“Dead Man Walking.” In the prison, it’s an actual call. You can hear the chains and the boots. In life, it’s a feeling of despair. You can hear the negative voices and feelings. We felt that despair many times in jail, and sometimes it comes back to haunt us when we get home.
Nikki Roberts has hope today. But it didn’t come easy. Nikki has a hope she can live, breathe and preach, and when you talk to her, it becomes apparent that her hope is neither wishful thinking nor blind optimism. She has hope today which, interestingly, came as a gift and with a price.
She received hope in a place usually reserved for pain and despair. And she received it from someone society had already written off as dead. “Dead man walking” became “Dead woman testifying” as she sat in the lockdown unit in the Georgia women’s prison after multiple suicide attempts. “I was put in solitary,” she says, “upset that I was still alive.” She was “crying out in disgust” at the failed attempts at suicide. Voices echoed in her memory of others in the facility who had encouraged her to pack it in. But a live voice breathed through the air vent and into her cell.
“You do not belong to this system,” said the voice in one of a number of “hope-laden messages.” “You do not belong to your mistakes, you belong to God.” For three weeks, the voice offered encouragement through the ventilation system. The voice had no face– women on lockdown rarely saw each other– but it had a name: Kelly. Kelly Gissendaner, a name infamous in Georgia criminal culture, the only women on that state’s death row, sentenced to death for the murder of her husband, was speaking life to Nikki.
Kelly told Nikki about how her life had been changed by studying theology. It was her way of making sense of her life, her life choices, and her current situation. Kelly was on a quest for meaning, one to which we all are called, but often fail to answer. Being in prison was not enough to make her think about her life and choices. But the volunteers from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology who came to the prison had given Kelly a chance to think about what her life meant- and to conclude that, despite her past, her life was worth something. She had to believe that– otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to tell Nikki that HER life mattered.
For a while, Kelly was allowed to go to the theology class. Chained and surrounded by the CERT Team (if you don’t know what that is, you ain’t been to jail/prison) she was marched to class with the traditional “Dead Man Walking” call that signaled all other prisoners to turn their backs to her trek to the classroom. But that “dead man” became a live woman in theology class. And when the warden revoked her privilege of attending class, the volunteers pursued and won the ability to go on her block and teach her through the gate.
Kelly’s hope rushed through the air vent to Nikki, who decided to study theology, and meet these hope-filled volunteers. No small thing for Nikki, who had been told by the prison case manager that she was ineligible for pursuing answers to a blank treatment assessment because “you got too much time left to see me. Get out my line!”
Kelly’s voice combatted Nikki’s negative self-talk, and convinced her to seek an interview into the program. Once accepted, she found encouragement from the volunteers and the other inmates in the program. “I needed to be engaged with others on the journey,” Nikki offered. “I was ‘humanized,’ made eye contact, got called by my name” in the classroom. She had come from a religious family, but this was different. She was “discovering” her faith anew, and the ability to ask questions, study, and have discussions about faith made her feel “liberated while still confined.”
Nikki Roberts’ hope today continues in her second year home from prison. She sees a future for herself. It’s a gift, but it had a price. Kelly Gissendaner was executed on September 30, 2015. “Dead Man Walking” became “Live Angel Rising,” as her remorse and repentance could not save her earthly life, but guaranteed a heavenly one. And she lives on in Nikki Roberts and so many others her discovery and hope touched.
You ever feel like “Dead Man Walking?” Have you been written off…no hope…never amount to anything? Nikki Roberts was gifted hope by someone who, for real for real, was as good as dead, as far as society was concerned. Imagine what you can do with your time left here…