Death Row Diaries: Frans Douw

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*In this new series, we publish blogs from people with a personal or professional connection to the field of capital punishment. Today’s blog is by Frans Douw.*

The Most Successful Man I Know

In 2012, I was approached by professor Betty Gilmore of the Houston University.  She was looking for someone to write the introduction for a book. Someone who worked in prison, had personally locked the doors behind other people and therefore knew repressive systems from the inside. Someone with some credibility.  At the time I was a Dutch warden, but I was also intensively involved in knowledge exchange about prisons, forensic psychiatry and human rights in various countries. And I was someone who promoted a humanistic approach towards incarceration. I was very much opposed against the irreversible life-sentence, the capital punishment and any sentence that is not dedicated to diminish the damage of the incarceration itself, support people as much as possible to recover from injustice that was done to them and that they did to others and create an environment in which it is possible to prepare themselves for a successful return to society. I felt the need to spread the word all over the world, was active in international networks and easy to find.

The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons was written by Nanon Mckewn Williams and Betty Gillmore. It talks about the impact of death row on incarcerated people, staff, families, and society as a whole. Nanon was on death row since he was 17 years old for a crime he did not commit and today he still serves an irreversible life-sentence. In 2012, the week I visited him for the first time, I also visited a close friend of Nanon in Polunsky. A Dutch friend of mine had regularly visited a man called Ben, who has been on death row for more than forty years. She said: “He is a very wise and intelligent man, I am sure you’ll find it inspiring to meet him.” That was an understatement: today I consider Ben as one of my best friends.

Ben is not his real name. We agreed not to use his real name on the internet, but it will take people who know Ben two seconds to find out who he is! I visit my friend Ben every year and still hope that one day, he will visit me in the Netherlands, stay at my house, and that my wife, children, and grandchildren will meet this beautiful person! 

A few years later, when I am about to meet Ben in Polunsky. Before I reach the part where  the visiting-rooms are, I pass a large room with machines with food and drinks.  in the back of that room there is a separate room with glass windows.  In that room I see an incarcerated person with his parents, partner and children. I do not know the guy. He is a vital looking African-American man, about forty years old. There is an atmosphere of warmth between the people in that room. The incarcerated person looks like a loving son, father, partner. Someone like me. When I pass, he gets up, stands at the window and looks at me with an open, friendly look. I stop and look back, nod in the direction I am going and he replies by nodding affirmatively. I raise my thumb, he does that too and with the other hand he makes the peace sign. His eyes speak of recognition and appreciation. We nod and smile alternately and then I walk on. He raises his hand as a farewell greeting and again his thumb rises.

About twenty minutes later they bring Ben to the room where I am waiting behind glass. I tell him about the man and his family I just have seen.
Ben: “He’s a friend. I have shared a lot with him over the past 20 years.”
Frans: “It seemed like he knew me.”
Ben: “Right, and he knows everything about you. He heard you on The Prison Show. He loved it.”
Frans: “Why does he have a separate visit?”
Ben: “That is the only and last visit he will ever have without this glass between him and his family. We never have direct contact with our loved ones, always behind glass. But you are entitled to that in the week in which you are murdered.”
Frans: “Murdered?”
Ben: “Yes, my friend. Tomorrow, he will be murdered by the state of Texas.”

Later, we talk about success.

Frans: “When can you call a person successful?”
Ben: “At least not if you are rich and famous. Or have a beautiful woman on your arm. I want to sleep on it for a night, then I’ll come back to it tomorrow.”
The next day we have our second four hours visit.
Ben: “I’ve been thinking about what makes someone successful.”
Frans: “Okay..?”
Ben: “Your own personal problems and challenges in life. How you deal with that, whether you overcome them. That determines the extent to which a man is successful.”
Frans: “So now I am facing the most successful man I know?”
Ben, a very modest person, looks at me. He says nothing and does not shake yes or no. But his eyes say, “That might be possible.”

