Today was bittersweet.
I’ve spent 10 hours over the past few days visiting with my friend, Ramiro Gonzales. Ramiro is currently on Texas Death Row for a crime he committed when he was 18 years old. Today was originally set to be his execution day.
But I should back up…
Saturday night I drove the 90 minutes from Houston to Livingston to make it to the Alan B. Polunsky Unit. This is where all Death Row inmates are housed. I was very nervous. I was nervous about being in a maximum security prison. It was pretty intimidating. I was nervous about meeting Ramiro. We had never spoken face to face before. I was nervous we would run out of things to talk about. What if this all went wrong?
My visit was scheduled for 8:00pm. I was encouraged to show up an hour early to make it through security and get snacks for the two of us from the vending machines. I was told this would be the best food Ramiro would receive all week(!). When I walked up to the security building, the officer quickly waved me away and told me to come back at 7:55pm to go through security. I went back at 7:50pm.
Going through security at the prison is much like going through security at the airport, except you’re always selected for a pat down, and there seems to be more emphasis on the breasts. The only things that can be brought in are your ID, keys and a Ziploc bag with $25 in change. In a country without $2 coins, this is a lot of change. I handed one of the officers my passport and drivers licence. There was a problem entering the IDs into the TDCJ system because of the lack of ZIP and State codes, so that took up about 15 minutes. The confusion was now eating away at the two hours I had scheduled with Ramiro. One of the officers suggested I come earlier next time. 🤔
Because I was stuck behind the rest of the more experienced visitors, I wasn’t able to follow them into the next building where the visitations take place. The officers in the security building explained to me where I needed to go. Unfortunately, I am hopeless with directions. By the time I approached the next building, there were two doors that I could see and I wasn’t sure which one to walk towards. Door A was closer. Door B had a kitty sitting in front of it. Obviously I went to the door with the cat. Door B was the wrong door. No big deal if I had been visiting a shopping mall. Much bigger deal in a maximum security prison.
“Excuse me, Ma’am? STOP! STOP Ma’am!!”
The kitty ran away. I guess he wasn’t supposed to be there either.
“Turn around and walk back where you were. You can’t be here. Go in the other door.”
I went in the door (the one without the cat) and found my way to the visiting room. Ramiro hadn’t been brought out yet, so I went to the vending machines and bought him some food. This took quite a while (lots of snacks and no toonies), and the guard had to help me because I was not allowed to touch any of the food that went to him.
Finally, they brought Ramiro out. He was beaming. I must have been beaming too. It was so incredible to see him. There are no contact visits on Death Row, so I sat in front of the glass with my telephone receiver, waiting for them to take off his handcuffs and lock him in his tiny booth.
Any of the anxieties I had about meeting him melted away instantly. The time went very fast. We certainly didn’t run out of things to talk about. Saturdays is photograph day, so we had one taken (see above). They don’t really train the officers in flattering photo composition. The camera looked like it was purchased in 2003.
It felt like I was only there for half an hour. At 10:00pm, I was told to leave. I was tired, but excited. It hadn’t felt like it was the first time we had met. It felt like we’d been talking together for years. We have been exchanging letters for a long time and meeting face to face seemed to just be an extension of that.
Yesterday I arrived at Polunsky and Ramiro had this piece of artwork ready for me. It’s a gift for my son.
Today was our last visit before I head back to Toronto on Sunday. As we approached hour three, we both started to acknowledge how sad we were to say goodbye. We couldn’t even say, “See you in November!” with any happiness, because I won’t be coming back in November unless his execution is moving forward. I won’t be back until Texas is ready to kill Ramiro. It was hard to think about before. It’s even harder now.
I would challenge anybody who is a proponent of the death penalty to spend some time getting to know somebody like Ramiro. Write with them. Meet them. Learn about their life story. Do it with an open heart and then at the end decide whether or not this person should be killed. It’s one thing to talk about the statistics and theories around capital punishment. It’s another to actually enter into relationship with somebody who has been condemned. There is a humanity in each of us, but it’s frightening to think of sharing in a common humanity with somebody who has caused so much hurt and destruction. It means we have to confront our own darkness. By acknowledging the capacity for good that we share, it means we also have to acknowledge our shared capacity to hurt and create suffering. We don’t want to do that, so we paint these broken people as an Other. But we are all broken.
“As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is a resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them. There are two things which men can do about the pain of disunion with other men. They can love or they can hate. Hatred recoils from the sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price of this resetting of bones. It refuses the pain of reunion. But love by the acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds.”
I am sad, but I am also filled with so much love and gratitude. Sad because I feel like I am abandoning my friend. It was so hard to walk away. Love and gratitude, because I know there are many people supporting me through this journey. To everybody who sent me notes of encouragement, to those who gave financial assistance through The Yellow Rose Cabaret, to my church community for all your prayers, please know how appreciative I am.
Ramiro’s execution date is November 2nd. His birthday is November 5th. I am hopeful he will see his 34th birthday.