Hope and Death Row

In June, I left for Austin, TX to begin a summer of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). I settled quickly into a rhythm, spending my days in the medical and surgical intensive care units of the biggest hospital in Austin. The hardest cases for me were the ones that offered no way out. I froze every time a patient said I can’t imagine what comes after this. As if the patient were looking into an oncoming nothing. I called these crises of imagination, and they haunted me then. But I’ve since discovered that real hope is, in fact, born of imagining nothing. As the literary critic Terry Eagleton has famously pointed out, when King Lear gloats that “nothing will come of nothing,” he is phenomenally wrong. “Something,” Eagleton continues, “if it is finally to emerge, can do so only from the ruins of some illusory all.” 

Hope, then, lives at the limits of what we can see, feel, and believe. In order to hope, we must be willing to imagine an oncoming nothing, the disintegration of this illusory all, and the inbreaking of an as yet inconceivable something. It took this awareness exactly, Eagleton insists, for Abraham to hold the knife against Isaac’s throat. 

The writer and activist Angela Y. Davis envisions a society without prisons in her 2016 text, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle. The revolution she proposes depends on the kind of imagination Eagleton would applaud. In order to make room for her post-carceral vision, Davis must first reckon with an oncoming nothing, must first agree that something will come of nothing. If she does not or cannot imagine the ruins of this illusory all–that is, the prison-industrial complex–she cannot propose its abolition.  

Davis begins by resisting the punitive ideological sieve that suffuses and supports the U.S. American prison industrial complex, offering a replacement ideology grounded in compassion. “[A] society without prisons is a realistic future possibility,” Davis insists, “but in a transformed society, one in which people’s needs, not profits, constitute the driving force.” Davis demonstrates the extent to which dominant U.S. American ideology bifurcates human needs and profits. According to her, prison exists not out of need, but against need, and because of an ideological obsession with profit. Insofar as we practice mass incarceration, we allow a profit obsession to deflect from “underlying social problems — racism, poverty, unemployment, lack of education …” In other words, the worship of profit obfuscates reality. The reality: “The imprisoned population could not have grown to almost 2.5 million people in this country without our implicit assent.”

Davis encourages a “disarticulat[ion of] crime and punishment” by considering the “economic, political, and ideological roles of the prison.” She separates the construct pair of crime and punishment, disentangling “the notion of bad people deserving” incarceration. She turns her attention instead to the history of the prison as an institution, interacting with Foucauldian theory. Davis details the historical relationship between prison and reform: “Prison reform has always only created better prisons … In the process of creating better prisons, more people are brought under the surveillance of the correctional and law enforcement networks.” In other words, better prisons are bigger prisons; prison reform equals prison expansion. 

This correlation between reform and growth operates in both a physical and an imaginative dimension. “The site of the prison or jail is not only material and objective,” Davis continues, “but it’s ideological and psychic as well. We internalize this notion of a place to put bad people.” A relationship of mutual reinforcement exists between the sites of punishment and their psychic power. Davis laments that the function of the prison is to “foreclose discussion” about “the nature of badness,” about the “why” behind crime. She insists that these are the exact conversations we need to be having in order to “imagine the possibility of eradicating these behaviors.” Again, Davis returns to the imagination as a site of resistance, revealing the extent to which imagination creates reality.  

When I arrived in Austin in June, one of my friends was already there, working as an investigation and mitigation specialist at a public defender office that represents post-conviction capital appeals. He spent his days in the field or in the office, working against the state’s “racism, poverty, unemployment, lack of education…” I spent my days with patients and their unraveling loved ones, confronting crises of imagination with an ever-diminishing arsenal of care. For a summer, we watched people die brutal deaths together. Nothing “infuse[s] a consciousness of the structural character of state violence” like the death penalty. He was unmoored. He felt guilty whenever he wasn’t working. “It’s my job to save them,” he would say. “And there’s no way to save them.” 

His office hadn’t won a case in years, if not decades, but they worked to the last second for each client to raise anything that might help in a future federal appeal. At the federal level, litigators cannot introduce any new material to the case. If he or his team did not find it, did not raise it at the state level, it was moot. “The hope is for them to have more time,” he would say. “The hope is to litigate, at the very best, for the rest of their lives.” 

His work lay in asking a society grounded in “cruelty and vengeance” to behave as if “life [were] precious.” As a mitigation and investigation specialist, this meant facing that cruelty and vengeance head-on, dedicating himself to dredging up the cruelty and vengeance behind his clients’ lives. “For some time now,” Davis writes in Freedom, “I have been involved in efforts to abolish the death penalty and imprisonment … These forms of punishment don’t work when you consider that the majority of people who are in prison are there because society has failed them.” His work lay in enumerating the ways in which society had failed his clients, naming their lack of “access to education or jobs or housing or health care.” His work lay in giving language to grief. 

One of my friend’s clients, a black man, once said Ta-Nehisi Coates was his reason to live. This man, whose name I cannot use, was fighting the state for his life. “Best case scenario,” he repeated, “we litigate for the rest of his life. He dies in prison. Most likely scenario, the state kills him before he can die.” My friend explained this to him, in less brutal language, and he understood. “I know. I want to live as long as possible so I can read. Give me time to read, as much time as you can.” He promised everything he could. He gave everything he could. His client read Coates’s entire oeuvre in a fever, and transcribed what he found most valuable in letters to his daughter. “I can’t be there to be her father, but I can give her more than mine did. I have the time in here to read. She has a life to live. She doesn’t have time to think about these things, to research them, but I can give her what I learn.” 

Before my friend told me this story, I could not find hope in the work. But I know now that the hopelessness I projected onto his clients, onto their lives, was a function of my privilege. I know now that I have never needed hope like the man who loves Ta-Nehisi Coates. As an educated, white woman who has never entered a prison, I used to find it natural to withhold hope from death row. But when you take hope from another body, another soul, even as an interior exercise, you assent to the reality of cruelty and vengeance. And although Coates wouldn’t claim the theological dimensions of this statement, he would say that the reality of cruelty and vengeance is killing all of us. Racecraft, as he calls it, obliterates the imago dei. Incarceration obliterates the imago dei. The death penalty obliterates the imago dei. What retrieves it: the man who loves Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing life is precious, life is precious.      


Elizabeth Apple is a writer and graduate student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She also studied English at Middlebury College where she won the Henry B. Prickett prize for outstanding work in the English department. She lives in Nashville with her dog, Winnie.  

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