By Kenneth Jamal Lighty
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” John Milton, Paradise Lost
Few others have walked a journey lending more credence to such a profound statement.
I have spent the last 18 years of my life under the heavy boot of America’s criminal “justice” system. In 2006, I was sentenced by the federal government to die by lethal injection.
My journey has been different from most who become ensnared in the American prison system. I was literally ushered straight into a maximum-security, perennial lockdown — conditions that other people would usually have to “earn” through an accumulation of bad conduct, such as murder of another prisoner or a guard.
From the day I stepped foot into the Special Confinement Unit, known as Death Row, located on the top floor of the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, my physical space has been decided for me. I have been confined to a cell not much bigger than a parking space for over 15 years. Inside are all the “essentials” deemed necessary for existence: a steel shower, a sink with an attached toilet, and a table. I have a window, but it’s fairly worthless because the thick glass is frosted, making it impossible to actually see outside. Its sole purpose is to allow light into my cell, so I’m constantly visible to my captors as they make their rounds every 30 minutes. Even with that, however, some of them entertain themselves by shining an ultra-bright flashlight into my eyes.
Even in pre-COVID times, I have not been permitted physical contact with other human beings, including the embrace of my family members when they visit. I am only allowed out of my cell for one hour a day five days a week, when I am released into a one-person cage in the yard.
One of the things I quickly had to develop was an awareness of self, because I am my only physical companion for the foreseeable future. Unconsciously, I have developed my own mental spaces in which to live, as an alternative to conditions clearly constructed to break down nearly every aspect of normal, human life.
Initially, however, that “self” was not sufficiently strong to oppose the one designed for me. I believe individuals who are truly imprisoned are those who are unable to recognize weakness in themselves, their captors and their confines. Until I arrived on death row, I could see only one pathway in life: skipping school; smoking weed laced with PCP; selling the same, along with crack cocaine; wreaking violent retribution against perceived enemies…street life.
It wasn’t until I was forced to experience another way of life (prison) that I was able to see the need for an alternative, “bigger” space — insulated from the external pressures that kept me from exploring my individuality. How ironic: My mental freedom came at the expense of my physical freedom.
The alternative space of a father
Contrary to popular opinion, surviving prison life is mostly mental. Although I have been drawn into my fair share of physical altercations — using fists, knives, mace, etc. — they pale in comparison to the times when I had to save my sanity, my humanity and, ultimately, my spirit by transporting myself out of this manmade hell into an alternative mental universe.
One such alternative space is what I’ve created with the two beautiful young women to whom I am a dedicated and proud father and godfather. I’ve had to fight hard to maintain this space. There are times when depression sets in due to my inability to be present with them, offering the physical love, support and guidance they deserve. In their eyes, I can do no wrong; but I feel like a complete failure. When this feeling threatens to engulf me, I don’t run from it. Rather, I allow it to wash over me, taking it in fully. I do this for myriad reasons, one of which is to hold myself accountable for my physical absence in their lives. To me, it doesn’t matter that I know I am innocent of the crime for which I was sentenced to death. When I am honest with myself, I acknowledge that I was guilty of living the lifestyle that put me at risk of incarceration in the first place.
I came to understand, however, that even though I can’t physically be with my daughters, there is still a space in which I can be their loving father. Prison only can take me from them if I allow it. I work hard to maximize every available avenue of communication, creating spiritual and emotional spaces that are unique to us. You could say it’s rather like a blind man who develops a highly refined sense of smell.
When the girls were in school, I ditched my pride and leveraged my relationships with friends and family to build bridges with their teachers. I sent them emails from prison, explaining that I am an incarcerated parent wanting to deter my girls from following my path. They already came from a damaged, under-served neighborhood; I wanted them to take advantage of whatever education they could get. I asked their teachers to go beyond their usual procedures by creating an account on the prison email system, messaging me about the girls’ progress on a regular basis. Thankfully, they respected my desire to make up for my absence and enabled me to stay abreast of my daughters’ performance. I was aware whenever they slipped and were at risk of altering the trajectory of their lives. As a result, they both graduated.
