Soulful Resistance on Tennessee’s Death Row

This week, Vanderbilt Divinity School student Andrew Krinks published an article in The Other Journal based on his interviews with prisoners currently on Tennessee’s death row.  Krinks writes:

To be embodied on death row is to be thoroughly delimited—materially, spatially, and relationally—under another’s control, destined for death strapped to a gurney. As a result, men here have few options but to center their subjectivity beyond the purely material: to be human inside a death machine demands being more than just a body; it demands soulfulness. To understand what it means to be human on Tennessee’s death row, we must look at the material and relational nature of life on death row, the theological frameworks that guide life there, and, finally, the soulful resistance that rehumanizes life in this dehumanizing environment.

Krinks asked the prisoners: “What does this institution want you to know in your body? How does it tell you? How do you hear it?” 

Dan responded first: “They want me to know that they have this body.” After prodding him further to get at how the institution communicates this message, Dan said, “I have to walk through eight locked doors to get from here [open gathering room] to my cell.” Kurt echoed Dan’s response: “They tell you when you can do everything.” And Paul added a similar perspective: “What they tell [my body] is ‘control.’ They tell me how long I can visit with my family and how often.”

And yet, the prisoners also find ways to sustain meaningful relations to others within an institution based on isolation and control:

In terms of their relations with others, it quickly became clear from our interactions that human touch is very important for many of the men on Unit 2. When I entered the room where our first set of interviews would take place, the three men I knew previously and the two who I met for the first time all extended their hands for a handshake that turned into an embrace with the other arm. When I asked them about the extent and nature of physical contact for prisoners on death row, Dan responded, “Not everybody embraces around here, but most of us do. You can’t force it on anyone, but for those who do embrace, it creates communal harmony.” Likewise, Paul said, “Hugs bring about fellowship. It’s more than just coexistence—it’s brotherhood. Our love is unconditional.”

Krinks also asked the prisoners “about the theological concepts that guide their own understandings of the body, the soul, and the relationship between the two.”

On the question of the body, Paul spoke up first, and his answer was met with instantaneous and conclusive agreement: “The body is the temple of God.” On the subject of the soul (or the mind or the spirit),1 my interviewees had significantly more to say. Paul responded, “The spirit is a traveling vehicle—not bound by the laws of man.” Dan said that “The spirit is God breathing the breath of life into you. It’s the living, breathing part of you.”

Krinks’ interviews, and his reflections on these interviews, offer a rare and valuable glimpse into the lives of prisoners on Tennessee’s death row, and a nuanced counter-balance to the mugshots and captions circulated in media reports on the death penalty.

To read Part One of the article, click here.

To read Part Two, click here.