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Introduction to Florida Death Row
By Richard E. Shere Jr.
Upon entering the gates of Hell, better known as Florida State Prison, a dark place of despair and lack of any human emotion, my senses intensified. The smell of death on every guard and prisoner's uniform. The walls cried of the blood of young men smashed against them as each was welcomed to this cold place of destruction.
Even eye contact was feared and forbidden as an unwritten law as I walked in through the thick steal door, for each prisoner and guard already knew what was about to happen to me and others planned what they would do to me.
I was a young man, age 21, and I had never been in trouble before. Now I was convicted of a crime I did not commit and was sentenced to death. My education about Hell was just beginning. With each step into this dark place my feet grew heavy and my heart found its way to my throat.
I was guided to a small holding cell where I spent several hours waiting.
I was hungry and tried to talk to anyone that passed by in the hall but I got no response. I then took notice of a group of 6 guards standing in a circle near by talking. Each taking turns looking in my direction before they headed my way. Their body language told me they were ready for battle. The leader held up a set of brass keys and yelled, "Time for your haircut Boy!" Being a small young man at the time I was snatched up in the air by this huge man and tossed into the 5 other guards. They began to beat me. This was my welcome to Florida State Prison.
After 2 hours of getting beaten up and slammed against the wall I noticed that my blood had begun to dry on the floor and wall. I began to feel it dry on my bones as well. I was then carried to a near by barber shop where I was held down and my head and face were shaved, using my own blood for shaving cream. A hot, white towel was violently rubbed all over my face. I watched it turn red with my blood.
Barely able to move I was snatched up from the barber chair and thrown into two boxes which contained my personal property and legal material.
Now, for the first time, I realized that I was handcuffed with my hands in front of me. I was barely able to stand when the guards told me to pick up my two boxes and carry them or what ever I could not carry would be left behind.
Some how I managed to get the heavy boxes into my arms. I began the long walk to the cell where I would wait for my death sentence to be carried out. This was no short walk for a healthy man, let alone a beaten man carrying two heavy boxes while hand cuffed. After walking the first several meters I felt the blood dripping from my wrists due to the weight of the boxes and the hand cuffs cutting deep into my wrists. Weak from not eating in days, from loss of blood, from beatings and inhumane treatment, there was no end to this long hallway on my walk to death.
After several hundred meters, possibly one thousand meters, I was led down a dark stairway and began to hear the sounds of coughing from sick men on Death Row. The smell of smoke and death rose with each step I took. I was led to a dark cell where the handcuffs were taken off and the door was shut behind me. Barely able to see in the darkness I tore pieces off of my shirt and wrapped them around my wrists to stop the bleeding.
Cold and wet from sweat and blood I curled up on my steal bed and fell asleep within seconds. I was woken the next morning by the sound of a cold, hard, steal food tray hitting my door. Every bone in my body felt like it had been broken. I could barely see due to the swelling around my eyes.
Painfully I got to my feet and walked to the door to retrieve the food tray. I gently sat down on the cold, steal bed with the tray on my lap.
Still dark in this horrible place I began to scoop handfuls of cold oatmeal off the tray with my hands. I pushed it through my busted lips and broken teeth, knowing that I had to eat to survive. After several minutes of this I noticed something dark in my oatmeal. I managed to find a small light in the corner of my cell. I pulled it on and saw to my horror that what I had been eating was covered in blood. I was not sure if it was my own or someone else's. My hunger and my will to survive grew stronger...I had to eat and I finished eating with tears running down my face, while screaming inside, "What kind of place is this!" Only later did I find out that a young man had been killed in the kitchen that morning by another prisoner and it was his blood that I had eaten. Upon hearing that news I began to vomit and could not eat for several more days.
After my first meal on death row I managed to get back to sleep while silently listening to the sounds of 100 men on death row begin their day.
They were sounds I had never heard before from so many people, coughing, sickness, screaming, even laughter. Smoke and death filled the air and it felt as if every man was slowly dying a horrible death. It felt as if these were all hospital beds. I wondered how many were in my condition...broken up and beaten? How long had they waited and how many would gladly welcome death? Again, I slowly and painfully fell asleep.
