Richard Rossi
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CHAIN GANGS OR HUMAN BONDAGE

I have been on death row in Arizona for almost thirteen years and in
that time I have seen numerous changes to say the least. At the
beginning things were a lot better. It was not as populous and the food
was edible. There were never jobs for death row inmates beyond the
handful of jobs related to death row needs. We are and have always  been
segregated from the general population. Sort of like a leper colony
within the prison itself. For years many have requested to be able to
hold jobs, but due to being classified with the highest security and
public risk score, we are not allowed to work. And also because there is
not one tenth of the jobs necessary to satisfy the thousands of general
population inmates, thus we do not work.

A few months back a death row inmate received a last minute stay of
execution which was all that our governor Fife Symington needed to come
forth and attempt to garner some political support and some very needed
votes by getting tough on crime (ie death row inmates) by declaring that
as  "closure" seems to be endlessly delayed, he was going to instruct
the director of corrections to implement a program to put death row
inmates to hard labor on the chain gang instead of allowing us to sit in
our cells filing frivolous law suits and fighting our death penalty
cases. On December 7th 1995, the chain gang began. I went out the next
day. At 630 a.m. an army of police came to our cells with belly chains,
leg irons and video cameras. Were made to put on white uniforms that had
two thick orange stripes running up and down along side large black
stenciled letters A.D.C. (AZ. Dept. of Corr.). Twenty men to a chain
gang. We were marched within the prison grounds past yards of general
population inmates who were standing around to see us pass. On the tops
of the walls were numerous police with their mini 14's trained on us.
Once outside the walls we were led along like cattle by three police on
horseback with shotguns, three pick-ups with shotguns and three police
on foot. After about a mile to a mile and a half walking in leg irons
with our hands cuffed to our belly chains we reached the fields. Our
hands were uncuffed and we were read the riot act. Four orange cones
were placed on the field and we were instructed not to wander beyond
same or we would be shot. We were given hoes and instructions on how to
use them to weed out the rows of spinach and cabbage. Each hour we
received a short break and water. For lunch we had bolony sandwiches and
peanut butter and jelly sandwiches along with kool aid. We had half an
hour. We worked for eight hours. It only reached 80 degrees F and we
were sweating as it was. This is our winter, the summers get to 117
degrees F.

Later that night and most of the next day, numerous officers asked me
what I thought of the chain gang. I said I didn't. It took a while to
sort out my feelings towards the episode. The work was hard, but not
difficult. I did not mind it. I thought of how it would be in a few
months when the summer comes back around. I guess we will be collapsing
left and right. Then it came to me, what was bothering me was the
methods and procedures used. They ordered us to work, and if we refused
we would be beat up and pepper maced. Then brought out to the work site
anyway.  If we refused to work, we would be put into enclosures made out
of chain link fence material about the size of a telephone booth. Then
they would issue you with  a disciplinary write up for disobeying a
direct order and you then lose your privileges and property. They
videotaped us so as to have proof of anyone who resisted. The gloom and
doom scenario. The humiliation of being marched around in our white
uniforms with the bright orange stripes, stumbling as we stepped along
with armed guards all around us, like sheep to slaughter. I had thoughts
of the prisoners in all those concentration camps during the war. The
similarity was striking. We surely were a rag tag collection of unwanted
human beings. Another comparison that came to mind was that of  the
indentured servitude of the southern slaves. They were bought and sold
into slavery, our ticket was a crime. There was no release for the slave
but the grave, the same holds true for us. However, the slaves did not
have to work in leg irons. What has history taught us? At times it seems
as if nothing ever changes.

The story released to the newspapers and news media was that we death
row inmates were going to be put to work growing vegetables in the
garden so as to contribute to the welfare of all prisoners and help pay
our costs of confinement along with saving the state $175,000 per year
as well. They went on to state that the ten cents per hour that they
were paying us would somehow enrich our existence and help us to be self
sufficient. It is amazing how the press panders to the whims of the
state on these matters and just puts out the rhetoric word for word
without any discussion of the issues to see if there is any truth to it.

None of this could be further from the truth. We are not put on the
chain gang to enrich our lives, but to punish us because we are not
being executed fast enough in the eyes of our right wing conservative
warders. Nor is the target savings of $175,000 a year from us growing
these vegetables an obtainable figure. When you figure the salaries of
the nine officers who are guarding us, using a lower than average figure
of $20,000 each, that comes to $180,000 right there. Then there is the
thousands of dollars spent on uniforms and equipment purchased to outfit
us. And the costs just go on and on.

In order to make this work available for us, the general population
inmates who used to do this work were displaced by us. So what was
gained in the job scenario? We were never allowed to leave the cell
block building to work for any reason because of our extreme public risk
factor, so can one now conclude that we are no longer a public risk?
Should it be considered a coincidence that the day before the chain gang
were to start, the director of corrections announced his retirement from
the department?

What most of this goes to show is that the public sees and hears nothing
beyond the get tough sound bites of the politicians. In Arizona they are
spending hundreds of thousands of dollars resisting Federal court orders
in consent decree cases and class action cases decided in favor of the
inmates. They claim that the Federal judges are trying to micro manage
their prison system by issuing favorable decisions to the inmates at the
cost of the taxpayers. When a party signs a consent decree it is of
their own volition and usually because it is to their advantage not to
take a case to court. No one forced the state to sign any consent
decree. The Federal courts do not favor inmates over the state, they
represent the difference between democracy and tyranny. When the state
decides that they don't want to follow the agreements they are obligated
to do, they claim that it is all the fault of the judges. They don't
complain when the same judges sign orders for our execution. When they
decide not to abide by the laws, the state becomes the lawreaker, and
they are spending hundreds of thousands of your taxpayer's money
fighting in vain. And when all of this frustration leads these same
state officials to deceive the public into believing that death row
chain  gangs are a constructive and positive thing to do for all
concerned, and no one sees through the subterfuge, then this says
volumes about how little the public really knows or cares about what is
really going on. And if anyone believes in the philosophy of the trickle
down effect in government policies, then they had better not complain
about the events that subsequently come about that touch their own
little lives.

                   .................................
 

Richard Rossi
Death Row,
Arizona State Prison - Florence
P.O. Box 8600
FLORENCE, Arizona 85232
USA                                      [21 December 1995]


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