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Aba Gayle at San Quentin
 

I started visiting one man. I now find myself visiting 10 men and writing to many others. How did this evolve?

I have never sought out people to visit or write to. I have gradually become friends with inmates in the visiting room and their visiting families. It took me very little time to come to the conclusion that it would be far worse to have a son on death row than to have had a child murdered.  I know that my daughter, Catherine, is in heaven and surrounded by love and light. A mother with a son on death row knows that her son is in the worst kind of Hell.

I do not go into the death row visiting room with a religious agenda. There are plenty of other people representing churches or specific religious faiths. For the most part they are sincere and wonderful people. I am a student of A Course In Miracles. The message I carry is one of forgiveness, brotherhood, love, non-judgment, and seeing the Christ Spirit in everyone. I am able to relate to men with various belief systems including those based in the cultures of ancient Africa, India, American Indian as well as Christian because I love God, not any particular church or religion. They are all divine and perfect for the people who chose them.

Would you be interested is getting to know the human side of someone on death row? The Catherine Blount Foundation will assist you in finding a pen pal that is right for you.

The following are a few stories about how I met some of my friends on Death Row.
 


 
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My friend Pat Bane traveled to Scotland when she was Executive Director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. She was attending a conference on the death penalty. She was approached by Alice de Struler who lived in Switzerland and was representing Amnesty International. Alice had been corresponding with a man on death row in San Quentin for many years. Alice asked Pat if she could visit her friend because he never got any visitors. Pat lives in Virginia and was planning a visit to California but knew she would not have time to visit S.Q. She took the name and number and told Alice that she had a friend in northern CA who might be able to visit but could not promise anything. Pat gave me the young mans name and number. I wrote to him, he invited me to visit and he is now a good and close friend. Alice has since traveled to California and stayed with me so that she could also visit our now mutual friend.



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Another story started when I met a woman from the Netherlands who was visiting her pen pal in San Quentin. She told a friend in the Netherlands about me and shared some of the magazine and newspaper articles that told about my visiting San Quentin death row inmates. I received a request to "please visit my pen pal" over the email. Maria Theresa and I visited by email and I agreed to write the man that she now considers her brother, Billy Ray Riggs. I wrote to Billy and he sent me a letter telling me that he had not had one visitor since his incarceration. He was very anxious for a chance to get out of his cell for a couple of hours. It took 3 months to get permission to visit. The attached article was sent to me by Billy after my first visit.

 

Billy Ray and Gayle
2wBillyRay.jpg (18520 bytes)            HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A RAINBOW?
                        by Billy Ray Riggs
"As I walked into the San Quentin visiting room one cold winter day, my eyes focused on this beautiful little blond lady sitting by herself. I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful clothes she had on, especially the designer cape she wore over her lovely red dress. I passed her on my way to check in with the guard and noticed she had matching red glasses and her feet were covered with expensive black loafers.

"I thought to myself as I approached the guard’s window, “Could this classy lady be here to visit me?” When I turned around we both looked directly into each other’s eyes. We both smiled and then we gave each other a big hug as if we had been good friends forever! After our embrace she grabbed my hand as if she were holding one of her grandchildren and rushed me over to the vending marchioness to get in line to purchase some of that nice chicken I had talked about in my letters to her. I wanted the chicken but settled for a sandwich, soda and fries seeing that there was no chicken in the machines.

"As we began talking and getting to know each other she stopped and paused for a moment. She looked me in my brown eyes and asked with a stern voice, “would you like to hear my story about how my daughter was murdered?” I was very interested all right because I was in prison convicted of the almost identical crime. As I listened to her relive this tragic story, I couldn’t help but think. “What a courageous lady to come and visit a man on death row convicted of the same thing that happened to her lovely daughter”. She told me about how she had visited the man who killed her daughter and forgave him for his crime.

"The visit ended and she gave me a big hug goodbye. I reluctantly walked back to my 4’ by 10’ cell with chains strapped to my body but the crust I had carried surrounding my heart washed away and I had a new outlook on what true forgiveness and love meant.