Ben: “When I came here, I knew I belonged here. I had killed someone.”
Frans: “You were seventeen.”
Ben: “Right. I came from a bad, dark place full of violence, poverty, drugs.”
Frans: “You were still young.”
Ben: “I knew I belong in this place, but I am not this place.
Frans: “What is the difference?”
Ben: “I’ve never slept on their concrete bed in my cell. I lie on the floor, as close as possible to myself and the earth. From then on, a long road started along steep slopes that were almost impossible to take, along abyssal depths and,through avalanches and storm.”
Frans: “You are now a wise and loving person.”
Ben: “Every time I overcame a barrier, I got a pearl in return, and now I’ve collected treasure along this impassable path.”
Frans: “Treasure?”
Ben: “I write and I support my friends on death row.”
Frans: “You have found peace.”
Ben: “I would never use violence again, grab a gun in my hand.”
Frans: “Nonviolent.”
Ben: “My neighbor next to me screams every night for hours, I can’t sleep.”
Frans: “How terrible.”
Ben: “I just think: how sorry for him that he is so scared. He is suffering, I try to calm him down with words, sometimes that helps.”
Frans: “I think the way you deal with this situation is awesome.”

The now grown-up granddaughter of the shopkeeper who was shot by Ben forty-four years ago has contacted him. She comes to visit him and asks him to forgive himself so that she and her family can get on with their lives. Tears run down Ben’s cheeks: “I still can’t do that.” After the visit, they write to each other for a while and the woman indicates that she needs guided offender-survivor conversations without glass between them. He agrees. The supervisor comes by and immediately prohibits any direct contact between perpetrator and the victim. Letters must go through him. After a few letters it becomes quiet on her side. The woman never said anything to her family about this contact. When Ben got an execution date, her father responded with “I am so glad this *** will finally die.” Her grandmother, the victim’s wife, pleads with the Public Prosecution Service that the murderer should never be released but should also not be killed: a special consideration, which may be the reason that he’s still alive.

A few years later…..

Ben: ” I have a hard time living with the fact that I killed a man. But today I am better of dealing with that.”
Frans: “Why is that so?”
Ben: “I understand the victim’s family well, I also know what they are going through.”
Frans: “How?”
Ben: “My brother was killed when I was here and so was my sister and her daughter. They still lived in that neighborhood with a lot of poverty and violence.”
Frans: “What happened?”
Ben: “My brother was dealing drugs and someone accused him of stealing his supply. He was shot but managed to get away in the dark and collapsed in a garden behind a shed. Half an hour later, his pursuers found him there and stabbed him to death.”
Frans: “And your sister?”
Ben: “I was so proud of her. She broke away from her daughter’s father who beat her up. She overcame her addiction, went to school and worked as a nurse. One evening, men entered her house and raped and murdered her and her fourteen-year-old daughter.”
Frans: “How awful.”
Ben: “I know what it’s like to lose someone through violence.”

At the age of 20, Frans Douw started working with juveniles (1975), and in the Dutch Forensic Psychiatric Pre-trial Assessment Clinic for 10 years. From 1988-2015, he was warden of several houses of detention, prisons for men and women and director of the Forensic Psychiatric Centre of the Dutch Prison System. Until his retirement (2015), he was a warden of several penitentiary institutions for men and women with short-sentences, long-sentences and (irreversible) life-sentences. For over 20 years, he has also been involved in international knowledge exchange projects within the scope of incarceration and human rights within Russia, former Soviet-countries, Great Britain, the Caribbean and the United States. Frans works with the Dutch ministry of Justice, the United Nations, the ICRC, the Global Initiative on Psychiatry, Mainline and the Council of Europe. A former incarcerated man (Toon Walravens) and Frans founded the foundation of Recovery and Return in 2011. This foundation brings together victims, perpetrators, families and professionals and supports Restorative and Transformational Justice. Today, Frans makes a weekly podcast called “The Prison show”; the little Dutch brother of The Prison Show in Houston, Texas.