Death Row Welcomes You

In his haunting debut, Death Row Welcomes You: Visiting Hours in the Shadow of the Execution Chamber, Tennessee journalist Steven Hale sheds light on a rarely seen part of American society: the places where more than 2,700 people await execution by the state.

Hale’s reporting began when, after a decade-long lull, Tennessee began executing the condemned at speed. He witnessed the first of seven executions that would take place over two years. Tennessee and other states have struggled to acquire the preferred lethal injection drug, pentobarbital, and a new three-drug protocol to be used instead was challenged in Tennessee court for amounting to cruel and unusual punishment—to no avail. 

A former staff writer for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene, Hale reports from Riverbend Maximum Security Institution through the lens of a group of regular visitors who provide condemned men with friendship and compassion in the years (sometimes decades) leading up to their death, including a Nashville reverend who has acted as an advocate and spiritual advisor for death row inmates since the 1970s. Hale writes vividly about the fear and boredom that marks daily life in a maximum-security prison, and how the visitors offer relief and fellowship. They bring friends and neighbors to their weekly meetings, including those who support capital punishment, thinking that the “best way to expose the inhumanity of the death penalty was to expose people to the humanity of the men condemned to it.” 

Death Row Welcomes You is an engrossing if sometimes harrowing read. Hale starkly recounts the crimes that led to death sentences, including gruesome murders, brutal sexual assaults and drug deals gone horribly wrong. Yet the book does not fixate on grisly details the way so many salacious podcasts and TV shows do. Hale delves into the childhoods of the men he profiles, many of whom experienced abject poverty, neglect and abuse, and presents these facts as important context in which to view the full scope of their crimes and subsequent state-sanctioned killing. These stories are balanced by moving accounts of the supportive relationships among the condemned men, like when a man chose to forgo his prison-provided last meal in favor of communing with his fellows over homemade pizzas, the ingredients plucked from their personal stashes. 

“The people, experiences and research that make up this book have changed my life,” Hale writes. “I hope that by preserving them here I can contribute in some small way to the idea that we are, all of us, capable of terrible and beautiful things.” Readers will reflect on this captivating, deeply reported story for years to come.  

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The Spotted Cat Magazine May 2024