By STEVE BOUSQUET
St. Petersburg Times
RAIFORD, Fla. – From a windowless cell on Florida’s Death Row, Ronald Clark writes for justice. For vanity. For help.
“This cage is 9 x 7 . 63 square feet of hell and it will drive you crazy if you’re not careful. You need to check your sanity daily. Like, right now, nine cells down the hall, some idiot is snapping his fingers and clapping his hands to music. You hear toilets flushing, lockers slamming and guys arguing over the stupidest of issues.”
Twice convicted of first-degree murder, Clark, 43, has been awaiting his execution for 21 years. He has never had a laptop and has no Internet access. But much to the dismay of the Department of Corrections, he has his own blog.
“The Death Row Poet” is the online diary of a condemned man who’s determined to be heard. The site is www.thedeathrowpoet.blogspot.com.
Clark’s blog posts began appearing about a year ago, though many of his writings are years older.
In a post addressed to Florida taxpayers, Clark writes of a penal system he says is devoid of rehabilitation.
“You better open your eyes and take a look at what is going on in the prison system. Currently your money is being spent to raise an army of mad dog thugs that one day will be released in your back yard,” he writes.
In other posts he details alleged injustices and mistreatment by Death Row correctional officers at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford.
During an hour-long jailhouse interview, Clark says his goal is to expose conditions at Union, but at times his crusade seems to be about seeking attention as much as justice.
Twice he has staged hunger strikes to protest conditions on Death Row. Days before Christmas 1999, his wife hijacked a helicopter in an attempt to spring him, but she called it off at the last minute.
A prolific writer with meticulous penmanship, Clark mails handwritten letters (on personalized stationery featuring a self-portrait of his face) to Dina Milito, a mother of two children in Sunnyvale, Calif. She learned about Clark through a web site called the Death Row Support Project.
Her husband, a Silicon Valley software engineer, set up the blog, and she says it gets several dozen visitors each day.
Milito says she wanted to give Clark a forum to express himself and that she strongly opposes capital punishment.
“It’s barbaric,” Milito says. “There’s no rehabilitation and no belief in redemption. Death Row is a horrible place.”
BEFORE DEATH ROW
Ronald Wayne Clark Jr. grew up in Yulee, just north of Jacksonville.
His parents split when he was young, and he recalls once standing in front of his mother as his father aimed a gun at her, point-blank. “He was screaming at me, `Ronnie, get out of the way,’ and I was crying. I said no,” Clark recalled in an interview.
Clark has a fifth-grade education. His blog describes a boyhood filled with alcohol-fueled violence and the discovery that his mother was a lesbian, which she confirmed.
“Because my mother was gay, I had a father who worried about me being gay and therefore took a little boy who had nothing but love and compassion in his heart and tried to make that little boy as mean and tough as possible,” Clark writes on his blog.
He went to Oklahoma to live with his mother, Shirley, but at 15 he rejoined his father in Florida, who he said made him sell drugs on the streets of Jacksonville.
The father, Ronald Wayne Clark Sr., is also in a Florida prison, serving a life sentence for killing his second wife.
“His dad was an SOB, and I wasn’t the best mother, either,” Shirley Clark said. “I would do anything in the world to change how it came out.”
Clark regrets going back to Florida.
“I never should have left her. She kept her hand on me,” Clark says of his mother, who he says is the one person he knows still loves him.
Running with a rough crowd in Yulee and growing up too fast, Clark worked at a lawn care business, drank and did drugs excessively. As a teen, speeding in his 1979 Buick Regal and swerving to avoid a tractor-trailer, he sideswiped a car on U.S. 17 in Jacksonville in which two people were killed.
“I’m haunted by my past,” Clark wrote in a blog entry.
LIVING ON DEATH ROW
Clark is one of 397 people living on Florida’s Death Row.
He’s one of three condemned inmates with a blog, along with Michael Lambrix’s “Death Row Journal” and James Hitchcock, who calls himself the “Average Joe on Death Row.”
Union’s Death Row has its own Facebook page, too.
Blogging didn’t exist in 1990 when Clark committed the crime that put him on Death Row: the shotgun killing of Ronald Willis, who had picked up a hitchhiking Clark and a friend, John Hatch.
Hatch testified against Clark in exchange for a 25-year prison term.
Clark was found guilty of stealing Willis’ truck and shooting him repeatedly in the head with a shotgun, tying cinder blocks to his body and dumping it in a river.
