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  • Doug Tjapkes

What's in the brown paper bag?

It has become a Christmas season tradition that I share this story. The story takes on additional meaning in 2020 because of the federal government’s shameful decision to resume executions before the new administration takes office. This story was not written by me. I feel certain that Luis Ramirez would be honored to have us pass along what he has written, but I can't ask him. He's dead. This message came to me from Death Row in Texas back when we were just getting started in this business. It touched me then...it touches me now. Anyway, here’s my gift to you today...a story from the late Luiz Ramirez: (In all caps, just the way he sent it) I CAME HERE IN MAY OF 1999...A TSUNAMI OF EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS WERE GOING THROUGH MY MIND. I REMEMBER THE ONLY THINGS IN THE CELL WERE A MATTRESS, PILLOW, A COUPLE SHEETS, A PILLOW CASE, A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER AND A BLANKET. I REMEMBER SITTING THERE, UTTERLY LOST. THE FIRST PERSON I MET THERE WAS NAPOLEON BEASLEY. BACK THEN, DEATH ROW PRISONERS STILL WORKED. HIS JOB WAS TO CLEAN UP THE WING AND HELP SERVE DURING MEAL TIMES. HE WAS WALKING AROUND SWEEPING THE POD IN THESE RIDICULOUS-LOOKING RUBBER BOOTS. HE CAME UP TO THE BARS OF THE CELL AND ASKED ME IF I WAS NEW. I TOLD HIM THAT I HAD JUST ARRIVED ON D.R. HE ASKED WHAT MY NAME IS. I TOLD HIM. HE HOLLERED AT EVERYONE: “THERE'S A NEW MAN HERE. HE JUST DROVE UP. HIS NAME IS LUIS RAMIREZ.” I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF IT. LIKE MOST OF YOU, I WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT EVERYONE ON D.R. WAS EVIL. NOW THEY ALL KNEW MY NAME. I WAS SURE THEY WOULD SOON BEGIN HARASSING ME. WELL, THAT'S NOT WHAT HAPPENED. AFTER SUPPER WAS SERVED, NAPOLEON WAS ONCE AGAIN SWEEPING THE FLOORS. AS HE PASSED MY CELL HE SWEPT A BROWN PAPER BAG INTO IT. I ASKED HIM, “WHAT'S THIS?” HE SAID FOR ME TO LOOK INSIDE, AND CONTINUED ON HIS WAY. MAN I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT. I CAREFULLY OPENED THE BAG. WHAT I FOUND WAS THE LAST THING I EVER EXPECTED TO FIND ON DEATH ROW, AND EVERYTHING I NEEDED. THE BAG CONTAINED SOME STAMPS, ENVELOPES, NOTE PAD, PEN, SOAP, SHAMPOO, TOOTHPASTE, TOOTH BRUSH, A PASTRY, A SODA, AND A COUPLE OF RAMEN NOODLES. I REMEMBER ASKING NAPOLEON WHERE THIS CAME FROM. HE TOLD ME THAT EVERYONE HAD PITCHED IN. I ASKED HIM TO FIND OUT WHO HAD CONTRIBUTED…I WANTED TO PAY THEM BACK. HE SAID, “IT'S NOT LIKE THAT. JUST REMEMBER THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE SOMEONE COMING HERE LIKE YOU, YOU PITCH IN SOMETHING.” I SAT THERE ON MY BUNK AND THOUGHT OF HOW MANY TIMES I HAD SEEN “GOOD PEOPLE” OF THE WORLD PASS BY SOME MAN, WOMAN OR CHILD HOLDING A SIGN THAT SAID HUNGRY, OR WILL WORK FOR FOOD. I'M GUILTY OF THE SAME. I JUST PASSED THEM BY. YET HERE ON DEATH ROW AMONG THE “WORST OF THE WORST,” I DIDN'T HAVE TO HOLD UP A SIGN. I NEVER GOT TO TELL NAPOLEON ABOUT MY FEELINGS. HE WAS EXECUTED. I COULDN'T FIND HIS FAMILY. WHAT'S IN THE BROWN PAPER BAG? I FOUND CARING, KINDNESS, LOVE, HUMANITY AND COMPASSION ON A SCALE THAT I'VE NEVER SEEN THE “GOOD PEOPLE” IN THE FREE WORLD SHOW TOWARDS ONE ANOTHER. After reading this story, I wanted to send a note of thanks to Luis Ramirez. But I was too late. He was executed by the state of Texas in October, 2005. He was 42. He claimed wrongful conviction until his death. “What you do to these men, you do to God" --Mother Teresa during her visit to San Quentin Prison

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