Once again, at lunchtime, I was woken by the sound of a cold food tray hitting my door and I managed to eat what I could. Now realizing that I had to wake up and get my day started I collected my thoughts and began to fumble around for a towel to clean myself up. As I began to move around, a man in the next cell said, "Hello, new guy. What's your name?" I answered, "Rip". I decided to use this as a nickname so no one would find out my real name until I could trust them.
This man introduced himself as Paul Scott. He passed me a cigarette which I gladly accepted, even though I did not smoke. I recognized this as a friendly gesture by a kind person who knew what I had been through to get here on death row...to get to the cell next to his. Paul Scott was very concerned about my physical condition and asked me if I needed anything.
Paul had already spent 10 years on death row and helped many other new, young men adjust to this horrible death warehouse.
Now it was my turn to learn everything this kind, friendly man could teach me so that I could survive. We talked for hours that day and in the days and weeks that followed. Paul spent several hours of his time teaching me everything I needed to know. Even at his own great expense Paul took time away from his own fight for freedom to prove his innocence, to help me understand how this prison system worked. He taught me how to avoid trouble and beatings from the guards. He also taught me how to read and write letters for myself so that I could ask for help to prove my innocence.
Paul spent many valuable hours of his short, precious time listening to my stories of how I lost my family, friends, wife and child due to my conviction and incarceration. Paul became my very good friend and helped me through many rough times when I even considered taking my own life so that I would not have to deal with the emotional pain and suffering that I endured in this cold, terrible place.
After spending many years side by side in our dark, damp cells it felt as if these small concrete and steal cages were growing smaller. The roaches, mosquitoes, rats and mice took up more space than we did. Some rats were so bold and large that if you set your food tray on your bed a rat would fight you for your food, or grab a piece of food and run for his life.
Each night Paul and I, along with everyone else, would spend time trying to kill rats and mice. At night we would tie a chicken bone to a string and throw it down the hallway and then slowly drag it back and a rat would attack it, pulling hard on the bone trying to get away with the food. Once you had the rat back to your cell you had to whack it in the head with a shoe. Sometimes the rat would even fight back and try to bite you.
After months without sunlight and witnessing several men being taken to the hospital due to suicides, suicide attempts, sickness and even from beatings from the guards I managed to pull myself together somewhat and grow cold and hard in order to survive my surroundings. I also witnessed many death warrants signed and executed. I could smell men burning to death in the electric chair. The smoke and smell of burning hair and flesh would make its way through the ventilation system. I could also hear grown men cry for the friend who had just been murdered by the State of Florida. Each of us on death row has been accused of premeditated murder. Yet the state continues to perform executions without guilt or punishment.
After I had been in prison for several months I also learned from Paul that we were not allowed to operate any sort of business from prison, making it impossible to support ourselves or our families and children. We cannot legally earn any money to pay for our lawyers and investigators or to gain support to prove our innocence and obtain our freedom.
Paul explained to me that we can only write letters and tell our story until we find someone kind enough to help and care about us. Someone who cares about our cases and would spend some time and money on us, or even just donate a small amount of money so that we can buy stamps, paper, pens and envelopes to continue our search for help and justice.
Many of us with no writing or reading skills did not stand a chance...we had to rely on other death row prisoners, such as Paul, to help us. When coming to a place like this you find out who your family and friends truly are. It is not an easy reality to face.
This being my first time away from home, out in the world all alone, in prison and on death row with little education, was enough (for me) to make a grown man cry. For my first four years at Florida State Prison I cried myself to sleep. Shortly after my fourth year I was still living next to my trusted friend, Paul Scott. We had been through so much together and soon I was to learn that his death warrant had been signed, one of many death warrants signed on Paul.
I will never forget that day...I saw the captain of the guards walk past my cell and stop in front of Paul's cell. They asked him to pick up his address book and come with them, and we all knew what that meant, his death warrant had been signed, again! As he walked past my cell in handcuffs I could not stop crying because I knew they were going to kill another innocent man, my trusted friend, Paul Scott.
