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A new BBC radio documentary offers an original, disturbing look at life on death row

“I am in every way an ordinary guy,” says the narrator of the BBC World Service's The Documentary: The Death Row Book Club.

By Antonia Quirke

We’ve seen death row in enough films for some of its details to have (ghoulishly) become familiar. Especially the prisoner’s final speech, delivered while numbly strapped to a gurney, hinting at some kind of martyrdom (see Dead Man Walking). But one facet in this programme (26 May, 9:30am) was news: that breakfast every day is served at 2.45 am. I ask you – is that not the very model of planned discomfort?

“I am in every way an ordinary guy,” says the narrator of this monologue, “except for the fact that I spent half my life on death row.” Some 28 years, in fact, largely in solitary confinement, while innocent of a double murder. Anthony Ray Hinton was released by the state of Alabama in 2015.

Inside, he’d established a book club, with six other inmates (all since executed). He describes how one novel in particular – James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain – so overwhelmed an ex member of the KKK in the group that he brought six pages of his own (devastatingly autobiographical) notes to discuss. Certain lines had brought him into full life, especially: “His father said all white people were wicked.” He saw the power and cyclical wound of indoctrination. (A friend of mine was in solitary in prison for a long time in the 1970s, and crushed by boredom read James Clavell’s 1975 bestseller Shogun. For those few days – he tells me – life was “in technicolour. With Dolby sound. And sex.” He’s never forgotten it, and especially the blessed way time disappeared.)

After reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Hinton says he was utterly consumed with the fantasy of Atticus as his own lawyer. A common desire, but you can hear in his voice that the identification was raw and total. There’s a discomfiting catch in his throat, like a bulb flickering, unsure if it’s working or not. And I loved how the producer kept in the sound of Hinton turning the pages of his script. Such things are more typically edited out, and instead it firmly established an air of something being read aloud: words and experiences starting on a page, but that are as real to the speaker as the microphone now in front of him. 

The Documentary: The Death Row Book Club
BBC World Service

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This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak

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