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From Death Row to Exoneration: Fmr. Texas Prisoner Anthony Graves on Surviving Solitary Confinement

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In a rare interview, former Texas death row prisoner Anthony Graves joins us to recount his experience in solitary confinement and how he was fully exonerated and released from prison in 2010. Graves was convicted in 1994 of assisting Robert Carter, a man he barely knew, in the brutal murders of six people. There was no physical evidence linking Graves to the crime, and his conviction relied primarily on Carter’s testimony. Before he was executed, Carter twice admitted he had lied about Graves’s involvement in the crime. In 2006, an appeals court overturned Graves’s conviction and ordered a new trial, saying prosecutors had elicited false statements and withheld testimony. After 18 years in prison, most of them on death row, Graves was exonerated and reunited with his family after a special prosecutor concluded he was an innocent man. Graves is now an active member of the movement to abolish the death penalty. “My experience was hell,” Graves says. “I always liken it to something that you would consider to be your worst nightmare. I had to go through that experience every day for 18-and-a-half years. And it was just no way to live.” Urging an end to the death penalty, Graves says: “They’re killing in your name. And I say to you, stand up and tell these people, 'Not in my name anymore.'” [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryJun 22, 2012Torture in U.S. Prisons? Historic Senate Hearing Takes Up Solitary Confinement’s Devastating Toll
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Jim Ridgeway—he is the co-editor of SolitaryWatch.com. We’re also joined by Anthony Graves, a former Texas death row prisoner who testified Tuesday at the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. He was convicted, along with a man named Robert Carter, of killing a Texas woman, her daughter and her four grandchildren. Graves was fully exonerated in 2010 after spending 18 years behind bars, the bulk of that time on death row and in solitary confinement. He’s now an investigator the Texas Defender Service and an active member of the movement to abolish the death penalty.

Anthony Graves, thank you very much for coming to Democracy Now! to talk about your story. In a moment, we’re going to talk about the case and how you ultimately got exonerated. But for now, if you can describe your time on death row and in solitary confinement and what it meant for you to testify in this first-ever hearing in the Senate.

ANTHONY GRAVES: Well, first of all, thank you, Amy, for having me on your show. I’m a fan of yours. We listen to your show all the time.

My experience was hell. I always liken it to something that you would consider to be your worst nightmare. I had to go through that experience every day for 18-and-a-half years. And it was just no way to live.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anthony Graves, in terms of—you described to the members of Congress the conditions on death row. The other prisoners in solitary, what did you know about what was going on with them? And you’ve also graphically have described what happened to some of them and drove them to near madness at times.

ANTHONY GRAVES: Well, I mean, you know, it’s the culture down there. And what I mean by that is that, for some reason, we feel that we have to punish people. The sentences isn’t enough. So, when I was down there, I mean, I witnessed guys just, you know, going insane. I witnessed officers doing things that they just felt that they had to do; otherwise, they would be considered to be soft with the inmates. So, it’s just a—it’s a culture of madness, and it’s designed to drive those guys totally insane. And, I mean, you know, I used—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip of you, Anthony, testifying at the Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday about the self-mutilation committed by other prisoners. This is a warning to our listeners and to our viewers, this is quite graphic.

ANTHONY GRAVES: I watched men literally self-mutilate themselves. They had to be put on razor restrictions, because if they’re given a razor, they will cut their own throat, their own neck, wherever they could cut at on their own bodies. They just stand there in front of you and cut themselves. And this one man in particular that I watched do this, they took him over to what they call the psychiatric ward. A few days later, he hung himself, all because of the conditions. There’s a man right there sitting on Texas death row right now who’s housed in solitary confinement, pulled his eye out and swallowed it—all because of the conditions. Solitary confinement dehumanizes us all.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to also play a clip from Tuesday’s hearing, when Senator Durbin asked the Federal Bureau of Prisons director, Charles Samuels, about federal prisoners held in solitary confinement who engage in self-mutilation.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Let me get down to some of the more graphic—and I won’t go into detail here in the hearing, but it’s there on the record. I’ve read stories about federal inmates and inmates at state facilities, in isolation, who have clearly reached a point where they’re self-destructive. They are maiming themselves, mutilating themselves, doing horrible things to themselves. They are creating an environment within that cell which is awful by any human standard. What happens next, in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, when someone has reached that extreme in their personal conduct?

CHARLES SAMUELS: If an individual is exhibiting that type of behavior due to suffering from, you know, serious psychiatric illness, those individuals are not, within our policy, individuals that we would keep at the ADX or in a restrictive housing. These individuals are referred to our psychiatric medical centers for care. And we believe that that’s important. And we would never, under any situation, believe that those individuals should be continued to be housed in that type of setting.

