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The following is a speech given by Lyle Clinton May, an inmate on Raleigh, NC’s death row, to the UNC Chapel Hill class, "Race, Innocence and the End of the Death Penalty," taught by Prof. Frank Baumgartner. The questions come from students who read, "Beyond the Wall," and "Life Without Parole Is Silent Execution," published by Scalawag Magazine. The class also read the NC Supreme Court decision on Lyle C. May’s direct appeal. The speech took place over the course of a 15 minute phone call from death row.

First I will answer the most important question you asked: "What is the single greatest reform needed in the prison system?"

Simply put, equal access to higher education. Whether it comes from a post secondary degree, IT training, or certification in a trade, the opportunity for learning and career development in prison is essential to public safety.

The current purpose of incarceration is incapacitation and punishment, to the exclusion of all else. Too often prisons are punishment factories where you do not learn ethical conduct, or marketable skills – quite the opposite. Rehabilitation programs that do exist are underfunded and ineffective, a "checkmark" on a list for offenders trying to get out of prison. Administrators only interest themselves in a rehabilitative program when there is direct political pressure. Those few people who actually care about reforming prisoners are forced out of the penal system. Volunteers are frequently harassed for daring to do for free what the prison refuses to do at a cost.

The murder of five prison guards in North Carolina prisons in 2017 exemplifies the price of not having any outlets, or incentives for prisoners’ continued good behavior: life without parole, no time off for good behavior, mandatory minimums, no parole, no jobs that pay more than dollar a day, forced labor and no mercy from the public or prison system. Even in their scramble to sentence to death those responsible for the murders of the prison guards, there has been no talk about why the violence occurred. Calls for more staff and better security – but nothing about how idleness, desperation, and mental illness incite violence.

Historically violent penal systems like California, New York and Texas have begun to figure out North Carolina’s current prison violence dilemma. The best solution is a combination of security, staffing and rehabilitation. These states tried extreme punitive measures and found it breeds more violence. The harsher they treated prisoners, the fewer opportunities there were on the inside, the greater the risk to the community when the majority of these offenders were released. By investing in counseling, mentorship and higher education in prison, recidivism and the overall cost to the state were reduced. There must be a fundamental change in what happens to people while they are in prison, if we ever hope to end mass incarceration.

Higher education can no longer be viewed as a privilege. By maintaining this status quo and limiting college to those who are free and can afford it, a permanent underclass will continue to fill America’s prisons. Educating prisoners helps to end the poverty of thought that begets crime and violence. We represent the most needy and marginalized sub-citizens in the United States. To break this cycle there must be a greater investment in the idea that people go to prison to learn more than "a lesson": they go to learn how to become decent human beings and productive citizens. What good is confinement for public safety, if most of those who go into prison are released back into the community less skilled, more stigmatized, isolated and desperate?

You asked: What have I learned about myself through education, or otherwise?

In my experience, even limited access to rehabilitative programs and higher education teaches autonomy from the prison mentality and accountability for one’s time. Some of my friends admire the work I have done, while others don’t quite understand. A handful of guards are impressed and see the difference in my demeanor. Others hate that I have been granted such an opportunity. Because I am on death row there is a general expectation I will fail and there are plenty of obstacles along the way to ensure it happens – but I am determined to succeed.

Personal accountability requires that I defy the expectation of failure and prove myself against the state’s declaration that I am not fit for life, or liberty. It’s hard all the time. I persevered through exams while guards joked about executions; continued my studies in the face of peer skepticism and wariness; and persuaded reluctant staff that proctoring a two-hour midterm exam isn’t that difficult. All of this and more. I’ve fought every step in the journey toward a higher education because it is essential to my growth and survival.

As you know, if you do not have a degree in the modern world you will struggle to support yourself and your family. You will likely be poor. Where improving the way you interact with the free world is a matter of career development, how incarcerated people interact with the world is a matter of basic human development.

My goals are rooted in transforming the criminal justice system. Beyond establishing my voice in the field of penal reform I want to see and be a part of ending capital punishment, life without parole, juvenile life sentences, privatized jails and prisons, mandatory minimums, and tough-on-crime rhetoric that inflames juries and pits the legal system against the disadvantaged. I want to work toward greater judicial discretion, revitalizing post-release transition programs, implementing restorative justice programs as a natural part of reentry and establishing mandatory higher ed, trade school and IT training in prison.

