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Life Inside

How a Phone Changed My Life on Death Row

“I felt like a virgin on my wedding night — eager to put this thing to use, not sure if it’ll hurt.”

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

Dying is the easy part. Waiting years to be executed, with no one to connect with — that’s the nightmare.

The death row unit in North Carolina is a hastily built structure attached to the back of Central Prison in Raleigh. The hundreds of doorways throughout the place are painted shades of blue or cream, but in death row, the doors are painted red, like an implicit threat. So, too, is every other painted surface here: the bunks, the railings, the window sills, even our jumpsuits — all of it is red.

If one of us has to leave the unit for any reason, the adjoining hallways and tunnels are shut down to ensure we have no interaction with non-death row prisoners beyond fleeting eye contact, from a distance, through Plexiglas.

Sometimes tour groups walk through. They bunch tightly together like a knobby fist in the hall and seem surprised, or disappointed, by our tame lives — and that we aren’t frothing at the mouth.

Before I was on death row, I had a way of feeling close to people. Even if I was unable to be physically near them, I had the next best thing: the phone. I’d become so dependent on and attuned to the voices on the other end that I could detect the subtlest emotional shifts, like dipping my finger into water to test its heat.

But when I was escorted through death row’s red-rimmed doorway, I learned that we had no phone access, except a 10-minute call at Christmas. I felt like an untethered astronaut lost in space, trying to keep from giving in to a panicky madness in the face of too much black.

At the same time, I couldn’t connect with other inmates. From what I’d heard about prison (and of course also from movies), I knew that my emotional neediness would be considered a vulnerability to be preyed upon. When I did talk, I didn’t reveal much about myself, thinking it would be used against me.

Plus, we’re all sentenced to death. Why form a connection if I’d eventually have to stand by helplessly and watch my new friend get carted off to be executed?

So I became resigned to dying alone.

Before I got to death row, and just three months after I got arrested, my fiancée, Kim, left me. I huddled in a corner, wrapping my body around a wall-mounted, stainless steel payphone, as she took back her half of our soul.

Weeks later, I was begging my mom not to abandon me. But she disowned me for breaking her heart and dishonoring our family. Most of my friends disappeared, too.

Then, one night during my trial, my three brothers came to visit. As soon as I walked into the visitation booth and saw the look on Mike’s face, I knew our dad had died.

My dad had been diagnosed as paranoid-schizophrenic, and he was nowhere near rational. But I could always count on him for unconditional sympathy. Just knowing someone cared about me had been enough. Now I’d lost even that.

I tried sending everyone letters to keep from fading into a ghost, a memory. There were no responses aside from periodical “updates” and obligatory birthday and Christmas cards. My siblings and friends, most in their 20s and 30s, were moving too fast for me, starting families, building careers, living life — too fast for writing, which takes time.

But in 2012, I received a letter from a young woman, who goes by Gigi, and was starting college. She told me she had no older siblings, and wanted to learn from the mistakes I made. I was bored, curious, and flattered — and desperate for connection. So I wrote back.

Words opened up a new world. I was able to take the focus off myself, and help her make better decisions than I did — especially when faced with some of the temptations that come with being in college.

But letters can’t capture the cackle of a girl’s laugh, or the low, slow tone of reason creeping into a conversation. Writing doesn’t allow me to be the calm presence in another person’s moment of panic. It can’t replicate the raspy frog in my throat as I fumble to figure out what to say. It can’t show that I care enough to get choked up when I apologize for the pain I’ve caused.

For decades, activists, friends, families, and death row inmates themselves have hounded the prison administration to allow us phone access. They have always routinely given the same responses — “no,” “maybe next year,” and “soon.”

So this past January, when they said, “Soon,” we figured it would be more of the same.

But in March, to our utter shock, maintenance workers came in and installed a rectangular, stainless-steel box to a wall in the dayroom of each pod. We tried to act nonchalant, but our eyes kept straying toward what appeared to be a new phone.

Some of us surreptitiously picked up the receiver to check for a dial tone. Nothing. It was torture having the phone without the wiring. Soon, we hoped.

Someone asked me who I was going to call, and I was like, “Eh, I don’t know. I haven’t given it much thought.” But the truth is I was scared I’d have no one to call. I wrote to everyone I knew, asking them to send me their numbers.

Finally in June, after three months of nervous excitement, the phones became operational. Our lawyers were the only ones we knew who had landlines, so all of our first calls were to them. But after several hours, they worked out the kinks, and we were able to call cell phones. And have real contact.

I felt like a virgin on their wedding night — eager to put this thing to use, not sure if it’ll hurt.

A week after the phones were turned on, I spoke with Gigi for the first time. She’d become my best friend and little sister, and when I heard her valley-girl accent, I shivered. When she realized it was me on the line, she almost peed her pants, she said.

So far, one of my younger brothers has sent me his digits, and we’ve been talking. We are different people now; still, the love is there. I’m looking forward to getting back to a good place with my family in real time, rather than weeks later.

This is the most alive I’ve felt since being sentenced to death.

George Wilkerson, 35, is on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is awaiting execution for two counts of first-degree murder that he was convicted of in 2006.