I woke up early that Thursday morning with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I jumped to turn off my alarm so as not to wake up the other 30 people sleeping on the basement floor of St. Joseph’s Church in Circleville, OH. Getting dressed, I went through a mental checklist of dos and don’ts – no bobby pins in my hair, no metal belt, no tight fitting clothing, no bra with an underwire, nothing that could be considered revealing, nothing that could keep me from my visit.
For the last 4 days I’d walked 13-15 miles each day with a group of incredibly passionate, determined, and beautiful people. Each of them joined the Walk to Stop Executions for different reasons but our shared purpose, abolition of the death penalty, created a strong tie to one another. Preferring to be around others, it was difficult to leave this community and walk onto death row alone.
I’d never been to a prison before, let alone death row. I was allowed to carry a car key, my drivers license, and a visitors pass. After walking through the metal detectors, they stamped my hand with invisible ink and escorted me through the first set of doors fifteen feet away. I showed my stamped hand, my license, and my visitor pass to the guards through the window. A jarringly loud clank meant that the door was unlocked and I could walk from one building to another. The chilly autumn air left me with an excuse to tremble as I tried to breathe deeply – trying to balance the normalcy of walking to visit a new friend with the harsh reality of razor wire and guard towers surrounding me.
Entering the next building I again showed my ID, visitor pass, and held my stamped hand under a blacklight. A guard greeted me saying, “We’ve got Esparza down, he’s waiting for you,” and escorted me from one building to the next, through locked doors and monitored passageways. I entered the visitors area and once again showed my ID, pass, and hand stamp. I looked down the long narrow space and at the end of the row of empty tables I saw a man stand up and excitedly wave his hands to greet me with a grin on his face. I had been nervous I might not recognize him from his photo on the ODRC website but being the only one present meant that this must be Greg. I smiled as I felt some apprehension fade away.
“Hola!” he yelled when I was still a few tables away. “Como estas?” I asked him. The guys at Chillicothe call him Mex because he’s one of 3 latinos out of 154 people on Ohio’s death row. Ever since I scheduled my visit with Greg, I thought about the things I’d want to share with him, the topics we could talk about, and what I should stay away from. From the moment I sat down, it was clear he had been thinking about all the things he wanted to share with me too because he didn’t stop talking for the first hour. Greg has a great sense of humor – “I think they’re keeping me on death row to help with the diversity quota,” he sarcastically said. And he referred to the portable phone he takes into his cell as his own “cell phone.” He kept things light at times but it’s a difficult reality to live.
Greg reflected on looking out his window at the room where inmates wait to be transferred to Lucasville before an execution, wondering what thoughts are going through their heads as they wait to be killed. He talked about the guy in the cell next to him, who they call Chef because of the delicious snacks he makes for the guys. Chef has an execution date and he asks Greg, “What are you guys gonna eat when I’m gone?” Death was as present in our conversation as if it was the third person at the table. He spoke of wondering when he’ll receive an execution date, having prewritten letters to his loved ones saying goodbye and leaving calculated parting words – messages of hope and love. He talks about spending time thinking about what his last words will be – will they be loving? Inspirational? How will he be remembered? What mark will he leave? If his sentence is ever changed to a life in prison, he’d want to make sure he could be doing something to leave a positive impact on society, teaching kids that there are consequences to their actions and prison/death row is nothing to scoff at.
There were plenty of terrible experiences he shared – about his abusive father, losing his mother, loss of his siblings to gun violence, drugs and gangs, mistakes and regrets. I knew a little about his story from the letters we’d previously exchanged and many themes were familiar narratives to others on death row. What surprised me most was the amount of faith and hope he has. Greg has been on death row for 31 years, since I was 1 month and 10 days old.
One of the questions he asked me was, “Do you ever feel like you’re not making a difference?” “Sometimes,” I said, “It’s hard to see the big change when the impact of the small actions is hard to measure.” Greg reminded me that it makes a difference to him to know there are people out there who haven’t forgotten about him and the others on death row. “Fear and faith do not walk together,” he told me and gave me a letter to share with others.
The visit ended abruptly when the guards came back to unshackle his legs from the table and take him back to his cell. As we got ready to part ways, he said, “This isn’t goodbye; you’ve got a friend for life now, even though I don’t know how long that will be.” Looking into his eyes as the guards walked over with heavy chains to escort him back to his cell, I wept knowing that I was leaving him there and walking away without him. So often when I meet a friend for coffee or lunch we walk out together and go our separate ways. I’ll keep exchanging letters with Greg and hope to visit again some day.
It was freezing inside those walls. Walking back to my car, I started to thaw out but was in a daze as I cried quietly to myself. I sat in the drivers seat and called our team who was still out walking. I was so grateful to reconnect with Andrea, Maggie, Jon, and Mike while they were sitting by the roadside on a break to tell them about my visit. A crew from the Columbus Dispatch captured a photo of them crowded around the phone when they came to write an article about the walk. I knew the group was thinking of me and praying for me and for Greg that morning and felt their support as they listened and asked questions about how it went and what it was like to visit. I felt proud to be part of this 83 mile walk, even if I only was able to do part of it. It might not be the action that alone abolishes the death penalty, but I know that it makes a difference to Greg, to many of the folks we met along the way, and allows me to keep Greg’s face in mind as we work and walk to stop executions.