AMY GOODMAN: ADX is the administrative maximum detention facility, the supermax, at Florence, Colorado. Anthony Graves, respond please.

ANTHONY GRAVES: Yeah, he’s speaking about the guidelines that are written on paper. But in actuality, those things are not practiced. As I say, there’s a culture of madness down there. And officers feel that—you know, matter of fact, I spoke with one officer, and I asked him. I said, “Man, why do you treat people the way you treat them down here?” He said, “Man, because I feel like I’m doing society a favor.” You know, so that’s the kind of attitude they have toward the inmates. So this whole notion of them following these guidelines that this guy is talking about on paper is just—it doesn’t exist. You know, it just doesn’t exist.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring Jim Ridgeway back into the conversation. Jim, you’ve said that you believe that solitary confinement in our prisons is one of the most pressing domestic human rights problems to which most Americans remain largely oblivious.

JAMES RIDGEWAY: Well, yes. I mean, there are 2.3 million people in prison. There are at least 80,000 people, probably more, in solitary. And, you know, that’s an awful lot of people. It’s not just, you know, incidental examples of torture.

But I wanted to further what Anthony said. I’m not—I have never been a prisoner, but I’m writing to a young man now in upstate New York. He tried to burn his house down when he was five years old. He’s been in and out of mental institutions all his life. He’s in his early twenties. He’s threatened to kill himself. He’s tried to kill himself. And he’s put in a mental ward in—I think it’s Attica prison. And inside this mental ward, he’s continued to try to kill himself. He was put in a solitary cell, so he tried to burn the solitary—burn it down. So what was the response in this mental ward? They sent him back outside to Utica district attorney, and they reindicted him on arson charges and then sent him back to the same place. Now, is it crazy to think that somebody, somewhere, could step in and stop this? I mean, he has a public defender. And this public defender won’t even call his family, won’t talk to his mother. It’s just—it’s incredible.

The situation in state and federal prisons in this solitary confinement is absolutely out of control. Obama says there’s no torture in America. Well, I mean, you just have to go, you know, a mile, three miles; just around—all around you, there’s stuff going on. Now, I’m not saying that all corrections officers, you know, are torturers or anything like that. I’m just saying there are no standards. The wardens can operate at their whim. And this becomes a second sentence. In other words, the judge sentences a guy to three years, and he gets inside the prison; the warden or the guard decides that the guy’s a problem, they throw him in solitary. And he can stay in solitary, like Billy Blake, for example, who’s a murderer. He’s in upstate New York. He’s been in solitary for 22 years. The guys in Louisiana, the Angola Two down there, 40 years in solitary confinement. I mean, doesn’t—doesn’t a judge look at this and say, “Well, what’s going on here?” Apparently not.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney Stuart Andrews also testified at Tuesday’s hearing. He represents a group of South Carolina prisoners with serious mental illnesses, many of whom have been kept in solitary confinement. The prisoners filed suit several years ago against the South Carolina Department of Corrections, alleging violations of the state constitution and seeking adequate mental health services.

STUART ANDREWS: To illustrate some of what we’ve learned about the operation of solitary confinement in our state’s prisons, I would like to call your attention to two individuals who have been members of our class. The first is Theodore Robinson, who is a 50-year-old man with paranoid schizophrenia serving a life sentence. Mr. Robinson’s speech is highly disorganized, and he has a history of bizarre behavior, such as drinking his own urine. Like many people with schizophrenia, he suffers hallucinations and delusions. For example, he believes that at night, while he sleeps, doctors secretly enter his cell and perform surgery on him. From 1993 through 2005, a period of 12 consecutive years, Mr. Robinson was kept in solitary confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s attorney Stuart Andrews. He said mentally ill prisoners in South Carolina are actually twice as likely as others to be in solitary confinement and two-and-a-half times as likely to receive a sentence in solitary that exceeds their projected release date from prison and over three times as likely to be assigned to an indefinite period of time in solitary confinement. Jim Ridgeway?

