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The Devils' Advocates 

How Arkansas’ West Memphis Three went from convicts to L.A.’s cause célèbre

Thursday, Sep 4 2003
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Photo by Ted Soqui

Seated behind a pane of smudged Plexiglas, his white prison garb a suggestive contrast to the puke-colored walls of the dingy cubbyhole he’s in, prisoner #SK931, Damien Echols, is explaining how he became Jyoti Priya Karuna, Lover of the Light Compassion.

“That’s the name my teacher Reverend Karuna Dharma gave me,” says Echols, his voice muffled through the wire-mesh strip along the bottom of the Plexiglas. “She’s the abbess of the IBMC, the International Buddhist Meditation Center, in Los Angeles. Your teacher gives you a new name once you’re a novice monk, as I am. The teacher’s name becomes the student’s last name.”

It was Frankie Parker, another prisoner on Arkansas’ death row, who introduced Echols to Zen Buddhism. Parker, known as Jusan, was executed by lethal injection on August 8, 1996, despite appeals for clemency by the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and others. After Parker’s death, Echols “took refuge” — was inducted as a Buddhist layperson — with the Zen priest who had been Parker’s teacher. In 2001, Echols took the first steps toward total ordination with Reverend Karuna.

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“I practice zazen meditation, yoga and tai chi,” says Echols, 28, his dark eyes staring out from behind wire rims that make the gaunt, raven-haired inmate look like a graduate student. “Any form of martial arts is really frowned upon here, so that’s out. When I first started, I was doing up to five or six hours of meditation a day. Now it’s more like an hour in the morning and an hour at night during weekdays.”

Meditating is made more difficult by the chaos of Echols’ surroundings. The schizophrenic next door to him is a Jesus freak and likes to watch Benny Hinn all day on the shared TV set. Also, the shouting of deranged inmates never ceases, and, from what Echols says, the majority of cross-cell confabs consist of one inmate telling another how many times he’s going to stab and/or fuck him, though not necessarily in that order. All of which is hardly conducive to spiritual pursuits.

Jason, Damien, Jessie by Chad Robertson

Echols credits the discipline of Buddhism with helping him to survive being in lockdown nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s allowed a 10-minute shower three times a week, and every other day he’s supposed to get an hour of exercise in the yard, though more often than not the guards “forget.” In the 10 years he’s been in “safe keeping” (hence the “SK” prefixed to his number), he’s been the victim of the usual prison bullshit — like the time a guard planted a shank in his cell and subsequently confined him to the hole. Were it not for Buddhism and his wife, Lorri, an architect from New York who married Echols in a Buddhist ceremony in 2000 and now lives in Little Rock, his anger at being number one of the West Memphis Three — notorious convicted kid killers and causes célèbres — would have consumed him.

“I had to do something about it. Zen Buddhism has allowed me to control that rage. Without it and without Lorri, I would have given up long ago.”

Shortly after he says this, a blue-shirted guard knocks on the door to the visitor’s cubicle and tells us it’s time. Three and a half hours have passed. Echols rises, places a hand against the glass to thank me for coming. “I actually enjoyed it,” he says, seeming somewhat surprised by the admission. As I begin to follow the guard out the door, Echols bows to me Japanese style two or three times, an unexpected act of humility that both embarrasses and saddens me.

I walk out of that red-brick sore of a building, past tall steel fencing topped with razor wire, thinking of Echols returning to that 9-by-12-foot cell. As I head back through miles of farmland to the relative civilization of Little Rock, I wonder how Echols’ life could possibly get any worse.

The answer comes about a week later when, under the cover of darkness and with no warning, Arkansas’ Department of Corrections moves all 39 men on death row at Tucker to a so-called SuperMax facility, some 90 minutes south, where they will each be held in what is essentially solitary confinement. Echols’ cell is now three concrete walls and a solid steel door with a slit through which he’ll be fed. In one wall, behind glass, is a TV set over which he has no control. He cannot even listen to classical music on his small transistor radio because the prison’s thick walls make reception impossible. It remains to be seen if he will have access to all of the books supporters send him via his wish list at Amazon.com.

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