I could not even find it in my heart to say good bye or speak as our eyes met, even though he knew how I felt. He walked away saying, "Teach the next young man so this does not happen to him!" Again, thinking of others as he walked to what we all thought was his death.
I could not eat for days and it really bothered me that the State of Florida could murder such a clearly innocent man when they knew that he did not commit the crime of which he had been accused. But their killing machine was constant, consistent and without regard for guilt or innocence, slowly burning us to death in that chair, one by one. 360 men, lined up and waiting...including myself and Paul Scott.
Days went by before I received the good news that my friend, Paul, would live a few more years. He was now a brother to me because of the way he had touched my life...truly family now. But it would also be many years before I would see him again...before I would live next door to him once more.
During these years many battles went on between the prisoners and guards. There were also battles between the prisoners and the State of Florida. Due to the poor, severe living conditions at Florida State Prison we won a lawsuit in court and it was ordered that a new death row building be built at Union Correctional Institution. I write to you from there today, in a cell next to my trusted brother, Paul Scott. Fourteen years later we are both still alive and fighting for our freedom side by side once
again. Both going through so many years of hope, disappointments, loss of family and friends. We even dealt with the murder of our fellow Death Row Prisoner, Frank Valdez. Frank was beaten to death by several prison guards only two years ago at Florida State Prison.
Our voices and pain were not known or seen even though we fought for our lives every day. Our cries of innocence are not heard, nor do they matter, because the courts only wish to hear if our rights have been violated during the process to convict us. There is rarely a case where a prisoner's rights were not violated, but without help, money, a good lawyer and an incredible investigator it is extremely hard to prove that your rights have been violated.
Even after you have proven your innocence and have shown that your rights have been badly violated, as in Paul Scott's case, the courts still do not wish to set you free, they break their own laws to keep you on Death Row. If it were not for the miracle of the internet our voices would not be heard today.
Two years ago when the guards at Florida State Prison beat Frank to death and were found innocent of the crime they committed, I was ready to lay down and die just to get away from this horrible place. Then I was moved next to Paul and he, once again, renewed my faith and taught me that there are hundreds of people out there that want to help us. Paul has taught me that I can get off Death Row and even get out of prison some day if I can just find someone, anyone, to fight for me and support me. Once again Paul is laying down his fight for freedom to help me...to teach me.
Paul and I are both what most people would think of as undereducated, so it has been an extremely long hard fight we have taken up to save our lives in addition to trying to change the laws in the process for the many others that will follow in our footsteps.
Most of the public defenders (lawyers) we are given by the State of Florida are paid by the state. It is an unwritten law to keep us alive and see that we receive a sentence of life in prison. Very few public defenders will work on issues that could lead to a reduced sentence and new trial so we can go free. They are severely under funded to investigate such matters in so many cases.
Basically, their only goal is to see that we get off death row and receive a sentence of life in prison. Once this happens we are left on our own to pay for a good lawyer and investigator to get our sentence reduced or to get a new trial. We are also given a one year time limit to raise this money (under these conditions) to hire a lawyer or we will be stuck in prison forever, and we will die under a life sentence.
With a lack of education and not being able to run a business from prison, we are forced to cry out for help in hopes that someone will fight for us or send donations so we can obtain the help we need.
On top of spending hours each day writing countless letters to ask for help (many of which never receive a response or reach their destination for whatever reason) it is an impossible task to work around the everyday conditions of this place...such as visits only once a week, lawyers that will not visit you, guards searching your cell at any time, unbearable heat in the summer, terrible cold in the winter, lack of access to a law library, yard only twice a week and showers only three times a week. Each of these conditions either adding pressure and stress to our situation here or completely wasting our time. Many grievances have to be filed each week to keep what we do have and need to continue our fight.
After 14 to 23 years of crying out for help and freedom, working up to 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, it becomes very discouraging when nothing is accomplished. It is even more amazing that Paul and I even continue this battle when so many others have given up...or never even tried.
