On a recent Friday morning, I paid a visit to Reggie Clemons. I wanted to learn who this convicted accomplice to a double murder, condemned prisoner and human being is. I made the journey to Potosi Correctional Center with Vera, Reggie’s mother, and Meredith, a St. Louis Amnesty leader.
Outside a large concrete fortress in the middle of nowhere, prison workers stood taking a smoke break as we pulled into the parking lot. Walking toward the entrance, we passed the beginning of a long fence with endless loops of razor wire from the ground up, electrified for good measure. I stopped at the electrocution warning sign on the fence and took some moments to prepare myself for the intense, regimented environment of every death row.
A professional and pleasant female guard wearing a ton of makeup and a Glock pistol on her belt greeted us and checked us in. Vera was steps ahead of us. I suspect she could do this visit sleepwalking, having come here countless times for two decades. She fed dollar bills into a machine to add quarters to her prison-approved, clear zip-top bag. We followed her through a series of gates controlled by armed guards down cinder block hallways until we found ourselves in the visitors’ room. We signed our names once more and were assigned to a table. Several prisoners were seated at tables around us, some playing cards with their visitors.
Some minutes later, Reggie entered the room, pushing a wheelchair to help a fellow prisoner meet his visitor. He greeted us warmly with a hug and sat down, almost forgetting to embrace his mother, Vera. She popped up as soon as we all sat down and took the next step in her prison ritual. She asked Reggie what he’d like from the vending machines and they laughed, almost able to telepathically communicate his order of spicy junk food.
Meredith and I started talking with Reggie very naturally, joking about how he and his mother willfully mispronounce “jalapeno” and how endearing Vera is in autopilot mode. We spoke about his admirable parents, deeply compassionate and caring people who pastor a church in St. Louis. Reggie shared the challenges he faces trying to live out their values in an environment where confrontation is commonplace and survival is the goal. The swastika tattoo on top of another prisoner’s shaved head in the visiting room gave us a glimpse of Reggie’s daily life.
Reggie spoke about a wide range of subjects, demonstrating a truly active and inventive mind. He talked about redesigning helicopters for the military to make soldiers less vulnerable to enemy fire. He had ideas for how businesses could make capitalism more ethical and humane for workers. We learned about weird food concoctions he has made from the limited number of ingredients he can buy from the prison store. And he talked about wanting to start a charity for death row inmates to help raise funds for life-affirming projects, like planting trees and preserving habitats.
I was struck by how young he looks for forty and what a waste our prisons are for those who are very much alive and could contribute something positive to society, including those they have harmed. Instead, our system is focused on warehousing individuals, and killing some, in a political context where “rehabilitation” is a meaningless word used only by the so-called naïve.
Leaving the prison, I thought about the Kerry sisters who were so young when they perished in the Mississippi River twenty-one years ago. They were full of promise and ideals, and their horrible deaths created a wound that can never fully heal for those who loved them. Reggie was convicted for playing a role in their deaths, Although he maintains he had nothing to do with it and has no idea what happened to them. Given the many issues of unfairness that riddle his case and the 140 death row exonerations in the U.S., I find his claim impossible to ignore.
Guilty or innocent, meeting Reggie Clemons, a living, breathing person, sharpened my belief that taking a human being’s life to rectify the taking of other human beings’ lives is too simple an equation for such an irreplaceable loss–and too inherently contradictory a moral proposition. My brief experience visiting another maximum security prison also confirmed my understanding that prison is kind of purgatory.
Given the very limited number of choices prisoners can make for themselves, the penalties for crossing the innumerable rules, and the slow death incarceration inflicts upon a person’s future and dreams, prison truly is punishment. But unlike the death penalty, incarceration does not deepen the suffering caused by more death and compromise our societal value that killing is wrong.