I know these sound like impossible, long-term goals. Death row has a way of making impossible odds seem normal. It is also not enough for me to learn about crime and punishment and the prison industrial complex. I have a duty to share my experience and knowledge of the criminal justice system by writing, speaking and reaching out to the public to challenge the narrative.

This leads to the next question about how death row is different from what people might expect.

Barely 20% of all death sentences result in execution. In every other way that matters, a death sentence is an extremely expensive life sentence. The cost is largely associated with legal representation that lasts throughout the capital appeals process.

There is a common expectation that people sentenced to death are either irredeemable; that they are not fit for life or liberty. 19 years ago I was sentenced to death at the age of 21. Numb, scared and exhausted after my capital murder trial, I didn’t expect execution would take long. The jury delivered their verdict inside of two weeks. In the same time since then a lot of things have occurred that I never thought were possible. After living through the executions of 33 people, many of whom were friends, numerous others have been removed from death row. The removal rate includes six acquittals and two exonerations; the most recent of which, Henry McCollum, was discarded by the state once they learned he was innocent. It took 30 years on death row to resolve Henry’s innocence. There are a lot of people on the row who have appealable issues and evidence that disproves first-degree murder, but they sit and wait for some kind of relief, totally dependent on their attorneys just as Henry McCollum was. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission ultimately cleared Henry – not his court appointed lawyers.

I am not going to explain or unscramble the puzzle that is appellate relief, but what occurs in the meantime is an existence, of sorts. What that existence looks like the defies all expectations. I thought earning a degree and positioning myself for a scholarship while on death row was an unlikely future. I never would have considered addressing a UNC Chapel Hill class about my education, incarceration and capital punishment, yet I’ve done just that. What I’ve learned about life on death row is this: how I live depends on opportunity and the desire to prove we are all more than our worst mistake.

Time on death row is hard; the threat of death an overwhelming burden that clouds the future. But, is this the most torturous thing about the sentence? The appellate process creates constant uncertainty about the finality of a death sentence. Legal arguments, like the North Carolina Racial Justice Act extend some hope of relief, until they become political fodder. After eight years, even those prisoners who won under the RJA had their death sentences reinstated because the law was gutted by Republican legislatures. When a 2010 SBI audit of the crime lab revealed over 210 cases of faulty DNA testing, blood patterning and ballistic tests many of us, whose cases hinge on such things, were hopeful. Except help never came because prosecutors control the court calendars and new evidence is not an appealing issue. Discussion of the SBI crime lab misconduct disappeared. On the row we were not surprised. Every time hope is generated you think, "Maybe it’s my turn next," then nothing happens. You never receive an explanation and the state says, "See? The system works."

Hope is a drum that wears out with overuse. Torture is being told you have hope of relief, because of some new legal argument, or technical error, but it amounts to nothing. Eventually, as the years go by and your friends and family drift away, or die, you begin to realize hope is a distraction from the grim reality of spending your life in prison.

What you do with your time matters. Waiting for appellate relief from a death sentence can lead to madness and it is not enough to occupy your mind with trivial things. I see it in many of my peers. It’s hard to resist the lure of hope when the alternatives are despair, arbitrariness and uncertainty.

Somebody asked if I think I will one day leave prison and this seems like a good place to end before I go on a rant. I would love to say, with utter certainty, there will be a happy ending to my story; that everything I am working toward ultimately leads to freedom. The truth is, I don’t know. The only certain thing I have is hope and a will to live and for now, that’s going to have to be enough.


Lyle C. May is currently enrolled in Ohio University’s Bachelor Of Specialized Studies Degree Program in Criminal Justice Administration. While on death row he earned an Associates in Arts Degree with a social science emphasis; wrote and self-published a memoir, "Waiting for the Last Train." He maintains a blog on and is an advisory board member of the Lifeline’s Collective, and online audio journal of spoken word, essays and poetry from death row.

To hear Lyle and others go to To read more of his work prison

the Marshall, or Scalawag

If you would like to write the author to comment on this article:

Lyle C. May 0580028

4285 Mail Service Center

Raleigh, NC 27699-4285



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