St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Durham, NC

Dec. 8, 2019, 1:00PM

Let me begin with a typical day on North Carolina’s death row.  Unlike most other death rows in the US, our cell doors stay open from 7:00am until 10:45pm.  There are about 20 people who live on each of the seven death row cell b locks, for a total population of 135, divided between two floors.  Much of our day is spent on the block except for one hour of outside recreation, meals at the chow hall, visits, medical appointments, or religious services.  In terms of size, I have spent the last twenty years in a 7’x9’ cell, walking the same 200 ft. length of hallway, playing and exercising in a dirt and grass lot roughly half a square acre.  I suppose it could be worse: at least we don’t have cell mates.

Through the day we are left to our own devices.  Most of my time is spent writing and reading.  A lot of guys watch TV or play table-top games like cards or chess.  There is also a small library of mostly donated books on our unit.  We even have a few psych programs like group therapy, counseling services, and a mindfulness-meditation group.  However, the psych programs sound better than they actually are.  After so many years most guys develop their own routine, doing what they can to occupy their time with meaningful activities.  It’s important we do so because of how readily the mind decays without something to stimulate and stretch it.  Even then, some guys still lose touch with reality.

It is not an exaggeration to say we’re lost in time and cut off from the real world.  Without computers or internet access this is especially true in 2019.  Our information comes from dated newspapers and magazines, or mainstream news affiliates like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox.  It wasn’t until 2016 that we received regular access to a phone.  Before then we were given one 10-minute collect call a year around Christmas.  Coupled with the stigma of a death sentence, and the desert of information that is prison, this technological deficit dissolved a lot of relationships.  What were already tenuous connections dissolved, because – who has time to write a letter in the fast-paced free world?

Fortunately, over the years we’ve been able to rely on one another.  Our interaction has eased the sense of isolation and abandonment.  What for an outsider would be a seemingly scary situation – living among people convicted of murder – is mundane for us.  We share the same fate, for the same crime, have gone through the same legal process, and experience many of the same problems.  It makes it easier to identify with one another and, while there is still a pecking order and various cliques, we are more equal than not.

The main thing to remember is that we are all flawed human beings who experience the same needs, hopes, fears, and persecution.  When one of us has a bad day, for example, someone is usually there to hold him up.  Like individual bricks, we don’t amount to much on our own, but together we support and fortify each other.  Death row may be the unlikeliest of communities, but for many of us it’s the only family we have.

To answer the question of Jesus as a man on death row it will help to explain some of my religious background.  My mom raised my siblings and me in a Catholic household.  She taught Sunday School and we were all altar servers at some point.  I left my faith behind in adolescence and rediscovered it upon coming to death row in 1999.  I’ve been confirmed since 2000 and have attended Catholic Mass every week for the last 20 years.

It wasn’t easy at first.  Fr. Dan, one of the priests who delivered Mass on the row, tried to convince me to return using the parable of the prodigal son.  He reminded me we all stray from God, and the important part is to repent in humility and reconcile that relationship.  I was angry and defiant, questioning Fr. Dan incessantly as people I came to know were put to death.  When his original approach didn’t work, Fr. Dan used Pascal’s Wager.  If you believe in God and it turns out to be a story, you’ve lost nothing; but, if you choose not to believe in God, in all that the Bible instructs, and it turns out to be true, then you, my friend, have lost everything in this life and the next.  Fr. Dan’s belief in the eternal mercy of Jesus Christ and his infinite love and patience saved my life.  For me, it was the first manifestation of Jesus as a man on death row and I paid attention.  Endless patience.  Unconditional love.  Mercy.

In Luke, Chapter 23, Verses 39-43, there is a scene not repeated in any of the other gospels.  As Jesus hung on the cross between two criminals, one reviled him, saying “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us”.  The other rebuked him and said, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?  And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  (The Catholic Study Bible, 2nd Ed. New American Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, 2011).

The first time a friend of mine was executed I had been on death row less than a year.  Harvey and I exercised together and grew close.  Like Fr. Dan, he urged me to pursue God.  Ask my questions.  Be angry, but confess my sins and be constant in my relationship with Him.  Harvey was one of my early mentors who was vocal in the Sunday Protestant service and on the block.  He admitted his crimes and repented and urged others to do the same.  In him I witnessed the rebuke of the second criminal crucified with Jesus; the plea for mercy and redemption.  Before they took him away, Harvey urged me not to let death row define me like the State intended it.  He told me, “You. Are. Valuable.”

My friend’s death hurt me, as so many after him would.  The second manifestation of Jesus as a man on death row was recognizing my faults and being unafraid to change and grow from them.  But Harvey also taught me to live.

How do you reckon with being in the shadow of the valley of death?  The enemy uses helplessness, despair, fatalism, hatred, and self-loathing to break us down.  These things erode one’s ability to resist violence and animal urges governed by prison norms.  A loss of identity, failure, betrayal, and constant disappointment drains the ability to resist.  It makes prison a miserable experience and daily battle.

I often draw inspiration from Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankl’s experience in captivity provide a blueprint for finding purpose amidst unimaginable pain and suffering.  He lived in a place where innocent people were stripped of their humanity, starved, beaten, tortured, and executed in the millions.  He made it through multiple concentration camps, his mind intact, and discovered a radical resilience that made sense of the misery when it would have been so easy to succumb.  What right do I have to do anything less?

Frankl provided a map to thrive in any environment, but there had to be more.  What would thriving look like for me?

A third manifestation of Jesus as a man on death row came in the form of an offer to enroll in some college correspondence courses.  I dropped out of high school and earned a GED in a reformatory because it was required of delinquent youth.  College had never been a thought.  But needing something to do, and genuinely curious what it would be like, I accepted.

