cover image Death Row Welcomes You: Visiting Hours in the Shadow of the Execution Chamber

Death Row Welcomes You: Visiting Hours in the Shadow of the Execution Chamber

Steven Hale. Melville House, $28.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61219-928-3

In 2018, when reporting on Tennessee’s first execution in over 10 years, journalist Hale became intrigued by a group standing vigil at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. As Hale relates in his moving and musical debut, this small but devoted coterie of regular death row visitors had formed haphazardly over the previous decade and hadn’t considered themselves activists. Some were journalists who had reported on death row; most began as religious practitioners visiting in a spiritual capacity and had not expected to develop anti–death penalty beliefs. But as the state planned more executions, the group began to advocate for clemency (“They’re trying to kill my friends,” one member explains). Hale tracks their growing distress as seven inmates are executed over two years. He also outlines his own gut-wrenching conversion to their point of view, explaining that, though he had previously been anti–death penalty, he had not viscerally felt the inhumanity of execution until meeting men about to be killed. The group believes such meetings will irrevocably alter anyone’s perspective on the morality of execution, and they continuously recruit new visitors for this reason. In graceful prose, Hale brings that ethos to his reporting, offering unflinching portrayals of the executed men, including their crimes, to give a bone-deep sense of their humanity. This beautiful and spiritually uplifting account finds hope in a dark place. (Mar.)