The struggle to keep one's sanity through all of this year in and year out is quite a battle in itself, as we watch friends and loved ones die around us each year. Many times we have to deal with money hungry lawyers and investigators that only break their promises of freedom and steal what little money they can squeeze out of you and your family members. When your already limited resources are depleted you are no longer able to help yourself or fight for your freedom.
There is no time for normal life or relationships in this place of hell.
There is no time to even dream of a life after prison if we are released.
The only goal we allow ourselves to consider is the hope of a new trial or reduced sentence so that we can one day have freedom once again. Even then we will always be faced with being accused of a serious crime.
This mountain of injustice must be removed. If it can only be removed one stone at a time then we will die with a stone in our hands. At this time I would like to share a poem written for you. I hope that you will find meaning in it. Meaning that will touch your very heart and soul.
Condemned to Die
Why do they leave me here all alone to die? I hold out my hand and cry from the mountain tops and they just stare from afar... Not willing to help me as if it would endanger their own lives. But it will not, for they cannot be held for their actions if they were to only reach out a hand to save me. Am I not worthy? Have they no compassion? Is my life worth so little? Can they not see my tears? And do they not know I need help? Is it I oh Father that must reach out and help them? And bring them through this walk of Death that all of us must take? To comfort them along the way so that they will know our Lord is waiting? Take my hand then and follow me thy lost sheep, and we shall walk in the light as brothers and sisters and know that we are all God's children, free from all the injustice in this world...for it is not too late to care for and help one another on this walk of Death we must all take. May the blessings of our Father continue to bring comfort and peace to your soul.
Today I am represented by an ex police officer who has read my case and is doing what he can to help. Paul is represented by a lovely young German lady. Although we still lack the funds for the proper computer equipment that would allow us to get the help we need, we have managed to borrow other computers and have put most of our documents on disks, as we slowly try to build a web site that we can eventually put on line.
Through our website we will be able to ask for donations to our legal defense funds.
Previously Paul has had his own web site and received many donations but the lady who had promised to help him kept the money for her own personal use and now we have to learn everything for ourselves and make sure that it is in the hands of people we can truly trust...like our representatives.
It has not been an easy battle, but we do hope to have two computers soon with internet access so that we can contact many others for help. Shortly after doing this we also hope to present our own web site on line with a legal defense fund so we can proceed to hire the help we need to be released from prison.
Conditions in this new death row building are better than they were at Florida State Prison and for that I am grateful. The best part is that we do now have contact visits for 6 hours on Saturdays or Sundays each weekend. There are no roaches, rats or mice, but mosquitoes and ants continue to be a problem at times. The lighting is better and the cells are slightly bigger and, for the most part, dry.
The recreation yards are smaller with plenty of razor wire on top of the fence. With 28 men outside at a time it can seem fairly crowded. Exercise is often interrupted with hot tempers and large egos. 4 hours of sunlight each week is just not enough for anyone. The food here has gotten worse with time and we stay in constant battle with the state of Florida over the insanely high prices they charge us for canteen, snacks and dry goods.
In our small cells almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, we are not allowed to work or earn any money in any way, so we have to rely on loved ones and pen-friends for financial support. Without this support we would not even be able to write and plead for help and support. With so many television shows portraying prisoners to be such bad people it is extremely hard to find anyone who is willing to help, let alone support us here in any manner.
As each year passes more and more is taken from us...making it harder and harder to have contact with the outside world...making it harder and harder to ask for help in righting the wrongs that are committed against us each day.
On a lighter topic some small pleasures can be enjoyed here from time to time. An example of this would be hearing the song of a male bird, in the spring, as he proudly puffs up his chest and sings his beautiful songs outside our windows, desperately trying to win over the heart of some unsuspecting female bird during mating season. It is quite amazing to watch as he pours out his little heart and soul with all of this being.
