Prison Life Not as “Leisurely” as Hembree Claimed

A letter by North Carolina death row inmate Danny Robbie Hembree, Jr. to The Gaston Gazette was big news today. He called himself “a gentleman of leisure,” touted his living conditions, and dared the state to carry out his execution. Understandably, he angered thousands who took to the Internet to express their disgust. Comments by prison guards that agree inmates have it easy, some going as far as to say they have nicer lives than their own, surprised me the most.

Am I naïve to say I don’t believe Hembree’s claims for a second? I think his letter was nothing more than the cruel taunts of a madman. He says he enjoys three hot meals a day. Remember eating lunch in the school cafeteria? That’s gourmet cooking compared to the swill most prisons serve and inmates don’t get to choose when and what they eat. He has access to a color television but I doubt he has a remote to channel surf or that he has premium cable channels. And can you think of a more empty and useless way to spend years of your life than watching daytime television ad nauseam? Okay, so he can read. That could make a lover of literature jealous. Wouldn’t I just love more uninterrupted time to curl up with my Kindle? In Hembree’s case all publications must be pre-approved so he’s not kicking his heels up with the latest bestseller.

Most infuriating, Hembree brags in his letter about 24-hour access to free medical care. I doubt he gets the immediate response that you or I would if we called 9-1-1. Usually prisoners have to provide a written request for medical attention and it can take days or even weeks to be seen. Some correctional facilities will only provide the care for free if the inmate is indigent, i.e. has no money on his commissary account.

Let me point out some things Hembree neglected to discuss, like visitation. You and I can chat with our closest gal pals over coffee any day of the week. Anyone who wants to visit Hembree has to go through a pre-approval process and make an appointment at least one week in advance. Visits are held on certain days and they are conducted through plexiglass. Danny Hembree, Jr. won’t be hugging his son, who has also been in trouble with the law for drug possession and larceny, any time soon if he even sees him at all.

Hembree has no privacy whatsoever, not for showering or using the toilet. All of his mail can be scrutinized. All outgoing calls are limited, monitored, and must be made collect. He lacks the freedom to move about at will, being confined to his cell and dayroom for all but one hour a day for meals or a shower. He can only go outdoors twice per week “weather permitting.”

Does it go without saying that Danny Hembree Jr. is just a number as far as the state of North Carolina is concerned? He’s no longer an individual able to make and realize his own dreams. He has no hope of family, career and a nice retirement. He will not take vacations or enjoy any meaningful outside relationships. (No Internet access means no email, Facebook or Twitter.)

I’m certainly not advocating to make the lives of convicted killers on death row easier. At the risk of offending people, I’m simply suggesting we put supposed amenities like free meals and access to medical care in perspective. I hope I didn’t just become The Blogger Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

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