Carla J. Simmons has been incarcerated in the state of Georgia since 2004. She holds an associate degree in Positive Human Development and Social Change from Life University and is a member of the Justice Arts Coalition.
Her execution was originally scheduled for February 15, 2015. When I woke up that morning, Kelly was on my mind. I imagined waking up as her, knowing that this would be my last day alive. It was the deepest kind of sorrow. Over the years, I had heard many members of my community express that they would rather be put to death, or kill themselves, than spend the rest of their lives in the horrors of confinement. But that morning, I could not identify with those sentiments.
A life inside is tragic and full of suffering. In many ways, it is a slow death, in which one is cut off from so much that makes living possible, such as healthcare and relationships. But that morning, I knew the value of my breath, the beauty in the ability to glance at the sky, to hear a bird's song, to smell a thunderstorm. For me, heartache and longing are sacred experiences, and none of these things should be given up on, much less ripped away.
I looked out of my narrow window and saw the cold earth covered in ice and snow, a backdrop for my deep reflection and what turned out to be Kelly's first reprieve—her execution was postponed due to the dangerous weather conditions.
On the evening of March 2, 2015, around 7 p.m., there were about 30 women holding hands in a semi-circle around the tiny television mounted high on a pole in the middle of the day room. Many of us were crying. Some were praying at various volumes: for peace, comfort, mercy, a miracle, a stay of execution.
That night, for a second time, Georgia was scheduled to put Kelly Renee Gissendaner to death, which would make her the state's only woman to be executed in 70 years.
She had been serving time on death row for 17 years, exhausting her appeals in every effort to avoid that day. From 1997 to 2011, she was isolated in Metro State Prison. There, she was shackled in leg irons and waist chains as she moved within the institution's confines. The population would stop and face away as the officer escorting her would announce, "dead man walking." But the facility was small and Kelly's cell was adjacent to other cells used for segregation, so people talked to her through the walls, under the doors, and over the fences. She made friends and became a mentor to many people during their most difficult moments. Despite the efforts and the policies of the DOC, her humanity could not be concealed.
In 2009, a program for a Certificate in Theological Studies (CTS) began at the Atlanta prison. It was a collaborative project between the Atlanta Theological Association (ATA) and the Lee Arrendale State Prison's Chaplaincy Department, which gave graduate students and faculty from Georgia's seminary schools the opportunity to teach theological education to incarcerated people. Kelly enrolled in 2010 and, under the supervision of warden Kathy Seabolt, was allowed to attend class with her cohort. Once in the classroom, her restraints were removed and she listened to lectures, entered class discussions, and shared her poetry.
In 2011, Metro State Prison was closed and death row was moved to Lee Arrendale State Prison along with the CTS program and a large portion of the general population. In rural North Georgia, we encountered a more relaxed carceral setting. It was a much larger facility, with more space and opportunities for many long-term residents, including Kelly. After arriving in Alto, she was allowed to attend theology class with her classmates again. She was brought from the special management unit (SMU) in irons and chains, but was allowed to wave at everyone along the way. That spring, she graduated from the program and attended the ceremony. As a result of her correspondence with German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, which had developed during the years of her studies, he attended the graduation as the keynote speaker. Kelly spoke as one of the representatives for her class.
People inside and out had not just gotten to know Kelly, they had grown to love her and were inspired by her strength and her smile. Over the next few years, she became an active part of our community. In the warm months, she was often seen cutting the grass. One year, for Christmas, the dance team performed for the compound and Kelly emerged from a giant present-prop, joining in the choreography. The crowd went wild with joy. It became unfathomable that her execution could come to pass. Yet, that March, as we stood holding vigil in the dorm, she was in Jackson State Prison's death chamber. She had eaten her last meal and had been prepped for the lethal injection.
I stood at one end of the circle with Ashley, a young girl living a hard life. She was both a mentee and a friend of mine. She looked at me while we were surrounded by prayers and petitions and quietly confessed, "I don't believe in miracles." Knowing exactly what she meant, I admitted, "Me neither." We shared a bond of disappointment, unwilling to expect too much good in this world and embraced the sadness together. We believed it was unlikely Kelly would escape the second date. The scheduled time for execution came and went without any mention of it on the local news. The circle slowly dispersed and mournfully carried out the rest of the evening into fitful sleep.
The next morning, Ashley woke me up with tears on her cheeks and a sparkle in her eyes I had never seen before. Her emotions were too loud to verbally convey, so she whispered words that forced us to reevaluate what is possible, what we believed in. She said with trembling lips, "Kelly is still alive," and we were both forced to open our hearts.
In the days that led to her second execution date, there had been protests at the Capitol. Signed petitions had been delivered to the governor's office by the truckload. The streets were flooded with clergy, folks impacted by the system, and concerned citizens. They lit candles, spoke to the media, and sang songs. A week before, Pope Francis had called on the U.S. Congress to abolish the death penalty., and the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles received a letter on his behalf petitioning the state to spare Kelly's life. Her children released an emotional video, pleading for their mother's safety. The former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Norman Fletcher, put out a statement, arguing that the death sentence was not proportionate to Kelly's role in the crime.
Initially, there was some confusion around what happened that night at Jackson State Prison, but later, it was finally reported that there had been a problem with the lethal drugs. Deciding on a new date was put off until the drugs could be analyzed—and the public involvement could die down.
The drugs may have been cloudy and the ice storm impassable, but it was obvious that politics were also at play. The state was hesitant to commit, as the world watched Georgia decide if they would relinquish the rule of law for the sake of public demand. Many saw the delays as divine interventions. I saw an evil, relentless system challenged by a body united for a cause.
The protests and the international attention generated by Kelly's life were a spike in the spoke of the carceral machine. It meant that there was enough force in the love for human life to jam up the demand for Kelly's death. There was God in the power of the people.
In Jürgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope, he writes about hope and the resurrection of Christ. For him, however, it's not the distant, futuristic hope that will one day be resolved in glory. It is because of a promise, an assurance of life, that there is hope in each moment. These were likely the topics of discussion between him and Kelly as she tried to live a life of meaning, despite her uncertain circumstances.
Hope used to be something I set my sights on. A place and time in the future when my troubles would be over and my imaginations realized. For me, hope was a radical change in reality. I saw hope as an end, which in practice, reduces it to an opportunity for cruel disappointment. I discovered that you could live without hope. But without it, life was almost too dark to bear.
During the year leading up to Kelly's execution, my relationship with hope was transformed. I saw that hope was not a solution to be had or a goal to reach, but instead, a light to follow through the darkness. As a means, it is an assurance of possibility. It is possible for the human spirit to endure great suffering, to survive harsh conditions, and make meaning in dark places. It is possible for people to unite for what is good and right, and influence massive systems of harm and oppression in significant ways. For just a moment, love and unity were able to hold off death. It proved it is possible and hope persists in the possibility.
On September 30, 2015 at 12:21 a.m., Kelly's execution took place. There were still protests, but much of the public fever had subsided. It was devastating: a sanctioned murder of a woman who, despite the bleakest of conditions, thrived on life, who loved and was loved, and left a grieving world behind.