I often wonder if I will ever have the chance to sing my songs of love ever again, trying to attract a mate of my own. This used to cause me great pain but I know that the wife I once had and the son we had together is truly more than any one man could ask for in 10 life times. I have accepted being alone, although I greatly miss the intimate contact I once shared with others, just a simple hug or the touch of a hand, or even warm, friendly eye contact would mean the world to me now. I do not feel it would be fair to another to drag them into my mess until I was sure that one day I would be free...no matter how much they wanted it to happen.
It seems ridiculous that all that stands between my freedom (and Paul's) is a small amount of money. But, it was poverty that landed us here so many years ago, and it is poverty that has kept us here. Of course it is not only Paul and me that suffer in this way, many here are stricken with the same poverty.
Occasionally we are able to see a beautiful sunrise or sunset. It would be wonderful to go outside at night again and look up to see the moon and the stars. Sometimes while being transported to another prison I find it breath taking to look out of the window as we drive down the road in a car or prison van. Given the chance on such a transport I will go out of my way to just walk on grass. Once I even pretended to trip so I could fall on the grass and roll around a moment before I got up.
There are so many things taken for granted by so many people that would truly mean the world to a man that has been on death row for over 10 years. More than three showers each week would be very nice, and being able to adjust the temperature on the shower water would be equally nice. Watching a television show on a colored tv would be extremely pleasing. Sitting in a comfortable chair, or sitting at a nice table to eat lunch with others once again would actually make me feel human for a change.
There are so many simple pleasures, such as these, that would mean the world to me today. Sometimes I wish I had never known any of them, so that I would not miss them now. I am grateful I have as much as I do in this small cage. I know it could be worse. But that is only speaking of material items, being on death row and knowing you may be executed, just waiting all of these years is inhumane. I wish they would have taken my life the very same day they found me guilty.
The emotional stress for me and everyone I know has been extremely hard.
On top of that everyone tries to protect me from everything and won't tell me when bad things happen because they feel I have enough to deal with. It is also very tough to find out who your friends and family truly are, and when you come to a place like this you do find out. I thought I knew my family and friends well, when I was free. But I have learned that I never knew them at all.
Apparently they never knew me at all either. I have discovered that in order to really get to know someone you need to communicate with them face to face, on the telephone, and write letters for at least a year. Each of these allows you to say things that you would not normally be able to say because of embarrassment or other reasons. I lacked the letter writing part with my family and friends when I was free which is probably the most important part. It is a lost art today, and it may also
be the reason so many relationships fail these days, however, with email there is now hope, as everyone is free to express themselves without a face to face confrontation.
One of the small comforts we have here is that we each have a very small black and white tv in our cells, but they basically cause more harm than good. Many men on death row simply watch tv all day long and will not even write a letter or work on their case. They just wait to be executed.
They are also afraid to stand up for their rights here because if they get in trouble they will lose their tv and go to the hole for 30 days.
If we had nothing to lose a lot more would be accomplished around here, and in the courts, and more innocent men would be set free, so it is tough to deal with. Having to live in prison is like having to live with 2000 four year old children the size of full grown men. They all want their way, and they cry or get angry if they can't have their way. It will drive you insane, even if you like children. Many of the men here are dangerous, not so many on death row, but through out the prison system there are some very dangerous men.
Death row men are very calm and even nice people, for the most part. I have had several guards tell me that Death Row is the safest place to work in the prison system, because we are so nice and calm, no trouble at all. Most men here were told it was wrong and against the law to kill someone but no one was ever once told why it was wrong. Seeing so much on tv, people just shooting each other, leads some people to believe that they will not get caught if they do kill someone.
The Death Penalty will never be a deterrent to crime because almost everyone who commits a crime believes they will never get caught. The Death Penalty is useless for fighting crime. The only purpose it serves is to get rid of someone you do not want. Most murders take place because men want to simply get rid of a problem (person), and that is what the Death Penalty does, it is just a way to get rid of problem people. They do not mind if they kill a few innocent people along the way.
It is up to us to change the laws and right the wrongs, so please get involved or make a donation if possible. For more information please write:
Richard Shere #116320
UCI P-3110,7819 NW 228th St.
Raiford, FL 32026-4430 USA
Mail to: email@example.com
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