The space of a community benefactor
Another “alternative space” I created is a virtual role in my community. Despite my drug dealing as a youth, I was also known as someone who would give the shirt off my back to help another. It’s a value system I learned from my grandmother, who was my closest thing to a superhero. One of my fondest memories is buying the children in my neighborhood ice cream when the truck turned onto our street, playing its familiar song. Some of them came from households that were rough on children; still, when they licked a cone, for at least those moments, they could be like other kids.
After my incarceration, I initially bought into the notion that I was no longer able to have a positive impact on my community — that both the stigma of my sentence and my physical separation rendered me useless. When I heard about someone in need, I sent money when I could anonymously, through a third party.
It was during a conversation with my eldest daughter that I finally found a way to overcome that limitation. I proposed a community initiative to feed the homeless in my birthplace, Washington, D.C. I funded it from the money I’d managed to save over the years. I still didn’t want my name associated with the project, afraid it would cause controversy. But in her stubborn love for me, my daughter refused to allow me to confine myself to the space of a prisoner. She went against my wishes and titled the initiative The Lighty Project. She taught me that even though there will always be people who question my motives and define me by my circumstances, that doesn’t mean I have to willingly stay in that space. She taught me that if I have the courage to step from behind the label, I can free myself mentally. I have made mistakes in my life, but I am so much more than that.
The Lighty Project has been active for nearly three years, feeding the unhoused with no grants or outside donations. We have worked with groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs, inviting young kids in the community to help pass out meals in exchange for community-service credit.
But there is no escaping one’s physical space
But despite all this, I still have had to come to terms with the physical space my body occupies. And that became critically important in the last year.
During the last six months of the previous presidential administration, I was forced to watch 13 men die by lethal injection. These were men with whom I had spent the last 15 years, day in and day out. Men whose faces I saw, and whose voices I heard, every single day, with no break in between.
I was literally in the middle of a conversation with one of those men when five guards and a lieutenant walked down the tier and uttered the words everyone here fears: “The warden would like to see you.”
What do those words mean?
They mean you are about to be ushered out of your cell and escorted down the tier in which you have lived for your entire incarceration in this facility, away from those with whom you have built bonds, shared accomplishments and survived tough times — never to return. You enter a small room full of individual cages that resemble dog kennels, where the warden awaits. He tells you that your time has come and names the date your execution will take place. That date is no longer than 30–60 days in the future. The warden then hands you a stack of menus from establishments in the area, from which you may choose your last meal. From there, you are escorted to a tier that will house you, and you alone, until the day that either your appeal is granted or your eyes close for the final time.
Six of those 13 men I considered friends. I was unable to do anything to help, or even find the words to somehow offer comfort. And although I was not allowed to be with them during their last moments, I watched news coverage during which their final words and their last breath were described in minute detail.
Can you imagine that?
To this day, I can still look across the hall into an empty cell that once housed one of my friends, and sometimes see his face looking back at me. When I was escorted to the computer from which I typed this essay, I imagined hearing one of them call out to me. When I look through my photos during moments of nostalgia, I avoid the stacks that contain pictures of my friends taken during the last days of their lives. When I want to read old letters that take me back to happier times, I avoid certain envelopes because I know they contain short letters from those friends, penned during their last days, telling me how proud they are of me, and that they need me to keep pressing forward because I am a beautiful story that needs to be heard.
During times like these, I must mentally lift myself out of this place to survive. I step out of the space of a prisoner on death row. I go to my father space, relishing the memory of one of my daughters telling me about someone who asked her on a date. I go to my friend space, remembering how my lack of judgement had allowed a confidante to tell me something he was afraid to share with anyone else. I go to the Lighty Project space, imagining that I smile as I share the food that should be a right in this country, but instead is more of a luxury.
What role does space play in my life? I physically reside in a place where death is just around the corner every single day. A place where the smell of fear of death is palpable. A place where you only have the right to be one thing: a prisoner. But I escape daily to mental spaces I construct.
Space is all I have.