JAMES RIDGEWAY: Yes. I mean, that’s—that’s par for the course. I mean, this guy Adam that I’m talking about, this young guy, he wrote me in a letter, OK? He wrote me in a letter, I think last week or the week before. He said, “Don’t tell my mother, but each—every night I’m cutting into my arm. Each night I cut further and further. Last night I reached the muscle. I’m cutting, and I hope pretty soon that I’m going to cut deep enough to bleed out.” In other words, kill himself. You know, this is in a letter to me. You know, and I’m saying, “Please, hang on, Adam. Don’t do this.” And you can’t get his public defender on the telephone? I mean, what in the world? This is New York state.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to former Texas death row prisoner Anthony Graves about his experience in solitary confinement. We want to turn to the story—we heard about how he was in prison for 18 years, now to how he was fully exonerated and released from prison in 2010. Graves was convicted in 1994 of assisting Robert Carter, a man he barely knew, in the brutal murders of six people: Bobbie Davis, her 16-year-old daughter Nicole, and Davis’s four grandchildren. The victims were stabbed, bludgeoned, shot to death. Their house was set on fire. There was no physical evidence linking Graves to the crime. His conviction relied primarily on Carter’s testimony. Two weeks before Robert Carter was scheduled to be executed in 2000, he provided a statement saying he lied about Graves’ involvement in the crime. He repeated that statement minutes before he was executed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Then in 2006, an appeals court overturned Graves’ conviction and ordered a new trial, saying prosecutors had elicited false statements and withheld testimony. After 18 years in prison, most of them on death row, Graves was exonerated and reunited with his family. He’s now an investigator at the Texas Defender Service and an active member of the movement to abolish the death penalty.

Can you tell us, Anthony Graves, when you were first jailed, how—how you were accused of the guy—with the guy who actually committed the crimes and how you knew him and whether you had any hopes, initially, of being judged not guilty?

ANTHONY GRAVES: Well, first of all, I’d like to just correct you and say I no longer work with the Texas Defender Service. I’ve started my own foundation, and—AnthonyBelieves.com—and it’s designed to fight for criminal justice reform.

Now, as how I came—how they brought me into this whole mess, you know, of course there was the actual crime, and the guy showed up at the funeral with bandages all over his body, so they assumed that he was a person of interest. And after the funeral, they followed him home, so that they can talk to him. Well, when they took him to the DPS office to talk with him, according to Mr. Carter, he thought he’d seen four young men in a jeep coming off the feed of the highway, and he thought one of those men were me. So when they went—they took him and interrogated him for over, like, 14 hours. And according to Mr. Carter, they threatened him, told him that they would look it—make it look like it was an escape and shoot him in the head, and who would care about a baby killer? But that if he named someone that did the crime with him, they would let him go. So, Mr. Carter, feeling this pressure to name someone, named me, because he said he had just seen me in the jeep. And so, he thought that if he gave them a crazy story, that they wouldn’t come and arrest me, but they would also let him go. Well, that led to me losing 18-and-a-half years of my life and two execution dates. I was on death row for 12 and a half of those years.

And when I—I tell people that—I hear everybody try to give a professional opinion about death row and solitary confinement, but I say that you can never, never, ever give it accurate unless you actually lived there. It is hell, it is hell, and it’s hell every day. I mean, I’m telling you, guys—I was there when over 300 men were executed. And I listened to guys who were happy to be executed instead of existing up under those same conditions. One guy told me, he said, “Man, I’m ready to go. You have to live with this madness tomorrow.” I mean, he would rather die than exist up under them inhumane conditions. I mean, what has happened to our country where we’re treating each other like that?

We have definitely crossed the line when it comes to punishment, crime and punishment. The guy gets sentenced at his initial trial, and then he goes and gets sentenced while he’s down there to punishment and torture, you know? And, you know, we laughed when we was down there, would talk—we heard people talking about other countries’ human rights, and you’re sitting here torturing us. I mean, we have an opportunity to educate a mass of people that are behind—that are incarcerated and move this thing to a positiveness, so that when they come out, there’s no recidivism anymore. But yet, we are so ingrained in punishment, because it’s our culture. And it stems from our past, you know? This is the way we was treated before we got any kind of rights in this country. And we’re still being treated like that now. You know, there’s not much difference.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Graves—

ANTHONY GRAVES: This is just modern-day slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why it was—there were several people who would have testified that you were at your mother’s house the night of these brutal murders. Why didn’t they testify?

ANTHONY GRAVES: Well, they were threatened. They were threatened by the prosecutor that if they came forward, then it was highly likely he would seek an indictment of capital murder against them. So, I mean, they were actually at the trial to testify, and he threatened them. And when my brother testified to my whereabouts, because he was at home and my sister was there, well, he made it look like my family were liars, to me, you know. And he was speaking to basically an all-white jury, saying that, you know, basically, you know, his brother was protecting, which my brother was just being honest, you know, because my brother would not protect a murderer. But my brother was trying to tell them the truth. But the prosecutor, he manipulated every aspect of the case for a conviction, you know, and that’s how I ended up losing my freedom. I had a prosecutor that seeked a conviction. And it’s sad because, you know, that’s the culture. You know, we elect them, and they feel that this whole notion of being tough on crime is what’s going to keep them in office, so they start taking shortcuts and become blindsided. And as a result, those without the resources end up losing their freedom for crimes they did not commit. And that happened to me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how were you able, all those years, day after day, month after month, in solitary, to hold it together, to keep maintaining your innocence? And then, of course, when—your reaction when you heard the news that you’d been exonerated?