"The night went by slowly as I contemplated what I could do to help those out there that had lost loved ones to violent crimes. I couldn’t help but think what a beautiful rainbow this little lady was and that she had walked into my life when loneliness was beginning to crush me from lack of human contact from the outside. As I glanced at the cold steel bars of my cell I couldn’t help thinking about how nice of her to take the time out of her life and share it with me through her letters and visits. What a wonderful feeling to know that someone cared about me! Yes, she was a rainbow that had come into my life.

"I thought back to a few days prior to her visit, an early evening thunderstorm provided the setting for the most beautiful rainbow I had ever seen. But when I tried to describe it on paper, I was thoroughly frustrated, for its beauty defied words. In an attempt to understand what I had observed, I read an article in the encyclopedia. The article increased my understanding, but it offered only cold facts. It didn’t capture the rainbow’s glory. Abstract knowledge about a rainbow is one thing, experiencing its beauty is another. I am sure many people have heard of Aba Gayle, but until you have experienced her love and kindness toward her fellow man, one will never know the true beauty of a rainbow."

 

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One of my very special friends is on death row in Oklahoma.  I was in Oklahoma to be a speaker for The Ray of Hope sponsored by the Oklahoma Coalition to End the Death Penalty. The following is my impression of my visit with Jerry in the infamous H Unit in McAlester, Oklahoma.

Death row is located in H-Unit. H-Unit has been condemned by Amnesty International as violating human rights as established by the United Nations. It is underground. All you can see from outside is a mound of grass with an entrance of glass surrounded by concrete. Everything is gray concrete, the floor, wall, and ceiling. There is one guard just inside the doors. I signed in and the guard verified I was approved as a visitor. She took my drivers license and car keys and dropped them in a drawer. She then patted me down and checked my shoes. It was all very cold and unemotional. The prison seemed like a concrete cave, totally devoid of any humanity. I walked up a long gentle ramp. I was in a long hall. Suddenly to the right and left appeared alcoves. Each alcove had four windows. The windows on the right were where Jerry would appear.

The men are locked down 23 hours a day in small concrete boxes. The cells are precast concrete. These tiny cells each hold two men. There are no windows and no natural light or fresh air. There is no emergency button to press if someone gets violent or ill. The entire prison is designed to minimize contact with inmates and guards. The exercise yard is in the center of the complex. The 18 foot high walls allow in sunlight for a very brief time each day. A visitor can have permission to visit only one inmate. All visits are through glass on phones. The stools provided are too small and very uncomfortable. It surprised me that I was the only person visiting. No lines to be processed. I never saw a single guard once I got past the front desk. The cubicle the inmate is in during visits has no ventilation or holes in the wall or door of any kind.

Jerry has just turned 21. The crime was committed when he was 16. I am about to meet a new friend. Jerry was very nervous about meeting me. He turned out to be a handsome, fun, and intelligent young man. We talked about his family and we talked about books we have both read. We exchanged Red Neck jokes. The glass on Jerry’s side became fogged up due to lack of air and he had to wipe it off several times. That drab dreary dungeon became a warm and magical place for 2 hours. How hard it is to leave a friend behind, especially when you know he is returning to hell. Jerry’s story is documented in the book Ghosts from the Nursery-Tracing the Roots of Violence by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley. He also has been featured in an excellent article in the October 1998 issue of SPIN Magazine.

On September 1, 1999, Jerry's death sentence was modified to life.  The Oklahoma State Court of Appeals listed numerous errors by the prosecutor and improper contact between the bailiff and the jury.  He is now off death row and serving a life term in an Oklahoma Prison.



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Photo of Jerry



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One of my friends is finally off death row. As the result of a new trial he is now in another prison, soon to be paroled. During those years on death row he developed a friendship with a man who became a father figure to him. He wrote to me and asked if I could possibly go to visit Running Bear. His letter said that Running Bear never has any visitors. Running Bear is a Cherokee Indian from Oklahoma. He keeps me entertained with wonderful stories about his childhood in a place where his family struggled to keep their ancestors traditions amidst poverty and prejudice. He has written many of his stories and they have been published in Italy. The book has been a great success there. Running Bear does his best to maintain his Indian language and does his best to teach me simple words. I consider it an honor to have a place on his "prayer board" in his cell.
 


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Manny Babbit, Else, Running Bear and Gayle

Running Bear (Clarence Ray Allen) was executed in San Quentin on January 17, 2006.

