At Tenx9 Nashville’s special event, “I Was in Prison,” Drac Payne speaks of death, friendship, and rehumanization after 34 years in prison.
“From Dehumanizing to Humanizing”
I was placed in prison for second degree murder in 1982 at the age of 18. My first thought was that I would not survive in prison. I’m only 18. Just a few years later, my ex-cellie tried to kill me. I was convicted of Murder 1st degree and sentence to life with the possibility of parole. Upon arriving at Brushy Mountain in 1982 the first thing that I saw was how inmates were being dehumanized by officers. I saw officers beating inmates with little sticks that they carried around their waist. I saw inmates being told that they could not go and see their love ones in the hospital or even attend their funeral if they passed away. I listen time and time again over my 34 years, officers yelling, and screaming at inmates as if they were two year old children.
I learned quickly how the system was bent on dehumanizing individuals, you’re told when to eat, when to sleep, when to go outside. Officers would even pull you into a building and make you strip naked just to see if you are carrying a weapon. Being dehumanized every day is the norm in prison but nowhere did I see this more clearly than in the death of my friend Jerry Honey. Jerry had Hepatitis C and was in the last stages of his life. We use to walk around in the unit that we lived in talking. He would look at his swollen stomach and then tell me that he wish that he could drop this baby so that he would be ok. We would just look at each other and laugh. A lot of us knew that he did not have much time left. We would spend as much time with him as possible to make his last days on earth pleasant. The community stepped up and took care of Jerry. We cleaned his cell when it needed cleaning, and brought his food to him every day. If he just wanted to sit and talk, someone was always there.
Jerry was constantly in pain. His swollen stomach kept him in misery. Sometimes he would say he wished he had a gun so he would stop hurting so bad. Day after day, we watched the prison system turn their backs on Honey. Some days he couldn’t get the painkillers he needed; other times, they wouldn’t drain the fluid from his stomach. By the end, Jerry really did look 8 months pregnant. He was only in his 50’s but you might of thought he was 70. It seemed clear to us that the prison system only thought of us as disposable objects. They didn’t care.
The prison system wanted to send Jerry to Special Needs, which is a medical prison for prisoners, but we knew that if he was sent there, he would die without his friends or his community around him and Jerry did not want that. We fought to keep him around us, like he wanted. One of a prisoner’s biggest fears is dying alone, forgotten. At night, sometimes I would lie in bed and think, If I died tonight, “Would I be missed?” Who would even know or even care? When Jerry’s time was drawing near, some of the staff noticed how the community was taking care of Jerry and they knew this was what he wanted.
In the midst of a system that thrives on cultures of death and suffering, I was able to see and participate in a community that was built on a culture of life and love for each other.
Jerry died with his community around him like he wanted. He died holding the hand of Chaplain Alexander, with his celly right beside him. He died with dignity, respect, and as a human being.
Even though I’ve lived firsthand the apathy and dehumanization of the prison system, I have also seen that none of us has to die alone. Through communities of love and friendship, we can resist the isolation and sorrow of a system that thinks we are disposable.
I want to close with this poem by my dear friend Tony Vick who remains locked up.
I Shall Not Die Alone
If today becomes my last moment on earth,
I shall not die alone.
I will not hear the whisper of hope
mutter from a stranger.
I will not seek comfort from a preacher
whom I’ve never met.
But I will remember the eyes that have looked into
mine with love and inspiration.
Drifting through my mind will be words that
have uplifted me the real me.
The one not bridled with deceptions and fear.
I will feel the touches of those who
were not afraid to reach out to an
outcast of the world.
If today is my last day, I don’t need
medical folk simply doing their job.
I just need to remember
Remember the words of my God.
Remember the love of my friends.
I SHALL NOT DIE ALONE.
My friend Jerry did not die alone.