that the Nazis did everything they did ‘according to the law’. The Nazis, for all their terrible deeds, were sticklers for following the law; they found their refuge in the law, meticulously following the letter of the law before they enslaved and/or executed their victims. ‘We were just following the law’ is a lame excuse when you are the one writing the laws in the first instance. …”
In prisons, he writes, time merges into a long, seamless monotony broken up by periodic and often explosive acts of tragedy and violence—an execution or death, a stabbing with a “shank,” beatings by the guards, mental breakdowns, rape and suicide.
“The search team came and tore up my cell last week,” he wrote in January 2012. “It was a surgical strike (they came for me alone) and I was later told that ‘someone’ wrote a snitch kite on me claiming (falsely) I had a weapon in my cell. I’m fairly certain it was someone trying to get a DR (disciplinary report) dismissed by dropping a dime on me on the hope they’d shake me down and find something, any kind of contraband, and the rat would then get credit for it. But I had no contraband so the snitch struck out. If the administration had any integrity they’d write the rat a DR for ‘lying to staff.’ I spent several hours putting my cell back in order; it looked like a hurricane came through, all my property scattered everywhere. This is the kind of bullshit you have to put up with in prison; it’s the nature of the beast. Hell, it happens on the streets, too, though. Informants are master manipulators and the police routinely play their game even though they know the rats often fabricate stories and evidence to their own ends. …”
He wrote earlier this year about the rapid decline of another prisoner, Tom, who “just 4 months ago had a hale and hardy soul and “now [is] a mere envelope of cancer-gnawed flesh and bones.” He “was removed from his cell by wheelchair, too weak to offer anything but meager protest, and transferred to the one place he dreaded going to, our notoriously filthy, blood spattered clinic holding cell, consigned to die in pain-soaked isolation. The image of him, barely able to croak a few words, weakly waving goodbye to me, his sunken, lingering eyes reflecting his recognition that he was going to his death, will forever be imprinted on my memory.”
“I confess that it is tiring to be surrounded by so much death—the dead and yet-to-be-dead—these past two decades, a struggle not [to] be drenched in negativity, with precious little to mitigate my disappointments,” he wrote. “Each day requires an act of will to wake up and set myself with a purpose, to believe this mortal life is more than just a play of shadows in a shadow box. …”
“My old pal Tom died on Friday, Feb 8th at 4:10 pm, alone in the clinic isolation cell at UCI,” he wrote to his sister a little later. “I hate that he died alone, locked in a tiny cell with no property (no radio, TV or anything to occupy his mind) and nobody to converse with, just laying on his bunk, staring at the ceiling, waiting for his final escape. His loved ones, who were able to travel from Texas and North Carolina to visit him for three hours just two days before he passed away wrote and told me that he was very weak and gaunt, could not keep down any food or liquids, but was lucid enough for a meaningful visit, though just barely so. Although I know his death was inevitable and imminent, I’m surprised at how much it has affected me. I’ve seen an awful lot of death during my many years in prison (way too much death, in all its myriad variations), including some friends, but Tom’s has knocked the wind out of me. I still catch myself starting to call over to him when I read something interesting or see something on TV that would pique his interest, and I sometimes swear I hear his voice calling me. A part of me is happy for him because I know he’s finally free, but I can’t lie; I really miss him.”