A death in Georgia that diminishes us all

By Jill Segger
February 16, 2016

In the early hours of 3 February, UK time, the US state of Georgia took the life of Brandon Astor Jones, a 72 year-old African-American.

Brandon Jones committed a crime in 1979 and was in the 37th year of his imprisonment. The details of his offence are easily found online and although there is uncertainty that he was the 'triggerman' in the senseless act of violence which ended the life of Roger Tackett, a convenience store cashier, there is no doubt that he was present and was armed.

That act of violence left the family of Mr Tackett a legacy of lifelong grief and trauma. That must not be glossed over or denied. To my knowledge, Brandon never did either of those things.

I speak of knowledge because Brandon and I wrote to each other for many years. Ill-informed assumptions are often made about the nature of relationships between women and the death-row prisoners to whom they write. Let me make clear there was never any question of a romantic or sexual connection in this correspondence. Brandon never wrote to me in a manner which could have been construed as improper or suggestive, nor – contrary to another frequently held belief – did he ever try to get money from me.

Brandon wrote because he loved writing, because he was intelligent and curious and because, as with so many prisoners in his situation, he was hungry for contact, for friendship and for assurance that there was a world beyond his cell which would not abandon him as worthless.

From that tiny cell (approximately six feet by nine and with a cage-style front which permitted no privacy) Brandon corresponded – in the face of difficulties of access to writing materials and postage stamps – with a great many people around the world. He wrote a vast number of essays, many of them published in New Internationalist magazine, and he wrote two books, one of which I edited. His passion for social justice was rooted in his own youthful experience of being a black American at the time of the Civil Rights movement. He was also passionate about equality between women and men and was always eager to hear of the thinking and action of progressives in the UK. His opinions, though firmly held, were not expressed with pomposity or intransigence. Humour and wit frequently came across his pages, despite the absence of the spoken tone.

Brandon was never bitter nor did I ever sense any undertone of violence in his writing although he was frequently angry at the petty tyrannies of prison bureaucracy and the failings of the US penal system. He could be demanding. Editing his book The Practice of Caring was not always a smooth ride. All authors are protective of their text and for a man who had so little control over the daily events which most of us take for granted, this was naturally exacerbated. But when I had to explain to him that the demands of my own working life, the transcribing of hand-written chapters and the time scale of the international postal system sometimes acted against the speedy responses he longed for, he was always contrite. This gave me an insight into both the pain of lack of agency and his essential decency. And I will always treasure the gentle and entirely empathetic letter he wrote to me when the time came to have my beloved dog put down. Some may sneer at this from a man who took part in a robbery which ended in the killing of a human being, but I can only say that the man I came to know had travelled a long way from the young criminal who was complicit in that terrible act.

Our worlds and life experiences could hardly have been more different. Despite Brandon's ardent curiosity about the UK, my childhood home, the beliefs of Quakers and above all, the state of politics on this side of the Atlantic, that difference occasionally made us tread carefully with each other. I am aware that no individual can represent their whole racial or demographic group, but I certainly learned a good deal from Brandon about how the world looks to a black American from a background of poverty and disadvantage. It is easy to fall into unconscious assumptions when you are a member of your country's dominant ethnic group. Brandon would never let such assumptions go uncorrected and from him, I gained a deepened understanding of the challenge taken on by declaring oneself to be anti-racist.

Writing to a death row prisoner means living with the ending of that relationship. But this is not about my grief. I write because I must speak to Brandon's humanity and to the long decades lived in the shadow of the execution chamber. These were in some ways his life school and in others the deforming of his spirit. And above all, I write to tell him and the world that he was“unique, precious, a child of God.”

These were also the qualities of Roger Tackett and of Brandon's co-accused, Van Roosevelt Solomon who was executed in 1985. All three lives were taken as the end game of historic failure and dysfunction. The waste is itself criminal. Brandon once wrote to me that he knew "why young black men go wrong”. So much of his writing addressed this hard earned knowledge. It was the final failure of the state penal system to lack sufficient vision to see that Brandon had paid his debt by long imprisonment and to prevent his re-entry into the world he so desired to change.

Instead, they took a 72 year old man in failing health who had spent more than half his life in prison, strapped him to a gurney, inserted a tube in his groin and pumped a drug of unknown provenance into his body. Because reputable pharmaceutical companies will no longer supply execution drugs, these are often impure products, obtained from sources shrouded in secrecy. Brandon did not die quickly or easily.

One day, this will come to an end. My prayer is that through his long imprisonment and ugly judicial killing, Brandon Astor Jones will have played his part in highlighting the obscenity of this 'cruel and unusual punishment' which diminishes us all. May his memory be a blessing.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.