It turned out to be the best decision of my life.  I discovered I’m a capable student and avid reader; that my ability to write was an untapped talent.  Within a few years I knew that for so long as my sponsor was willing fund the courses, I would complete them.  By 2013 I earned an Associate in Arts degree, with a social science emphasis, through Ohio University.  By 2017 they accepted me into their Bachelor of Specialized Studies program with the degree title of Criminal Justice Administration.  Higher education transformed my life on death row in ways I never could have imagined.  It became the key God handed me to unlock any door I chose.  The more I learned, the greater my sense of responsibility grew to use this wonderful gift to help my brothers.

1 John, Chapter 3, Verse 14 says, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.  Whoever does not love remains in death.”

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer posited that the ongoing incarnation of Christ happens in the community.  The church is the Son of God working among us.  “Not only does this contain the notion that social interaction is the point of departure for understanding Christian faithfulness, it means when I encounter another, I encounter Christ, and that [person] places an ethical demand on me.”  (Hale, Lori Brandt; Williams, Reggie L.  “Is This a Bonhoeffer Moment? Lessons for American Christians from the Confessing Church in Germany”, Sojourners Magazine, Feb. 2018, Vol.47 / No. 2).  Bonhoeffer said that to be disciples of Christ, to follow after Him, we are called to act vicariously on behalf of others

This is how love for our brethren is carried out.

My access to higher education on death row is unique, but it gives me a more objective and informed understanding of the criminal justice system.  As such, I understand how critical the opportunity for higher learning is for the incarcerated.  Access has been extremely limited since the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act ended federal funding for college in prison.  The omnibus crime bill helped create mass incarceration through mandatory minimum sentences; rewards to states for building more prisons rather than addressing the need for them; increased use of consecutive sentencing and life without parole; and a reliance upon tough-on-crime rhetoric no matter the cost.  As a result, America is not the land of the free, it has become a place where prisons proliferate and fill with the poor, the uneducated, and the marginalized; where human potential is sent to die.

I write not merely to advocate for those who lack a voice or an ability to articulate their needs, but out of a sense of Christian duty to use my gifts effectively and broadly.  All of us are more than the crimes for which we’ve been convicted and sentenced: we are human beings.  So, I take every opportunity that comes along to pull back the curtain of judgement and reveal how prisoners – especially those sentenced to death – continue to live, think, feel, and learn.

I also write to create greater public awareness about the nuances of imprisonment.  It’s no coincidence that tough-on-crime drug laws, for example, target poor, urban, minority communities.  You will find a thousand Black and Latino drug users in prison before you find a single Oxycontin or Fentanyl distributor being punished for the overdose deaths of hundreds.  It’s no mistake in the creation of criminal laws that a robbery of $1000 is punished more harshly than an embezzlement of $100,000.  This is the twisted logic of a criminal justice system that grew from plantations, Black Codes, and Jim Crow Laws into a modern exception to the Thirteenth Amendment.

Mass incarceration is a colossal, seemingly insurmountable problem.  When broken down by state and community it can become more manageable.  As you sit here today consider that prisons are a testament to what society thinks about the least of its citizens.  If there is no investment in the people you believe are problematic enough to confine, those problems don’t disappear – 95 percent of them return to your communities.

The question becomes whether you want to educate and rehabilitate people caught within the criminal justice system; or, waste more resources prosecuting, policing, and imprisoning them.  I can tell you research shows the former is more cost-effective and better for society than the latter.

As people of faith I shouldn’t need to convince you of the value of human potential or dignity of life wherever it exists.  The question I’ll end with is fairly simple but one you can refer to each time you answer it with action: how can your faith community at St. Paul’s impact North Carolina’s carceral state?

Don’t sit idly by and think the answer will occur on its own or that someone else will do it for you.  Community involvement, spiritual accountability, and personal action are essential to building up the world we want to exist.

Lyle C. May 0580028

About the author:

Lyle May is an inmate on North Carolina’s death row. If you would like to write him a response to this article:

Lyle May 0580028

4285 Mail Service Center

Raleigh, NC 27699-4285



Justice Preaching Archive

Just click on a title below to read the article.
- The latest titles are listed first. -

• Justice Bulletin Board •
• A New Year •
• Two Essays on Peace •
• A Call To Respect and Welcome Diversity - A Challenge of Our Faith •
• Addressing White Power and Priviledge •
• An Ethical Reflection on Work... •
• A Re-energized Catholic Church •
• A Renewed Call for Nuclear Disarmament •
• Called to Proclaim and Live With Moral Courage •
• Called To Protect the Poor In Our Economic System •
• Call To Persevere In Praying and Working for Peace •
• Care For the Environment •
• Care for the Earth •
• Caritas in Veritate •
• The Challenge of Discipleship •
• Comprehensive Immigration Reform •
• The Death Penalty Revisited •
• What Is Ecological Economics •
• Eliminating Global Poverty •
• Global Warming... Calling for an Urgent and Ethical Response •
• God's Fool •
• Green Congretations - A Growing Movement •
• More Gun Control •
• Healing the Racial Divide •
• Speaking the Truth in Today's World Takes Courage •
• Justice and Compassion •
• Labor Issues and the Catholic Church •
• Is More Consumer Spending the Answer? •
• Moving from A Culture of Violence to a Culture of Peace •
• Preaching Justice & Moving from Violence to Peace •
• Reaching For the Stars - Brenda Walsh •
• A Call To Reduce Prison Population •
• The Relationship Between Labor And the Catholic Church •
• Sermon On Domestic Violence •
• Sustainability •
• The Death Penalty •
• The New Economy Movement •
• The Role of Ethical Standards... •
• War Is Not the Answer •
• Witnesses To Hope •