ANTHONY GRAVES: Well, you know, it wasn’t no magic pill or nothing. I just knew that—when I got down there, you know, I knew that I was—I wasn’t a murderer, and that I was a father, I was a son, I was a brother. You know, I was many things, but I was not a murderer. And so, I said to myself, you know, they have taken my freedom, but the things that they can’t take from me, I’m not going to give them. And they couldn’t take my dignity. They couldn’t take who I was as a man. And I was not going to allow them to define me by their labels. I knew I was Anthony Graves and I was not a murderer. I was my mother’s child, someone that they kidnapped and put on death row and tried to murder. So, I was defiant in not giving something that they couldn’t take from me, and that kept me sane.

AMY GOODMAN: Eighteen years, Anthony. When you were released, your mom did not know. What was your first act when you got out of jail?

ANTHONY GRAVES: Well, you know, my mother and I, when I was able to talk to her on the phone, because I was—I was also in isolation for four years when I got back to the local county jail. Imagine why. But we would talk on the phone. I would always ask her what she was cooking. So, when I was released, she didn’t know. You know, no one knew. And they was asking me about, you know, “Do your mom know?” And I said, “No, she doesn’t.” And they was like, “Well, call your mom.” And, of course, they put cellphones in my face, and I didn’t know anything about a cellphone—you know, 18 years, right? So, when I called my mom, and she answered the phone, you know, and I said, “Mom.” And, of course, she is like, “What?” And I said, “What are you cooking?” And she said, “Why?” And I said, you know, “Your son coming home.”

And, you know, it was an emotional moment, but at the same time, what I was saying to her was that, “We are both now off of death row. We can now live again.” You know? And that’s what I was saying to her, when I was telling her I was coming home, because she’d done 18-and-a-half years with me. My children done 18-and-a-half years with me—my siblings and everyone that loved me. This thing has a ripple effect. It affected my family, and they’ll have memories of this here for the rest of their life. And I just say, you know, is it worth it? You know, you put a whole family on death row. You created another set of victims, you know, and is it worth it? I don’t think so. I don’t think my mother would think so, either. You know, my children can never get back their father. You know, I can never raise them. And so, it’s not worth it. And then, on top of that, you’re torturing me. You know, and then my mother had to come see me. And then she looks at me, and she can’t hold me, and she knows that I’m going through a lot. But all she can do is just stare at her child and pray that, you know, someday that justice will prevail and that we’ll stop treating human beings this way. You know, so…

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anthony Graves, the state of Texas, did they ever apologize to you or compensate you for the injustice that was visited on you?

ANTHONY GRAVES: Well, you know, the state, they compensated me, but you can never compensate it—compensate me enough for what you stole from me. An apology, it’s never been official, but several people higher up in the government has apologized to me. And I—I mean, you know, I thank them for that, you know, but a true apology would to be—would be to really sit down and analyze our system and realize that we have a big, big problem in our system and that we’re sentencing men to death row and just in prison for crimes that they did not commit, because we have gotten so off track with seeking justice, because we’ve placed the politics over it. And I just wish that, you know, if they’re going to be sincere about an apology, then that would be the way to be sincere about it, is to really take in consideration that our system is definitely broken, and we need to reform it.

We need to fix it, because it’s for all of us. It’s not just for those; it’s for all of us, because the minute you start thinking that it doesn’t affect you, next thing you know, your neighbor is going to jail for something he didn’t do, and you realize that, you know, it’s just right next door to you. When does it come to you next? Then that’s when you start to realize that it’s part of us all, and we all have a part in this. I’m talking about from the voters, you know, and to the judge, to the jury. We all have a part in this here. And if it’s going to work, we all have to play our hand. I mean, the citizens of our nation, we have to hold those that we elect accountable. We definitely have to. We have to start being the overseers, because our system has gotten way off track, and it threatens all of us now. And I say to you—

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Graves—


AMY GOODMAN: What do you say?

ANTHONY GRAVES: No, I just tell people to, you know, use your vote as your voice and say—you know, they’re killing in your name. And I say to you, stand up and tell these people, “Not in my name anymore. Not in my name anymore.” I want a system that works for all of us, you know, and you demand that.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Graves, thank you so much for being with us, former Texas death row prisoner, testified Tuesday at the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. He was exonerated after 18 years in prison, most of that time on death row in solitary confinement.

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