 



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This is a water color painted by my friend Jay Siripong. Jay was executed by the State of California on February 9, 1999.

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Here is a tribute to Manny Babbitt who was executed by the State of California on May 4, 1999.


U.S. MARINE, VETERAN OF KHE SANH,
TO BE "PUT TO SLEEP" LIKE A STRAY DOG
By Douglas S. Mickey


"In the name of Vengeance and its emotion-based ideology that people can be comforted and healed by killing others, the proud Golden State of California is about to murder Vietnam veteran Marine Lance Corporal Manny Babbit on May 4, 1999;  31 years after he survived head wounds at the Battle of Khe Sanh-one of the bloodiest battle in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. For the past 15+ years I’ve had the honor and privilege to observe every facet of Manny’s life on San Quentin’s Death Row—in the midst of a totalitarian environment that is inherently toxic to the human spirit; diabolically desensitizing the caged men and their paramilitary keepers. During these tortuous years of prolonged sensual deprivation and psychological affliction, I’ve learned that Manny is acutely childlike, in that he is mentally slow, yet he is blessed with being exceptionally loving, trusting, and giving to inmates and staff alike. Throughout these years of aging and self-transformation, I’ve never known Manny to speak unkindly or to take his frustrations out on anyone.

"Needless to say, life tends to be excruciatingly bleak for the people on Death Row, but especially so during holidays, birthdays, family deaths and births. However, prison officials and the media greatly understate and downplay the long-term effects of perpetual isolation on Death Row: an alarming rate of suicides and psychological breakdowns. Yet, when life is at its darkest, Manny’s strength of character shines brightest, as he is foremost in setting aside his own troubles to give reassurance and comfort to those who seem most fragile and forsaken. Perhaps it is Manny’s childlike qualities that make him a pillar of human compassion in this Gothic chamber of horrors. But even the gentle strength of Manny Babbit isn’t invincible. There are times in the dark night of his soul when Manny is tormented and in dire need of human comfort and affection.

"I’ve sat alongside Manny in his prison cell while he tearfully turned the pages of his photo album, reminiscing—in a voice choked with emotional pain--the horrendous abuses he suffered throughout his childhood, or while he recollected the horrifying experiences he endured at the Battle of Khe Sanh, which in many ways was like Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

In the spring of 1967, Manny was just another poverty-stricken, illiterate, undereducated, 17-year old black kid. Discouraged with school and no prospects for a normal life, Manny dropped out of the 7th grade to join the Marine Corps, but failed the intelligence test so badly that the Marine recruiter had to help him answer the questions the second time around. Six-months after boot camp, Manny found himself stationed with an anti-tank battalion at a U.S. military base built on a hill overlooking the remote peasant village of Khe Sanh, in South Vietnam’s high country, located just 18 miles below North Vietnam’s border. Like Manny, most of the Marines at Khe Sanh were teenagers, who looked even younger in their oversized battle helmets.

"Things were SNAFU and relatively peaceful when Manny arrived in-country on December 5, 1967, but all hell broke lose on the night of January 21, 1968, when, under the cover of night, a North Vietnamese regiment attacked the adjacent Hill 861, to seize the high ground around the base. Thus began the Battle of Khe Sanh, where 6,000 Marines—cut off from all ground support—fiercely defended their desperate position on a remote hilltop against 40,000 heavily armed North Vietnamese Regulars—sometimes in bloody hand-to-hand combat, where the odds against the Marines were greater than 6 to 1. As the Air Force dropped more than 150,000 bombs into the surrounding jungle, the ground shook constantly under the deafening roar and violent impact of exploding bombs, shells, and rockets. Fatigued from being pounded night and day by enemy artillery, mortar, and rocket fire, the outnumbered Marines doggedly returned blistering fire from their trenches. The air was thick with the sounds of small arms fire, clouds of Agent Orange, Napalm fumes, the agonizing screams of the wounded and dying, and the sickening stench of decaying human parts strewn across the blood-drenched hilltop.

