by Kevin Foster
A resident with Don on Florida’s death row for many years, Kevin studied architecture and writes science fiction.
Donny Dillbeck was my friend. A simple statement of fact but one that has profound qualities. For those of you who read this newsletter you will probably recognize the name, recently a few of his friends (myself among them) honored the hundredth day since the state of Florida murdered him. We did so with a quiet remembrance that included breaking bread. And for those who didn’t know my friend let me say this… he would be woefully disappointed in me because he told me just prior to his execution not to be angry. To not get pissed off and want to burn the whole world down and for the last hundred days that has been impossible because I live in his world. Not the semi-civilized world most of you inhabit, ours is ugly, made exclusively of steel and concrete, filled with the most unrepentant people on the face of this good earth. Here amongst our peers, Donny was one of the few trying to be a better human being. To enlighten himself and help anyone else trying to find a better path. In a cesspool he was fresh air. And they killed him.
However, he wouldn’t want people building him up into something he was not. He was a smart ass. With an admittedly borderline juvenile sense of crass humor and a f%&k you attitude delivered in a nonchalant way. A survivor of childhood abuse and neglect. A survivor of gladiator school, what we inside call dangerous prison camps full of violence-loving young men who despite being locked up do not stop seeking to victimize people. He was a man who had experienced violence and doled out a measure too. But in the end, he was also a decent human being. A true friend.
But not a “good guy.” He rejected the corrupt hypocrisy of the “good guys” out there. The two-faced politicians, the lying adulterous preachers, the “honest” cops who turn a blind eye to other officers doing wrong. In his quest to be better than he was the day before, he recognized what many do not… Namely that in order to be a better version of yourself you have to first take off the rose-colored glasses and be honest about who you are.
He did that by coming to terms with what he had done and who he had hurt by unflinchingly examining both where the system failed him, but more importantly, where he failed himself and his fellow humans. For many people just taking that first step seems all but impossible. I know far too many people who sabotage their own improvement and happiness by failing to start from a place of honesty.
I have the privilege to say that in the last five years of his life I was his best friend inside. We would walk for hours, every yard discussing religion, politics, philosophy. While this may sound like grand conversation for a couple death row prisoners, it was a simple fact that there was no limit on the depth of our talks nor their range in scope. I miss him.
Like Donny, I too, came into the system as a teenager. Arrested at eighteen and condemned the day after my twenty-first birthday, I have grown up on death row. It is for lack of a better description “my world,” and this place is what most people think it is: a place where evil doers come to wait to die. Most are not openly repentant. Most do not want to be better. They just want to be free. The old joke is that everybody in prison is innocent because that is what they claim. Donny wasn’t. He owned his wrongs and wanted nothing more than to help others, to teach the younger guys not to make the same self-destructive errors. To hopefully leave the world a more positive place.
I think he did that in his way. The proof is the way those who knew him in the end view him. While he would be the first to admit he hurt people, he would also acknowledge that he never wanted to again and that he really had found peace and wished he could gift it to all.
Let’s be frank one more time. The system failed Donny. Any adult who claims to be a reasonable and decent person who also believes that fifteen-year-olds should be given life sentences doesn’t know a damn thing about prison or neuroscience. Young people’s brains aren’t fully developed until their mid-twenties and the last region to mature is the very area responsible for impulse control. Couple that with childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age and any rational adult will know that intense therapy is required to help that child deal with those events.
Instead, the state threw a child into an adult male prison population and had the nerve to wonder why he became so desperate to extract himself that he would commit violence trying to get away. We humans like to rail at the Divine, “Why, why, why?” when far too often the fault rests with us and our own inability to show others the care and concern we want for ourselves. How many of you would want your fifteen-year-old son condemned to life in prison? I wager it’s very few if any, regardless of what they were accused of. Yet people have no problem with it when it happens to others, often siding with the sensationalized media coverage and “glad those thugs are off the streets.”
Donny understood this hypocrisy and vowed to remove his part of it in this world. He never claimed to be a victim, even though he was. He never shied from his crimes. He was willing to hold them up in the light of day and simply wanted everyone else to do the same. Be honest with themselves if no one else.
So, when you think of him, think of the smart mouthed guy who would encourage the world to seek its better self and show each other and the rest of us foolish mortals a little more compassion and mercy in our mistakes.
It’s not about you. It’s about us.
Make the world you wish you lived in.
My name is Kevin Foster and Donny Dillbeck was my friend.