faith in action

I Was Sentenced to Death: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

My name is Ndume Olatushani and I was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. I spent 28 years in prison and twenty of those years were spent on death row in the state of Tennessee. Ultimately, I was released from prison on June 1, 2012.

An art installation outside the United Methodist Building highlighting the cradle to prison pipeline.

What I bore witness to, the nearly three decades I sat wrongly convicted, was the proliferation of the prison industry. Statistics say that 1 in 3 black males will end up in the judicial system, that is in jail, prison, probation or on parole in their lifetime. It is my hope that the symbolically-placed figured on the bench facing the U.S. Supreme Court building would have those that occupy this space ponder the question: if this were happening to white males would the response be different? If this were happening to Jews in Germany would there an outcry heard round the world? The truth is we cannot lock our way out of the social, economic and cultural conditions centered around race. Somewhere I remember reading, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.”

When I got off of death row, I was sent to the general prison population. I worked as a legal assistant in the prison law library. I wanted to give some hope to those that were devoid of hope. I assisted men who were in solitary confinement - many of them spending 23 hours a day or more in their tiny cells. Men were only allowed to go outside twice a week for an hour in a cage not much bigger than the cells they found themselves in.

I am haunted by this case of a young man that I met that was psychologically destroyed and bent by being subject to the isolation that solitary confinement offers to those that find themselves locked in. He was being forcibly medicated with a drug that was administered to him once a month. It would have had him like a zombie for weeks at a time and I often wondered about him and what his mental state be like if he had some Christian-spirited visitors visiting him. I think it would be highly unlikely that he would be suffering the mental deprivations that he has and I am sure continues to do so today. I wonder what he thinks about this:

“I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger when you welcomed me I was naked and you clothed me I was sick and you visited me I was in prison and you came to me.”

And I cannot help but believe or wonder if the righteous among us are going to bear his cross. The figures in the cage are representative of my friends and the tens of thousands of so many others that are sitting on death row and solitary confinement across this country.

I don’t think a lot of people know that 90% of the people sitting in jails and prisons across this great nation are one day coming home. And we as a society have to figure out how we are going to welcome those returning citizens back. We cannot say that it is ok for a man or a woman to work for a company for pennies on the dollar while sitting in prison and yet these same companies reject these same persons once released from prison on the basis that their company does not hire felons.

This art installation is a call for action. We can and must do better about disrupting the cradle to prison pipeline. We cannot let silence or pluralistic ignorance be the cause of a modern day slavery.

You can listen to Ndume’s full reflection on his piece of art here, and if you are in the Washington, D.C. area during Lent, we hope you stop by the United Methodist Building to experience his art in person.