"Amidst the chaos of this man-made hell, Manny suffered shrapnel wounds to his head and hand, and was "choppered" out to a military hospital in Da Nang; subsequently suffering total memory loss. In spite of his wounds and dissociative reaction to combat, less than a week later Manny was "medically" released and flown back into the thick of battle at Khe Sanh. Eventually, when the fighting abruptly ended on March 7, 1968, about 37% of the North Vietnamese Regulars lay dead, while the Marine suffered nearly 50% casualties. As the fog of war lifted, Manny and his battle-hardened comrades-in-arms still held the hill—after 77 days of relentless combat against overwhelming odds. However the fighting wasn’t over for the survivors of Khe Sanh. As was expected of any REAL Marine, Manny extended his tour in Vietnam and went on to fight in Con Thienh, where the combat was closer and more intimate than it had been at Khe Sanh.

"After serving two tours of duty in Vietnam, Manny was shipped state-side, where he reenlisted and married his hometown sweetheart. Unable to reconcile the surreal contrast of being back in the World with the agony of tripping on his combat memories, Manny began self medicating himself with powerful mind-altering drugs such as LSD and PCP. As his mental state radically deteriorated, the Marine Corps gave Manny a General Discharge under honorable conditions. From there it was all downhill, as Manny increasingly behaved incoherently, wandering about talking to himself and fearfully dodging an invisible enemy in the dangerous hours of the night. In 1973, after several years of being in and out of jail and mental institutions, the court committed Manny to the infamous Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane—a prison hospital that gained national notoriety when the documentary Titicutt Follies chronicled prison hospital staff’s shocking abuses of patients. Thus, it is not surprising that throughout his two years of being incarcerated at Bridgewater, Manny never received the proper care and attention that he so very desperately needed and deserved. Manny was one of about 500,000 Vietnam veterans suffering from varying degrees of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

"Combat veterans and others who experience trauma "outside the range of normal human experience" may be easily startled; have disturbed sleep patterns; become homeless drifters, experience debilitating guilt, shame, and alienation. The symptoms intensify when PTSD victims are exposed to acute levels of chronic stress and/or conditions similar to combat experiences; in some cases symptoms intensify until PTSD veteran’s reach a "dissociative state" in which they relive combat.

"Thus, the judicial system recognized that Manny had reached the dissociative point long before the tragic night of December 23, 1980, when 78 year old Leah Schendel died of a heart attack after Manny burst into her home and struck her with his hand. Subsequently, Manny was arrested and charged with murder and burglary, which had all the earmarks of what Vietnam combat Marines called "souveniring." Manny has no recollection of the events that took place that Friday  night in Leah’s home. But when "in-country," Manny and his Marine buddies would enter a Vietnamese village to search through thatched huts for anything useful to the intelligence service; they routinely ransacked the personal affects of peasants for souvenirs.

"Technically, even though it is evident that Manny was unarmed and didn’t intend to kill Leah, because she suffered a fatal heart attack, California law gives the district attorney the power to use his discretion in the type of charges to file when death occurs in the commission of a burglar. In Manny’s case, the D.A. chose to make it a capital offense. Hence, in 1982, Manny was sentenced to be executed. During Manny’s trial, his state-appointed attorneys never brought up the fact that during his tour in Vietnam, Manny was found "aimlessly wandering around with complete amnesia for a 20 hour period, and had to be evacuated to a hospital ship and placed under psychiatric observation. Nor did his trial attorneys describe Manny’s combat experiences and explain to the jury how he had been in and out of mental institutions since he was discharged from the Marines, and was suffering from PTSD’s dissociative reactions to combat. Two of the jurors in Manny’s 1982 trial recently protested that they would have voted for life without possibility of parole if they had been told about the long-term effects of Manny’s combat experience.

"In retrospect, we would do well to consider the sobering fact that Leah Schendel and Marine Lance Corporal Manny Babbit are classic examples of how innocent people can become casualties of war and social neglect. As long as we ignore the long-term consequences of poverty and of sending our socially disadvantaged youth to fight in foreign wars for dubious causes, then we are incapable of critically analyzing: The quality of justice we are exercising at home and abroad when we rationalize the perpetuation of more suffering and more killing as a means to comfort and heal our injuries. Until we honestly confront the toxic effects of vengeance and resolve such emotional dilemmas, the fate of people like Leah and Manny will remain hopelessly beyond the comprehension of social justice."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

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