Ndume Olatushani: “As long as I’m living, I’ll be fighting against the death penalty”

28 October 2016

Ndume spent 28 years in prison in the United States, 20 of which were on death row, for a crime he did not commit. He was saved by his discovery of drawing and painting, and helped throughout his detention by his family and friends, and abolitionist organisations. Today, he continues to demonstrate his commitment to the fight against the death penalty through his work with young people.

What was your initial reaction when you learnt that you had been sentenced to death?

I was just really angry. I knew I was going to be sentenced for a crime I hadn’t committed. All I wanted was to send the judges and the jury packing, I was so angry. That rage followed me throughout the first two years of my incarceration until the moment I learnt of the death of my mother in a road accident. That forced me to take myself in hand and abandon that anger to move forward. Actually, I think I turned that anger into something more positive. Anger is a human emotion. We should always be angry about something. There are so many injustices.

Is that when painting came into your life?

Shortly after the death of my mother, I started to draw for a year and after that I started to paint. There was an introduction to painting programme in prison. Not many of us took it, only four or five people. Today, I often use art to communicate with students during my talks in schools.

How did you handle the solitude on death row?

Yes, I was alone most of the time. I could communicate with the other detainees through the door of my cell. Sometimes, I could interact with other detainees during the exercise session which took place in cages, but I was alone for a large majority of my time. Death row is clearly separate from the rest of the prison. The only real interaction given to me was with my family and friends, and some organisations which supported me. That allowed me to maintain a link with the outside world and to stay in touch with the reality of what was happening outside. Throughout my time in prison, I expected them to release me so when that day came, thanks to all those people, I had been able to spend all those years in prison without losing hope and could also handle leaving prison positively.

Did you think about death every day?

No. I was one of those people who wasn’t waiting for death.

You were released after 28 years in prison but you have not been cleared.

I pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter – otherwise I would have had to wait years in prison to be cleared. But that doesn’t really bother me; it’s not a real concern for me. I can’t do much to change that situation. I can’t complain about the life I have now and the fact that I haven’t been cleared doesn’t prevent me from building something new.

What happened when you left prison?

I missed a lot of things in prison but the first thing I did on leaving was to eat real food. I wanted to eat everything I’d been prevented from having for those 28 years: biscuits, pancakes, eggs…I also discovered a world which was very different, particularly in terms of technological progress. When they put me in prison, the internet didn’t exist, mobile telephones, flat-screen television didn’t exist…

What was your experience at the last World Congress Against the Death Penalty?

I took a lot from those few days. It was an opportunity to see Oslo but also to meet people from across the world who are committed to the struggle against the death penalty. That allowed me to understand the power and responsibility I have, personally, to change the perception people have of the death penalty. It also reinforced my desire to continue to fight once I got home for the death penalty not to exist anymore.

So is that your plan for the future?

For the rest of my life, I will continue to talk to those around me, not only about what I had to go through personally but also what other people are enduring around the world because of the death penalty. There’s no doubt about it: as long as I am alive, I will fight against the death penalty.

You live in Tennessee, a particularly conservative state. How do you interact with supporters of the death penalty?

It’s true, Tennessee has a long history of discrimination, against black people in particular, and there is real conservatism concerning punishments in general. People often say that Tennessee is the buckle of the Bible Belt (the name for the very religious states in the south of the United States). Religion forms the opinion of a large number of people there. For me, the real problem is hypocrisy. These so-called Christians try to use the Bible to justify the death penalty like they used the Bible to keep black people slaves for years. If they applied the adage ‘an eye for an eye’ literally, the whole of Tennessee would be blind today. In my work, I often meet practicing Christians who are in favour of the death penalty. Most of the time, I ask them why the death penalty is necessary in a so-called evolved society. Often, conservatives are also very suspicious of the Government, the State. This is a State which is incapable of collecting the rubbish or educating its children and the only thing it does well is executing people. I try to point out this contradiction when I can.

What are your preferred arguments against the death penalty?

I’ll give you two. First, which is unfortunately the most effective argument for people who support the death penalty, it costs too much. It costs more to sentence and execute someone than to keep someone in prison for the rest of his life. The other argument which has already proved effective in my talks is: as long as we keep applying the death penalty, we will kill innocent people.