Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row | [Duke University Press; April 2021]

A few observations came to mind while reading Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row, published in April by Duke University Press.

I first recalled the words of the artist and playwright, Keith Antar Mason, who, in the late 1990s, predicted that the next generation of literary voices would emerge from the American gulag, owing to federal legislation that led to the mass incarceration of Black and brown people.

At 272 pages, Right Here, Right Now contains moving, first-person, anonymous accounts of men living on death row. Most stories and poems in the volume are page-long vignettes.

The eight chapters are divided chronologically, starting with the themes of early childhood with the first chapter, which delineates a pathway where prison was all but inevitable, and concluding with the final chapter, “Every Day’s Worth Celebrating,” in which condemned men cope with nearing executions. “Here’s the first game I remember playing,” writes the author of  chapter one’s “Playing Solitary.”

The writer describes eating cereal and watching TV as a child  with his baby brother in their tiny closet, an activity they called “solitary.” In the final chapter, another writer recalls tears streaming down the face of his friend and fellow prisoner, who left with his head held high when taken from his cell, two days before his execution.

Right Here, Right Now is part of a growing body of new literature about death row in America, most notably, 2014’s best-selling Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by the attorney Bryan Stevenson. Here in the Triangle, Tessie Castillo’s powerful Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row, published last year, chronicled the voices of the men on North Carolina’s death row, and what life is like while waiting to die. Like Castillo’s book, Right Here, Right Now is a Triangle-based project edited by writer and advocate Lynden Harris.

Right Here, Right Now also prompted remembrance of a pointed observation by John Schwade, a now-retired prison psychologist at Raleigh’s Central Prison who told this writer in the early 2000s that young Black men behind bars struggled with mental illness when they fully understood the prospect of serving long prison sentences.

Imagine the most wretched antithesis of flourishing into adulthood in a stainless steel cage while waiting to die.

The 100-plus stories featured in Right Here, Right Now are from the voices of our fellow humans condemned to die while sitting in death row cells across the country.

With the common refrain of death row being reserved for the worst of America’s criminals, Right Here, Right Now provokes uncomfortable questions about a judicial system that disproportionately incarcerates those who are “descendants of enslaved peoples and other people of color, the vast majority poor, and too many mentally ill,” as articulated by acclaimed death row attorney Henderson Hill in the book’s foreword.  

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