Earlier, while on a drunken binge with three men in 1989, he pulled a shotgun on shrimp boat worker Charles Carter, wounding him. Court files show that Clark reloaded the gun and shot the 37-year-old Carter in the mouth, killing him, then rolled Carter’s lifeless body in a ditch and took his cash and his boots.
“I shot him,” Clark told the Times/Herald during an interview in which he was dressed in an orange jumpsuit, shackled and in handcuffs. “He did nothing to me. I mean, nothing.”
Carter’s younger brother Henry, in Liberty, N.C., wonders why Clark wasn’t executed long ago.
“Personally, I think they should have given him a needle several years ago, and it should have been over,” Carter said. “It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to keep him alive, and as far as him having access to the Internet, that should be against state law.”
Clark agrees executions take too long. He cites the scheduled execution of Manuel Valle, 61, who has been on Death Row 33 years for the murder of a Coral Gables police officer. His execution has been delayed until at least Sept. 8.
“They’re gonna kill this man for a crime that he done, what, 30 years ago, when he was probably a completely different person, okay?” Clark said. “If they was gonna kill him, they should have killed him right there on the spot, right there in the courthouse.”
DEATH ROW RULES
Death Row inmates can have a fan, radio, and a 13-inch TV with no cable access. But no law or rule outlaws blogging.
In fact, the Department of Corrections is on record as saying blogging is legal as long as an inmate isn’t paid and is not seeking pen pals. Clark does neither.
The Florida Death Row Advocacy Group asked the state for guidance last March on its plan to post “Faces of Death Row” stories online, written by Death Row inmates, and specified they would not be paid or would seek pen pals.
“This would appear to comport with Department rules,” Kendra Jowers, a staff attorney for the prison system, was quoted as saying in the advocacy group’s newsletter.
Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss, who resigned Aug. 24, was incredulous when he heard Clark had a blog.
“He’s got to be stopped. He’s making accusations over the Internet,” Buss said. “This social media is causing a real problem.”
But Buss said it was unrealistic to prevent Clark’s writings from reaching a friend with Internet access in a system with more than 100,000 inmates.
“Do you know how many pieces of mail go in and out of the system?” Buss said. “We couldn’t hire enough staff to look at everything individually. We can’t read over every single piece of mail.”
A handwritten note in Clark’s file from an assistant warden at Union, Brad Whitehead, dated Aug. 15, says: “The decision was made by executive staff that The Death Row Poet blog was seen as a security risk.”
From his first-floor cell on P dorm, Clark writes of the acts that have kept him locked in a cage for nearly half his life.
Week after week, month after month, he files posts complaining that he can’t seek pen pal correspondence, or that inmates are given too little recreation time or that prison food is bad or that correctional officers pick and choose which rules they will enforce.
“I fight against the oppressive tactics of the Florida Dept. of Corrections (FDOC) and yes, I often stand to face retaliatory actions by tyrants within the FDOC and their tyranny that rains down upon me,” he writes in an Aug. 14, 2011, post titled “Oppressive Tyranny.” “You ask, why fight? … But my question is, why not fight for change?”
Union warden Barry Reddish denied Clark’s allegations that guards ransack inmates’ cells in retaliation for grievances or that lights are left on at all hours to deprive inmates of sleep.
In other posts, Clark’s writings turn from angry to remorseful.
“You can’t judge me, for I condemn myself. I don’t ask or want forgiveness because I don’t deserve it. I’ve made far too many mistakes in this life. I’ve made more mistakes than 10 men combined. I’ve hurt more people and caused more pain than you could ever imagine. I’ve been a disappointment from day one.”
At times he seems to seek sympathy for the simple things in life that he’ll likely never experience again.
“Leaning down to pet a cat or dog. The last time I petted a dog was over 20 years ago,” Clark writes. “The simplest everyday things that you take for granted and would never even consider the thought of being deprived of are things that I miss and yearn for, such as a simple cup of ice. I haven’t had ice in so long I’ve forgotten how cold it is.”
At 6-feet, 4-inches and 220 pounds, Clark is healthy-looking, even after two decades on Death Row. He has forlorn-looking eyes and his light brown hair is parted in the middle. He keeps dozens of papers in a thick accordion file: grievances, letters, court documents, even a highly detailed sketch of the contents of his prison cell.
He is currently serving 30 days in disciplinary confinement for taking too long to get dressed. He says the punishment was retaliation for his blogging and filing grievances.
During an interview, Clark was asked if he thought he could make it on the outside if he were released from prison.
“Would I let me out? No. That’s the honest-to-God truth,” Clark said. “Not me. Because I make too many damn bad decisions. That’s just the honest truth.”
Until the governor signs his death warrant, he’ll keep writing instead.