No snakes in heaven

Misskelley reflects on work, chow and how much he’s changed since his sentence

[private]Jessie Misskelley, Jr. wakes up at 2:30 a.m. Most of the time, he doesn’t go to breakfast. “I just don’t like it,” he says.

Six days a week, he works in the laundry at the prison system’s Varner Unit, in southeast Arkansas. Each barracks holds 54 people. It’s Misskelley’s job to pick up the laundry bags from inmates in 22 of the unit’s barracks and to return the bags once they’ve been washed.

Lunch is from 10:30 to 11 a.m. He rarely goes to the chow hall for that meal either. “Every now and then I go,” he says, “if they’re serving sloppy Joes, spaghetti, fried chicken or brown beans. But it’s very rare that you see that.”

Instead, he eats food he buys from the prison commissary: dehydrated soups, ramen noodles, chips, instant chili, instant beef stew, cereal (Lucky Charms he moistens with water), crackers, chips and cookies—usually vanilla wafers “because there’s more of them in a bag.”

Misskelley is one of many inmates who, if they can afford it, avoid most food served by the prison. He estimates he spends about $65 a week for the commissary supplies. The money is sent to him from “different supporters” who contribute to his account at the prison online. He says, “Some, I don’t even know who they are to thank them.”

He realizes he’s on a bad diet. At 34, he stands five-foot-two and weighs about 185 pounds. He’s totally bald and has a perfectly round clock on top of his head, complete with Roman numerals. He’s worn the tattoo for a decade. When Misskelley grins, which he does often, he looks like happy elf. 

Yet there is little to his life beyond eating, sleeping, working, reading his wrestling magazines and listening to his radio. He says he doesn’t socialize with other inmates because, “They get that nonsense on their minds,” and engagement can lead to trouble.  “Why should I get mad?” he says. “If I get mad, it will only cause more problems, and I try to avoid that.”

He stops and laughs. “Wow, I’ve changed a lot. When I was a teenager, I was constantly in trouble. My temper was real bad. I would fight for anything. But now I just overlook it.”

He pauses. “So I think I came a long way.” Then the prisoner seems to enjoy the irony of what he just said. “Yes,” he chuckles, “I have come a long way.”

Misskelley’s biggest comfort is the phone call he makes to his dad every Friday. “As long as I talk to him,” he says, “I’m good.”

He draws support from his legal team:  Jeff Rosensweig of Little Rock, Michael Burt of San Francisco, and Nancy Pemberton, an attorney-turned-private –investigator, who’s also in San Francisco. “I talk to Nancy a lot,” he says. “She tells me all the time, ‘Don’t give up. I’m going to get you out.’”

Misskelley is relieved that Judge David Burnett has left the bench. Burnett officiated at the trials of the West Memphis Three and for 17 years—until his recent election to the Arkansas Senate—remained the only circuit judge ever to rule on the men’s appeals.

“We should have got Burnett out of the way a long time ago,” he says. “I believe it should have been done a lot faster because I know he wasn’t doing his job right.”

Misskelley reflects that at his trial in 1994, Burnett “should at least have let Dan [Stidham, his attorney] present his case the way he was supposed to. Dan could only do what Burnett allowed him to do.” And when Burnett heard Misskelley’s petition for a new trial, “he should have let my witnesses tell where I was at that night.”

Still, Misskelley reflects, “I’m not mad at him for what he did. If I was a judge and somebody done that to a kid—like we was accused of murdering those three little boys—I would have probably done the same thing. But he was a judge, and he went to school, and he was supposed to do the right thing.”

That thought seems to stir another one, more religious or philosophical. “If you want something in life you have to be good,” he says. “To get to Heaven you’ve got to be good.”

And what does Misskelley, a Christian, expect to find in Heaven?

“Golden floors and no more evil,” he says. “Like down here, say, for instance, there are snakes. They bite you. I’m real scared of snakes. But in Heaven, there’s not any snakes.” [/private]

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