The most direct route was to go down 400 and onto 75, slicing through the heart of Atlanta from top to bottom and following the interstate straight to Jackson. We instead took 285, circling the city and enveloping ourselves in the sprawling suburbs that ringed downtown until we merged back onto 75. It was about forty miles of monotony from there—stifled yawns, graffiti-covered buildings, and the occasional patch of pine trees until Exit 201. There wasn’t much to see in Jackson, population five thousand and county seat of the unfortunately named Butts County. The main road was deserted—just a trucker gas station and some empty parking lots. We drove until we saw a sign on the left: GEORGIA DIAGNOSTIC PRISON.
The road onto the prison campus was narrow but smooth. Tall pines lined the shoulders, which gave way to woods. A squat cottage—the warden’s, we were later told—nestled in a clearing against the woods amid lush, manicured grass. The cottage sat astride an idyllic lake where geese floated lazily by a wooden dock. Birds chirped, and I could feel the simple yet elegant beauty of it all.
But something felt off. Why was this here? This was an odd place to hold rapists and murderers. It was an even odder place to kill them.
The road ended in a two level parking lot. Behind it, a fence draped in barbed wire formed a rectangle that extended to the horizon, interrupted only by the emotionless vigilance of carefully placed watchtowers. Everything was white: the buildings, the prison vans, the watchtowers, even the helipad attached to the parking lot by a thin strip of concrete. Pranavi shuddered. My mother just stared ahead.
When I walk outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, I am free. When I go in, I am a criminal. My pockets are searched and emptied before I walk through a metal detector. Wallets, ID cards, and keys are confiscated, and our clothes are thoroughly checked to ensure minimal skin exposure. My hand is stamped so they know when I come and when I go. I am shepherded through a series of cramped cages where the door behind me closes before the one in front opens.
As I walk I feel the gaze of dozens of electronic and human eyes. Inspirational posters crowd the walls, ignored by those who work here and unseen by those who live here. I bound past an elevator for the handicapped, which hasn’t worked in months, and walk up a flight of stairs where a bulletin board lists my rights as a visitor.
The visitor’s lobby: On the left are two microwaves and a few vending machines, which will rapidly deplete the eighty quarters we bring in to replace Troy’s missed meal. On the right are two bathrooms. In the center is the main visitor area, where non-death row inmates sit with their visitors without the restrictions of bars or handcuffs. Their white jumpsuits read “Georgia Dept. of Corrections” on the back.
One inmate runs to his four-year-old daughter and picks her up with tears of joy. A boy my age is clad in a shirt with the words “Free My Dad” on the front. Beyond a glass wall and yellow bars, prisoners trundle along, occasionally followed by guards.
Welcome to Troy Davis’s home.
Troy Davis, inmate 657378, walks in now, bound in handcuffs. Two guards escort him to the visitation cell, a long, narrow room with concrete walls on three sides and reinforced glass and metal mesh on the fourth. We follow them in, and once Troy is inside they remove his handcuffs and walk out, locking the door behind them. He hugs each of us before we sit down. Then he begins his story.