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Interview: April 18, 2024

In the vein of WAITING FOR AN ECHO and DEAD MAN WALKING, DEATH ROW WELCOMES YOU is a deeply immersive look at justice in America, told through the interwoven lives of condemned prisoners and the men and women who come to visit them. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, award-winning journalist Steven Hale talks about his inspiration for the book and the challenges he faced during the writing process, the lessons he has learned from befriending death row inmates, and his thoughts on the fate of capital punishment.

Question: “This is the story of how I went to death row and found I was welcome.” That is how you introduce this affecting book. It appears that this process all started for you when you were invited to attend an execution at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution by dint of being a staff reporter for the Nashville Scene.

Steven Hale: That's right. I had been covering the case of Billy Ray Irick since the state scheduled his execution. It was the first execution in Tennessee in nearly a decade, and I applied to be one of the media witnesses. As that date was approaching, and I was trying to get closer to the men on death row in my reporting, I was introduced to the community of regular death row visitors who became central figures in the book.

Q: Do you think you’d have the same deep feelings about the subject of capital punishment if you hadn’t been raised in what you describe as a conservative Christian household?

SH: It's interesting to think about. On the one hand, I grew up in a milieu that was heavily influenced by people like Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson and largely in thrall to a right-wing view of law and order. At the same time, I don't remember the death penalty coming up in my house, and I was also exposed to some radical Christian ideas about what the Kingdom of God would look like --- ideas that were more rooted in grace, nonviolence and restoration than revenge and punishment. So I came out the other end with a lot of things that I still believe deeply and that certainly shaped my views on the death penalty.

Q: Getting to know some of the condemned prisoners who reside on death row obviously has had a profound effect on you over the past six years. Do you feel that we all would experience the same emotions if somehow we could make the effort to have face-to-face encounters with prisoners the way you have? Or does it take a special kind of person to develop your level of empathy?

SH: One thing this experience and others in my life have taught me is that proximity changes everything. I do tend to believe that just about anyone who sat in the rooms I sat in and had the conversations I had while reporting this book would be changed by them. So while I hope I am an empathetic person, I think all of us would be more empathetic with other people --- even some people who have done monstrous things --- if there was less distance between us.

Q: The community of visitors to Riverbend is a fascinating blend of people from varying backgrounds and with varying motivations. How did you get them to accept you the way they did?

SH: To start with --- perhaps because of this experience or other experiences in their lives --- these are just very welcoming and kind people. But beyond that, I think that for a lot of them, their experience visiting death row has been so life-altering that they are eager to share it. I think a good number of them believe, as I suggested above, that if more people saw and heard what they have at the prison, then our society's view of the condemned would be different. I also just tried to be honest throughout about where I was coming from and how I was hoping to tell their story.

Q: In the process of writing DEATH ROW WELCOMES YOU, did you arrive at any unexpected roadblocks that you had to solve in order to keep going? Or were you able to complete it exactly the way you had envisioned the book at the outset?

SH: I'm afraid there were many roadblocks. The truth is I had a very difficult time writing this. I don't say that to valorize myself or get sympathy. But between the subject matter and my own anxieties about writing the best book I could write, I had a few very tough spells. That said, my agent, Lauren MacLeod, and my Melville House editor, Carl Bromley, were indispensable --- always willing to accept what I'm sure were tiresome phone calls from me.

Q: Capital punishment remains a hot-button topic that has been vigorously debated for more than half a century. Do you feel any inroads have been made over the past 10 years that give you encouragement? Or are we stuck in the same patterns we always have been, with no end in sight?

SH: I do think, as a society, we've made progress over the past couple of decades in terms of taking a more holistic view of crime and violence. I think more people are more open to the idea that we can't and shouldn't define a person by one act, even a terrible act. At the same time, there is a reason that capital punishment and harsh sentences in general have been around for so long. Revenge and punishment often feel like justice to us, it seems. I do believe that the death penalty will end. I do think we will stop doing this. But I also think there's good reason to believe things could get pretty ugly before that happens.