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Life Inside

My Cell in Solitary Has a View: The Death House

“There are a lot of people working hard to pull off an execution successfully, and they don’t want to go through all of that just to be cheated out of it at the last minute by the guy committing suicide.”

I began serving my 22-year sentence for theft of property at Tennessee’s Northeast Correctional Complex. From my cell window, I could see the beautiful green rolling hills of the Appalachians. On the yard, the fresh air and the geese, rabbits and squirrels roaming freely about made my days more bearable.

Access to this scenery came to an end when I got into an altercation with another inmate. That’s why, in June 2018, I landed in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution minutes from downtown Nashville to serve time in solitary.

In my cell here, when I look out of the window, all I can see are two grim buildings. One is a housing unit for Tennessee's inmates condemned to death. The other is what is known as the Death House where the state actually executes people.

For the first six weeks of my time here, I didn’t think very much about my new view besides missing the mountains. I didn’t have to; there hasn’t been much going on at the Death House since the last execution, which happened in 2009.

But around August 1, 2018 rumors began to circulate that a guy named Billy Ray was going to be executed. I first heard it from the prisoners and guards; then it was on the radio and in the newspapers.

I learned from the news that in 1985, Billy Ray Irick had raped and killed a 7-year-old girl named Paula Dyer. I had no sympathy for a person who could ever do something so horrendous as that. That’s why I didn’t care that his appeal, which said he’d been in and out of mental institutions since the age of 4, was denied.

Billy Ray’s execution date was set for August 9, 2018. Three days prior I saw guards escorting him to the Death House where he would be placed under 24-hour-a-day observation. Officially, the death watch is for security reasons. But I think it’s in part so the inmate doesn’t kill himself. There are a lot of people working hard to pull off an execution successfully, and they don’t want to go through all of that just to be cheated out of it at the last minute by the guy committing suicide.

He was dressed in an all-white jumpsuit and there were shackles around his ankles. His hands were cuffed in front of him. The cuffs were connected to a chain that went all the way around his waist. Attached to the chain were two leashes that two guards were holding.

As it turns out, I could see into Billy Ray’s Death House cell because it was directly across from mine. I had a perfect view of him getting unchained and, after the door was closed, pacing back and forth while running his fingers through his hair.

I couldn’t sleep, so about every 20 minutes I would check to see if he had cut off his lights off. At some point, I saw him staring out of his window. I cut my lights on and rushed back to my window so that he could see me. With all the other cell lights off in my building I knew that he would be able to.

I'm not a religious person in the Christian sense, but I found myself holding my hands together and up to my face, to show him that I was praying for him.

I was still standing there as the sun rose. Although the daylight glare made it hard for me to see into Billy Ray’s cell, I would compulsively check to see if he was still in there.

On day two of his death watch, I decided to stay up all night again so that he would see me, even if I was just sitting in my window reading a book. It was a gesture that I knew would do him zero good in the end. But I hoped that at least he wouldn’t feel like he was alone before he died.

On day three of Billy Ray’s death watch, the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal.

Around 3 p.m., I watched Billy Ray receive his last meal. A few hours later, the county coroner van drove onto the prison yard and backed into the garage adjacent to the Death House. Then came the officers from the sheriff's department who set up a perimeter. It was as if the 50 or so people who showed up to protest the execution were going to storm in and stop it from happening. And around 7 p.m. I saw guards lead him out of his cell. Shackled, chained and on a leash, he was headed for the execution chamber.

I couldn’t see what took place inside the execution chamber, but I got the picture a short time later when the coroner’s van pulled out of the garage. I had been up for three straight days stressing about all this, but I still couldn’t leave my window.

I hoped the executions would have stopped there. But in the one-and-a-half years I have been in Riverbend, there have been six more. I have thought a great deal about the horrific things these guys did. In particular, Paula Dyer and her family stay on my mind.

Still, it never gets easier to be here in solitary confinement, watching people walk to their deaths outside of my eight-inch window.

Lyle Wesley Andrews, 38, is a writer incarcerated at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. He is serving a 22-year sentence for theft of property worth over $60,000. He is working on a memoir about heroin and prison.

The Tennessee Department of Corrections declined to answer any questions about the state’s execution process due to pending litigation “surrounding executions and death row protocols.” Furthermore they stated it was “not plausible” for Andrews to have seen execution proceedings from his window.

The Marshall Project verified Andrews’ account using aerial photographs, news articles and other forms of documentation.